Seraphim Canoutas was the historian most read and cited by at least two generations of Greeks in the United States. Through business directories, journalistic accounts in American and specifically Greek-American publications, lecturing across the nation, and various books on historical and cultural issues, Canoutas was the primary source for the 1880 to 1920 wave of Greek immigrants and their children.
Outside of the daily Greek language press, Canoutas became the source of Greek-American history from 1492 to the present Greek-Americans quoted to each other. Arguably, since Canoutas’ work on Christopher Columbus is cited in the 2002 documentary film “The Pioneers: 1900-1942” produced by the Greek Heritage Society of Southern California, his influence is still a force to be reckoned with among sections of Greek-America to this very day.
That film was awarded Best Documentary at the 2003 International Panorama of Independent Filmmakers Festival in Thessaloniki, Greece. So, Canoutas’ ideas and historical work clearly do not end at American shores. Yet, with the publication of Theodore Saloutos’, landmark study, The Greeks in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964) immigration studies took an entirely new point of view. While Canoutas wished to learn of every Greek or community of Hellenes ever to settle on the Western Hemisphere, Saloutos focused exclusively on the waves of migration between 1880 and 1920 and their descendants.
This is more than a difference of chronological orientation. Saloutos’ argument is one with many underlying assumptions. Among the most prominent is that population figures determine identifiable cultural and social impact, limits to social and cultural influence by certain ethnic groups, a top-down one way cultural and social influence with immigrants being the only population that experienced social change and an inherent equilibrium model. By that, I mean that Saloutos’ position is that the success the immigrants traveled to America to achieve had been, after long struggles, totally achieved. And not simply by the immigrants but their children as well. Saloutos’ work is now the standard that all American immigration studies follow.
There are many problems with this overall set of basic assumptions. The most prominent among them is how the American labor movement, which is essentially ignored in Saloutos’ 1964 account, was actively supported by the newly-arriving 1880 to 1920 immigrant workers. The American labor movement was an especially bloody affair and one still not generally taught in our schools. To their credit, Greek-American scholars such as Helen Papanikolas, Zeese Papanikolas, and Dan Georgakas have sought to not only clarify the historical record by attending to these extensive labor troubles but also, when appropriate, the role of Greek immigrants in these documented events. It is no exaggeration to state that it is through the work of these individuals that wider recognition of the leadership roles Greek immigrants held in these labor struggles is only now receiving the attention it deserves.
Saloutos, the son of Greek immigrants, eventually became president of the Agriculture History Society (1965-1966) and in 1973 he was elected as the president of the Immigration History Society. At least three of Saloutos’ book-length studies: Agricultural Discontent in the Middle West, 1900-1939 (1951), Populism: Reaction or Reform? (1968) and The American Farmer and the New Deal (1982) dealt with events and persons involved in wider social and political and social unrest in the United States during the 1800s through the 1900s. So, why, especially in the case of the Greek immigrants did he for all intents and purposes ignore Greek involvement in these colossal labor struggles?
Canoutas’ positive writings on the early Greek immigrants is often in marked contrast to not what appeared at exactly the same time in American governmental reports, academic studies and most certainly the popular press of the late 1880s and early 1900s. As both a self-made professional and an immigrant pioneer, Canoutas’ experiences in North America clearly influenced his published work.
Canoutas was born in 1873 or 1874 in the village of Karpenissi, Greece, he chose as his birth date, March 25th. In 1899, after much hardship, Canoutas became a practicing attorney in Greece. Seeking new opportunities, Canoutas first traveled and worked in various European countries before sailing to the United States of America in September 1905, aboard the SS Aquitaine.
Early in his residence, Canoutas was appointed by the Greek government Deputy Consul in San Francisco and later Consul in Nashville, TN. During that period, Canoutas took up the study of American law at Cumberland University, from which he received his law degree.
In 1907, Canoutas “started to write a book for the new immigrants under the title of “Greek American Guide,” giving them as much information about the country as I knew. But books do not pay. Although everybody appreciated the usefulness of my book; purchases were very few.” In 1909 and 1910 Canoutas made a trip all over the United States and Canada (missing only Arizona and New Mexico) to directly gather information about the local Greeks. Canoutas’ guide was issued annually, with regular updates, new historical and other textual content, new subscriber listings and new advertisers until at least 1921.
On August 9, 1911, in New York City, Canoutas became a naturalized American citizen. On July 27, 1912 he sailed for Constantinople aboard the SS Kaiser Franz Jose arriving in Constantinople on August 14, 1912. Events must have already been set in motion since on August 31, 1912, Canoutas married Euphrosyne Corinna Paleologos (b. abt 1884), at the St Trinity Church. Bishop Christopher of Pera married the couple and among the gathering of guests was the Deputy Consul general of the United States in Constantinople, Ralph F. Chesbrough. The couple soon traveled to America.
In 1912, Rev Thomas Burgess, in the introduction to the volume, Greeks in America has this to say: “To my dear friend…Seraphim G. Canoutas, LL.B., I owe the first inspiration to write and continual assistance and encouragement throughout…Nearly all the facts contained in Chapters I-V, and parts of others, I took down at his dictation or translated from his book. Also he corrected and criticized most of the manuscript (Boston Sherman, French and Co., 1913: xii-xiii).” Canoutas does not publish a book length history of Greeks in the United States until his Hellenism in America: or the history of the Greeks in America from the early days to the present time (Boston: S.G. Canoutas, 1918). This bilingual volume was clearly meant to serve both Greek and American readers.
In the following years, aside from his ongoing law practice, Canoutas published in Greek several other books as well as the monthly newspaper The Erevna (Research) and the magazine East-West Review. In the early 1930s, Canoutas returned to Greece published the monthly ‘Xenitevmenos’ (loosely interpreted, The Person Abroad) upon his return to New York he wrote a column for a time in the National herald, entitled, The Free Tribune. Given the lack of serious sustained effort to locate and preserve the Greek-American press we may never know how many books, periodicals and other writings were generated by Canoutas over his long and fruitful career.
Between 1935 and 1942, Canoutas conducted research in several countries in Europe, for his most famous (some would say, infamous) book Christopher Columbus, A Greek Nobleman (1943). This study, while well received within the Greek-American community, essentially sealed Canoutas’ fate as a marginal writer, at best, among the academics, be they Greek or American.
Just before his death Canoutas traveled to Chicago and met with two fellow Greek American lawyers Paul Koken and Theodore Constant. Koken and Constant were law partners and were also co-writing a history of Greeks in the United States. Canoutas stayed several days in Chicago finally turning over a huge amount of unpublished documents, translations and other writings to the duo for their proposed volume. Unable to find a publisher in the late 1930s, the manuscript finished by Koken and Constant eventually saw two separate publications. First as the long running series ‘Greeks in the Western Hemisphere’ credited to Theodore Constant, Seraphim G. Canoutas and Paul Koken in Athene Magazine and finally as the book-length, A History of Greeks in America 1453-1938 Paul Koken, Seraphim G. Canoutas and Theodore Constant (Ann Arbor: First Page Publications, 2002).
Canoutas died in Manhattan New York City on April, 2, 1944 at age 70.
What separates a mere chronicler from a prominent historian? Why was Saloutos one and Canoutas another? Certainly power and authority enter into the tale. Why should we care about either man? Because, in the end, the history of Greeks in the United States is the life story of your family and mine. It is also, rightly or wrongly, how others who never met your family or mine think about our grandparents and us. Canoutas was an eyewitness for an entire generation of Greek workers and sojourners. A major reconsideration and reevaluation of Seraphim Canoutas’ published work is long overdue.
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