This Week in Armenian History

Death of Hamasdegh (November 26, 1966)

Hamasdegh was a leading Armenian-American writer and became a highly regarded name in the Armenian literature of the Diaspora.

He was born Hampartsoum Gelenian in the village of Perchenj, in the region of Kharpert, on October 15, 1895 (*). He got his primary education in the local school, and then in the Central College of the city of Mezireh. He would become one of several Armenian-American writers from the “Kharpert School,” along with Peniamin Nurigian (1894-1989) and Vahe Haig (1896-1983), who were inspired by their teacher, Tilgadintsi (Haroutioun Haroutiounian, 1860-1915), an elder writer victim of the genocide.

After graduating in 1911, the young Hampartsoum worked as a teacher in his village for a year and then traveled to America upon his father’s exhortation. He followed courses at Columbia University and Boston University but did not graduate. He started contributing poetry and translations to the Hairenik daily in 1918 with the pseudonym Hamasdegh, which is the root of the word hamasdeghootyoon (“constellation”) but was also composed by the initial syllables of three Gelenian brothers (Hampartsoum, Asdour, and Eghia).

In the early 1920s Hamasdegh went from poetry to prose and became a much-sought name in the Hairenik monthly from its inception in 1922. His first stories, published during the 1920s, were collected in two volumes, The Village (1924) and The Rain (1928), and turned him widely popular by their literary quality. It reflected some trends of Diaspora literature, which was mainly focused on themes of village life and the lost country, and rites and traditions of the homeland. His depictions of the feelings, thoughts, and aspirations of ordinary people struck a note with the readers. In 1928-1929 he traveled to Europe and the Middle East. Before and after, he spent his entire life in the Boston area, where he worked for many years as a photoengraver.

In 1931 he started writing the novel The White Horseman, which was dedicated to the liberation struggle of Western Armenia. However, after publishing it in serial form in the Hairenik monthly from 1931-1933, he left it unfinished and would only finish it in 1952, when he released it as a book. He continued his literary activities, with the main theme of longing going through his writing, and published a selection of new stories in Nazar the Brave and 13 Stories (1955), the meditation House of Prayer (1957), and the poem The Goat Book (1960). His last book was the novel The First Love (1966).

In the 1960s, Hamasdegh was invited to go to Armenia–where his name and work were practically unknown due to political issues—several times, but he could not make the trip. His prolific literary life was rewarded with the celebration of his 70th birthday in 1966 throughout the Diaspora. Unfortunately, he was beset by personal and health problems. His wife passed away after a long illness in early 1966, and the writer himself passed away on November 26, 1966, victim of a heart attack while he was speaking at his jubilee in Los Angeles. He was buried in Boston.

The school of Soorp Khatch Church in the Washington D.C. area bears the name of Hamasdegh. In 2018 the Eastern Prelacy published a bilingual edition of Hamasdegh’s House of Prayer, his first book translated into English. Part of his correspondence and several collections of his works scattered in the press have been published in Armenia during the past two decades.

(*) We are grateful to the writer’s elder daughter, Ms. Loretta Gelenian, for providing his date of birth.