a new book

by the Greek-American author Zeese Papanikolas

Leonidas Petrakis


Papanikolas is a familiar and widely respected name in the Greek American literary community. Helen Papanikolas greatly enriched the corpus of Greek American writings. With her passing, the torch of the family authors passed on to her son Zeese, a distinguished writer in his own right.

Zeese Papanikolas burst on the publication scene in 1982 with his highly acclaimed book, Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre; in it he dealt with the leadership role and tragic fate of the young Cretan immigrant Louis Tikas during the 1914 Colorado coal mines strike, one of the bloodiest in the annals of the American labor movement. In his latest book, An American Cakewalk – Ten Syncopators of the Modern World, Papanikolas focuses on post-Civil War America, as she aims to achieve her great promise. The period is replete with daunting challenges –the wounds of the Civil War, the unrelenting squeeze of the native peoples by the newcomers, greed, the very vastness of the country– but at the same time there is an all-pervasive dynamism across the land as America is incessantly building, expanding, growing, creating a new and unique New World.  

Regarding this period the author writes, "The profound economic and social changes in the post-Civil War United States created new challenges to a nation founded on Enlightenment and transcendental values, religious certainties, and rural traditions. Newly-freed African Americans, emboldened women, intellectuals and artists, and a polyglot tide of immigrants found themselves in a restless new world of railroads, factories, and skyscrapers where old assumptions were being challenged and new values had yet to be created." It is in this world that Papanikolas takes us with his latest book, an erudite guide that uses in a wonderfully entertaining manner the American cakewalk dance and its music as a means to tell his story.

The cakewalk dance had its origin in the plantations (eventually being incorporated in minstrel shows with performances by blacks and also whites with blackface), with the slaves watching through the "open kitchen door" or "through the windows of the big house" the minuets and dance parades of the white masters, imitating their manners but introducing an element of mockery. Its music was in 2/4 time with an "ooompah, ooompah" rhythm (later finding its way in the compositions by such notables as John Philip Sousa and Debussy), and it made extensive use of syncopation, the feature that allowed the interruption of the regular flow of rhythm and the creation of new even unexpected rhythms. Papanikolas creates a kaleidoscopic canvass of men and women that question, intermingle cultural elements, mock pompous customs and outdated values, search for new ways of expression, and make significant breakthroughs and contributions to our modern world.

And what a fascinating canvass it is that he has created! There is the enigmatic recluse Emily Dickinson narrowing her physical world at Amherst and replacing it with an expansive imaginary one while creating a distinctly American literary genre; the restless polymath C.S. Peirce who failed to dethrone Aristotle but had many innovations including the founding of the new science of semeiotics; the brilliant philosopher and psychologist (and perennial hypochondriac) William James, who from his chair and laboratory at Harvard helped establish modern psychology (Principles of Psychology) and purveyed "pragmatism", the fittingly American branch of philosophy; Henry James ("light weight" in the eyes of his brother William),  who felt a stranger in his native land even as a traveler (The American Scene), preferred Europe, and eventually opted for English citizenship; Thorstein Veblen, satirist, seminal economist (The Theory of the Leisure Class), and Stanford University professor mocking conspicuous consumption; Scott Joplin failing in his ragtime opera but achieving this new musical genre feeding into jazz; Abraham Cahan from the lower East side of New York's vibrant Jewish immigrant community, who found himself at a Madison Square Garden cakewalk competition and later produced his own syncopation (The Rise of David Levinsky); Jelly Roll Morton, claimant to being the first jazz theorist and composer; Bert Williams, Stephen Crane, W.E.B. DuBois, Edith Wharton and so many others of the protagonists  who helped create our modern world.

Papanikolas's book is beautifully produced by the Stanford University Press with few but highly eclectic, pleasing and historically important illustrations, copious notes reflecting the serious scholarship of the author, and a very helpful name index.


  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 31 (11.2015)