Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning
By John Hutchison, 1996
How, finally, do we assess William Saroyan? In his later years, as Saroyan must have sensed, the boisterous and voluble literary personage he had always cultivated wore thin, marking him in the eyes of many as a has-been struggling to maintain a daring-young-man effervescence long past its shelf life. Within that appraisal was often a sniggering which dismissed him as a minor talent whose work after World War II was egregiously self-absorbed and sentimental.
Saroyan's output from 1934 to 1940 established his reputation. What enthralled critics and readers was the brashness and certainty of his daring: Beginning with his first collection of linked short stories -- written in 30 days, a story each day -- and mailed off to Whit Burnett at Story Magazine. This was a new, fresh, exuberant kind of writing, intensely personal, prose poems which departed from customary narrative structures and sauntered elliptically with the awe of a young man fully realizing the most self-evident of truths: himself, alive upon the earth. This wasWestern writing, innovative and open, rich with landscapes and vistas, set against the dire backdrop of San Francisco at the height of the Depression. My recollection of those first Saroyan stories is typical: watching his language mesh the spiritual hunger and the actual physical hunger of the penniless main character was to be in the presence of a breathtaking act of creation.
Hope and possibility were mandatory components to the human comedy as Saroyan viewed it. Accepting madness as the only constant in the universe never precluded joy and laughter. Cynicism had no place in the way one approached each day. Whimsy, compassion, a ready smile and the gift of interior and exterior motion were to be the tools. These were the qualities for which the critics eventually deemed him a lightweight. What they lost sight of -- and the cultural historians who will mine through Saroyan's papers and personal effects at Stanford have not-- is that Saroyan's legacy is that of a unique regionalist, and specifically a Californian. His influence on the writers who have worked here subsequently is enormous.
In hindsight, Saroyan's emergence onto the California literary plain was epochal. The tradition of 19th century naturalism exemplified by Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris and Jack London was eclipsed by Saroyan's sensibilities. In San Francisco in the 1930s, a variant of that naturalist strain was prominent in the work of Dashiell Hammett, the city's then-foremost author. The dark, sinister cast of Hammett's world was challenged by the light, playful garrulousness and optimism of Saroyan. It presaged a new attitude which would would prevail in the literature of the state and the region for the next six decades.
I'm reminded of the incident in the early 1950s when a suddenly-timorous Jack Kerouac reportedly met Saroyan and exclaimed, "So you're the man who wrote 'The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse.' I've never forgotten that story!" That meeting, one could suggest, was inevitable. All the ingredients the Beats would incorporate into their canon had a germinal precedent in Saroyan's work: Rexroth's and Ferlinghetti's recognition of San Francisco's cultural civility and bohemian possibilities; Kerouac's interior monologues, frenzied energy and catch-all structureless narratives; and the Beat poets' looking toward the collected wisdom of Asia and its intermixed infusion of philosophical acceptance, respect for the earth and simplicity of style. The wondrous California immigrant experience Saroyan detailed was a departure from the hardscrabble, menacing accounts of his literary predecessors. The notion of a welcoming new land open to individual experimentation was given a necessary new spin by Saroyan, an interpretation which proclaimed that a dazzling, lightsome place existed just over the horizon. It's this sense of a region of vast and dramatic perspectives existing in geological time -- the "Voyald," Saroyan called it -- which he has bequeathed to the writers who have since trekked west.
In turn, those beholden to Saroyan left their mark on the next batch of literary emigrants. I once remarked to the uncommunicative Richard Brautigan that his work was awash with Saroyanesque capriciousness. (I intended it as a compliment and he took it as such, thanking me in three full sentences -- two more than I had ever heard him utter in one sitting about anything.) It is difficult to conceive of the hippie phenomenon coming about without a Saroyan-like oeuvre as precursor, as well the cumulative ethos of the ecology movement demonstrated by poets like Gary Snyder. Moreover, what Saroyan added to the crucible of the writer defining his place upon the landscape was a remarkable insight into the creative process: Always walking the streets as if for the first time, noting nothing as insignificant and everything as meaningless, relishing the feel of the typewriter keyboard, crafting his words and himself as both a defiant and an absurd cackle at the universe. To our good fortune, unlike his California contemporaries Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers (and John Muir before them), Saroyan brought the city into that field of vision, initiating the onset of San Francisco's literary renaissance.
I phoned him for an interview 25 years ago for a piece I was writing. "Well, hel-lo there," he boomed, "and how the hell are you!" I later sent him a copy of the article, adding a postscript consistent with puerile admiration, to the effect that I hoped he would go on forever. Obviously he has, and I guess it's my turn to say so.
A GOOD DOSE OF SAROYAN IS WHAT THIS WORLD NEEDS
© The San Diego Union-Tribune, Monday, April 6, 1998
Announce it from the rooftops, let the trumpets proclaim a royal fanfare, lift
your glasses on high in accord with my thesis, as follows: I say the time is
ripe for a William Saroyan revival.
As sure as lush black muscat grapes grow in lovely abundance in the vineyards around Fresno, where Bill Saroyan, fourth child of Armenian immigrants Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, was born and grew up, we need him. We would relish a curtain call of the Saroyan warmth, the wit and whimsy and his sprightly, endearing view of the human comedy.
The other night, on the tube, there it was, a Saroyan movie from 1943 titled "The Human Comedy." Bill Saroyan wrote the novel "The Human Comedy," and then he wrote the movie version, which somehow displeased him and he announced with typical Saroyanesque bravura that he would return his payment -- $60,000 -- to the studio.
But the movie starring Mickey Rooney in a grand performance proved to be a major success. And, incredibly, in an unheard-of gesture, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer refused to accept any money from Saroyan.
What happened was, perhaps, typically Saroyan. Opposed to all awards, he had earlier spurned the Pulitzer Prize and the $1,000 that went with it. The big prize had been voted to Saroyan for his gloriously boozy comedy drama, "The Time of Your Life," which he had dashed off in six days while holed up in New York's Great Northern Hotel. His plays hit the mark.
Bill Saroyan, that rollicking elf of an author who knew well of irony and compassion and laughter, wrote first-class original works for television, and the adaptations of his plays invariably hit the mark.
I am thinking now in particular of the "Playhouse 90" production of "The Time of Your Life." In it Jackie Gleason delivered a tremendous portrayal as Joe the philosopher who had this wistful greeting for everyone who entered the bar: "What's the dream?"
And James Barton portrayed an amiable drifter called Kit Carson who was given an entrance line and knocked it out of the ballpark: "I don't suppose you've ever fallen in love with a 39-pound midget?"
Later there was another line which alone should have landed Saroyan a Pulitzer: "Ever try to herd cattle on a bicycle?"
Saroyan died in 1981. He was 72. Gifted with a strange prescience, he had affixed this title to one of his final collections of stories, poems, short plays and essays: "I Used to Believe I Had Forever -- Now I'm Not So Sure." Five days before his death, Saroyan called The Associated Press. To the wire service he left what he wished to be a posthumous statement: "Everybody has to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?"
In one of his last essays you may find a perceptive line that tells of the Saroyan working philosophy: "The purpose of writing is both to keep up with life and to run ahead of it."
The Algonquin Hotel . One time I interviewed him, at lunch at the writers' mecca in New York -- the storied Algonquin Hotel. He had just returned from Paris, where he had been a joyous boulevardier, beloved by the Parisians who admire style and audacity, and now he was enlivening the TV talk shows. He looked, William Saroyan, exactly the way you would expect him to look. He had a huge mustache and a booming voice and a commanding presence. He was exuberant. He was mischievous. He was fun.
On that day he said: "I used to be the fastest telegram messenger boy in all Fresno. My nickname was 'Speed.' Finally, I said, 'Take back your nickname. This pace is killing me.' Anyway, I still write fast -- it's my impatient Armenian nature. I'm keen to find out how my plots end, and if I write faster I'll find out sooner."
How he could make the English language soar! His words danced. This was writing that was never inhabited by wallflowers. This was Bill Saroyan.
TIME OF OUR LIVES
© Richard Rodriguez, MAY 26, 1997 [Transcript]
Richard Rodriguez, editor at the "Pacific News Service," discusses the work of author William Saroyan.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Richard Rodriguez of the "Pacific News Service" considers the work of a distinguished American writer.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: His name was William Saroyan. He was the first writer I fell in love with, boyishly in love. I was held by his unaffected voice, his sentimentality, his defiant individualism. I found myself in the stories he told. Saroyan was the son of Armenian parents who settled in Fresno, in California’s Central Valley.
He was born in 1908, almost my own father’s age. Growing up in Sacramento
a few hundred miles North a generation later I learned from Saroyan that you
do not have to live in some great city--in New York or Paris--in order to write.
Life in Fresno can be rendered as literature. Late this spring and for most
of the summer Stanford University is celebrating its acquisition of the literary
archives of William Saroyan. Odd that the letters and the manuscripts of Saroyan
would end up here.
When I was a student at Stanford, a generation ago, the name of William Saroyan was never mentioned by any professor in the English Department. William Saroyan apparently was not considered a major American talent. Instead, we undergraduates set about the business of psychoanalyzing Hamlet and deconstructing Lolita. In my mind Saroyan belongs with John Steinbeck, a fellow small town Californian and of the same generation. He belongs with Thornton Wilder, with those writers whose aching love of America was formed by the Depression and the shadow of war.
Saroyan’s prose is as plain as it is strong. He talks about the pleasure of drinking water from a hose on a summer afternoon in California’s Central Valley, and he holds you with the pure line. My favorite is his novel The Human Comedy. It tells a story of Homer Macaulay, a boy who grows up in the Central Valley of Central America, and who works as Saroyan worked as a telegraph messenger. The boy is thus poised between a small town California and the great world beyond. It is his job to bring news of the war front to America’s doorsteps.
In 1943, The Human Comedy became an MGM movie starring Mickey Rooney, but I always imagined Homer Macaulay as a darker, more soulful boy, someone who looked very much like a young William Saroyan in these pictures. He won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Time of Your Life." His 1939 play is set on the San Francisco waterfront. In the years after, Saroyan moved slowly out into the great world from San Francisco to New York, to London, to Hollywood, to Paris. His friendships extend from Charlie Chaplain to T.S. Elliot. There survived photographs of him in dinner jacket with glamorous women. Little of the early greatness survives in those later years. There are rumors of a dark, difficult William Saroyan--rages, gambling, solitude.
In the last decade he divides his time between Paris and Fresno, that sweet, flat town of Israeli boyhood, that cloudless California to which his parents moved into the terrible Armenian diaspora. It is--Fresno is Saroyan’s old country were his deepest secrets lie buried. After his death in 1981, a portion of his ashes were sent to Armenia. The rest remain in Fresno.
The best advice I ever got as a writer I got from Saroyan in the preface to his wonderful 1931 collection, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." I pass it along to you, to any young writer, whatever the age, who might need the reminder.
Saroyan wrote "The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough."
I’m Richard Rodriguez.