By GERALD W. HASLAM
Sonoma State University
FEW AMERICAN WRITERS tumbled as dramatically from critical acclaim as did William Saroyan. There were many reasons, not the least of which was his personality. Because, as Saroyan's son Aram has argued, the writer came to personify "what might be called the mythic potential of his particular social-historical moment," Saroyan's self-centered, sometimes abrasive character became perhaps more important than his writing in the eyes of some. William Saroyan was, during the first half of his career, as much a public figure as an artist, and the confusion of those two roles made it easy to ignore his literary accomplishments once his notoriety faded. In fact, the artist's psychological contradictions are finally much less important than the quality of his art and, from his first published volume (The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, 1934) until his last (Obituaries, 1979)-both of which were cited as among their years'best books-Saroyan was an authentic, singular American genius. He was also, as Bob Sector has pointed out, "his own biggest fan."
Another factor in the Fresno native's fall from critical grace was the adversarial relationship he had developed with critics. He wrote in 1940:. . . I acknowledge the partial truth and validity of every charge brought against my work, against myself personally, and against my methods of making my work public. What is lacking in their criticism is the fullness and humanity of understanding which operates in myself, in my work, and in my regard for others. . . .Consequently, it is difficult for them to make sense in themselves that which is complicated and unusual for them. What should enlarge them because of its understanding, drives them more completely behind the fort of their own limitations.” Little wonder he was a prime candidate for literary ostracism.
Today, with the author's personality no longer a factor, Saroyan's work is enjoying critical reevaluation. His work, not his ego or pugnaciousness or reclusiveness, is at issue, and it stands up very well indeed. As David Kherdian recently observed:
His writing had a quality of innocence and eagerness and wonder about a moment-any moment of living-that made us feel more alive ourselves-more alive, that is, than we actually were, but for this very reason it made us yearn and stretch and seek a way to grow.
And H. W. Matalene has asserted that "the place of William Saroyan in the history of the American theater still seems as secure as he always told us it would be." After World War II, the Californian fell with a thud out of critical fashion. Not only were the books he published slammed, but his earlier achievements were ignored or slighted, making him a kind of literary non-person. Even in his native West his accomplishments were neglected; he was not listed in the annual bibliographies published by Western American Literature, although much of his best writing was set in the West. My Heart's in the Highlands,The Time of Your Life, and Hello Out There, Saroyan's three finest plays, employed distinctly western settings and tones, as even negative critics acknowledged. William Saroyan was very much a writer of his time, of his place, and of his dynamic cultural blend, Armenian-American. Add to those distinguished dramas stories such as "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," "The Pomegranate Trees," and "Seventy Thousand Assyrians," novels The Human Comedy, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, and Tracy's Tiger, as well as memoirs such as The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, Not Dying, and Obituaries, and it appears that few twentieth-century American authors produced a richer, more diverse body of work.
Saroyan straddled the worlds of high and folk culture. He was an artist of unique and powerful gifts, marred by an apparent lack of discipline, but one who moved both regional and ethnic expression to new heights.
Mary McCarthy, writing in Partisan Review in 1940, pinpointed a source of both Saroyan's greatest art and perhaps some of his problems with the literary establishment. "He still retains his innocence," she observed,. . . that is, he has had to fight off Ideas, Movements, Sex, and Commercialism. He has stayed out of the literary rackets-the Hollywood racket, the New York Cocktail-party racket, and the Stalinist racket, . . . What is more important, the well of inspiration, located somewhere in his early adolescence, has never
When he died on May 19, 1981, in Fresno, Saroyan had won both the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Time of Your Life (the first writer to be so doubly honored), an Academy Award for The Human Comedy, and the California Gold Medal for Tracy's Tiger. William Saroyan emerged as a writer during the Great Depression, while America was in the throes of a national loss of faith and questioning of values. Although many critics had trouble accepting his optimistic, original stories, readers did not. He was powerfully pro-human. He talked and wrote about the human spirit. That Saroyan also did such things as turn down his Pulitzer Prize certainly did little to raise his stock among insiders. His behavior, like some of his writing, seemed downright unliterary. As novelist Herbert Gold wrote following Saroyan's death, "He didn't want to be the greatest Armenian-American writer in the world. He wanted, very boyishly, just to knock everyone's eyes out with beauty and fun and delight."
Born in Fresno in 1908, Saroyan was placed in an Oakland orphanage at the age of three following the death of his father, a poet and ordained minister. Four years later, his family reunited and returned to Fresno where he grew up. Experiences that would later resurface as rich literary material in such books as Little Children (1937) and My Name Is Aram (1940) marked the remainder of Saroyan's childhood. He worked at odd jobs, rubbing elbows with a lively group of people of all ethnic types, developed earthy rural values, and was always assured of the support of his extended family and the Armenian community. He did not graduate from high school. Small wonder that Saroyan's work evidences little social or intellectual pretension. He has also refused to be limited; in "Seventy Thousand Assyrians" his protagonist says: "I am an Armenian . . . I have no idea what it's like to be an Armenian . . . I have a faint idea what it's like to be alive. That's the only thing that interests me greatly." That is, while everything he writes is influenced by his Armenian and poor, small-town and western heritage, that influence emerges from within rather than being imposed from without.
When he tells his truth well enough, it is everyone's. In 1928, while working in San Francisco, Saroyan published a story in Overland Monthly and Outwest Magazine and decided to make writing his career. Six years later his first book, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, was published. It was a fresh, zany, ironic, and highly individualistic collection. "Try to be alive," the author advised in his preface. "You will be dead soon enough." If the collection exhibited many of the considerable strengths that were to mark Saroyan as a cutting-edge artist unconcerned with established literary forms, many of those same innovative tales were viewed by critics as undisciplined. Saroyan's response to Eric Bentley's complaint about careless writing perhaps sums up his attitude:
"One cannot expect an Armenian to be an Englishman."
Whatever its source-the writer's ethnicity, his San Joaquin Valley up-bringing, his distrust of established tastemakers-Saroyan showed during the 1930s a vivacity and originality that seemed exactly correct for those grim times. "I cannot resist the temptation to mock any law which is designated to hamper the spirit of man," he wrote in an early story. Critics of that period, burdened by polemic proletarian positions or still awakening to the power of naturalism, didn't know how to treat this brash westerner; Nona Balakian asserts, Saroyan was "inevitably misunderstood or belittled."
By the beginning of World War II, Saroyan estimated that he had written more than five hundred tales. His craft progressed so that not only great talent but considerable skill marked his writing, and he began to evidence a profound sense of place in his fiction. Increasingly in his writing-especially in the superb My Name Is Aram Saroyan returned to Fresno and California's San Joaquin Valley for both setting and subjects. In so doing, he produced some major western American literature. Howard Floan, noting the artistic growth these valley stories demonstrated, points out that in his early tales the young people of Saroyan's stories had been essentially undiluted projections of himself.
In Little Children and My Name Is Aram the writer uses such characters to greater effect, for the stories are not self-centered, "they are about the immigrants of Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley, the people recalled from his boyhood days whose images gave him the impetus to extend himself beyond the lyricism of his early tales to the more dramatic later ones. . . . If Saroyan had not discovered the literary uses of Fresno and the Valley, he could not have given us the best of his short stories-nor his plays." He was, then, very much a western writer.
Saroyan's plays demonstrate even more clearly than his stories the importance of the oral tradition and his ethnic heritage in his work. He explained: Everything I write, everything I have ever written, is allegorical. This came to pass inevitably. One does not choose to write allegorically any more than one chooses to grow black hair on his head. The stories of Armenia . . . are all allegorical, and apart from the fact that I heard these stories as a child. . . I myself am a product of Asia Minor, hence the allegorical and the real are closely related in my mind. In fact all reality to me is allegorical. . . .
When in 1939 he converted a short story, "The Man with the Heart in the Highlands," into the play My Heart's in the Highlands, he demonstrated not only his comfort with spoken language, but his allegorical bent. The play was successful and even his detractors agreed that the Californian had provided a radical departure from usual theatrical fare. Both George Jean Nathan and John Mason Brown considered it the finest Broadway play of the 1938-39 season.
The following year Saroyan produced one of the classic plays of the modem American theatre, The Time of Your Life. It confirmed what the author's earlier dramatic work had hinted, that he was as original and irreverent on stage as he was in print. Balakian points out that "nothing quite so informal and spontaneous had happened on the American stage before
Saroyan came along." Audiences were well advised to attend Saroyan's remarks about allegory if they sought to understand his dramas.
The theatre became a major outlet for Saroyan's work. The Beautiful People, Jim Dandy:Fat Man in a Famine, and The Cave Dwellers (his last Broadway production, in 1957), among others, all illustrated his quest, stated earlier in a short story:
"If I want to do anything I want to speak a more universal language, the heart of man, the unwritten part of man, that which is eternal and common to all races."
From the beginning-as early as the publication of "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze"-Saroyan evidenced a freedom from conventional literary modes of reality that marks him today as an early exemplar of what has been called Magical Realism. Merged levels of consciousness, powerful intuition, an insistence upon what is perceived rather than what is expected, little concern for chronological time, these and other elements led Edmund Wilson to praise "These magical feats" which he said "are accomplished by the enchantment of Saroyan's temperament, which induces us to take from him a good many things that we should not accept from other people." Another giant of American criticism, John Mason Brown, proclaimed that "Saroyan has managed to widen the theatre's horizons by escaping from facts and reason..." Saroyan himself explained his gift this way:
“. . . I do not know a great deal about what words come to, but the presence says, Now don't get funny; just sit down and say something; it'll be all right anyway. Half the time I do say it wrong, but somehow or other, just as the presence says, it's right anyhow. I am always pleased about this.”
During World War II, the Californian produced two of his most successful novels, The Human Comedy and The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, the latter a picaresque version of army life with a somewhat hard edge which Wilson admired. The former book began as an award-winning screenplay, over which Saroyan battled with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, trying to buy it back, then retreated to write a play, Get Away Old Man, that dramatized the conflict. It opened on Broadway in 1943. If Saroyan got the final word, MGM seems to have managed the final laugh: the play flopped.
Following the war, Saroyan went into a critical tailspin. Disillusioned by his military experience-he served in the Army-tax problems, and the collapse of his marriage to Carol Marcus, his mood and literature darkened. By his own admission, he drank too much and gambled too much. "Three years in the army and a stupid marriage had all but knocked me out of the picture and, if the truth is told, out of life itself." His son's biography, William Saroyan
(1983), offers the other side of the story. He gradually brought his drinking and gambling under control, and once more began producing high-quality work. But, critically at least, it was too late. As Matalene points out:
...One senses that critics have been less interested in discovering
and teaching Saroyan's message than they have been in congratulating themselves
for having been so democratic as to have admitted to the canon of recognized
literature the work of an uneducated, penniless Armenian from Fresno-at least
for as long as he seemed amusing.He no longer seemed amusing, and he was dropped
like the outsider he always was, one of the less savory and defensible episodes
in American literary history.
During the final years of his life he produced several probing, sometimes delightful memoirs, the first of which, Not Dying (1963), led Herbert Mitgang to observe in The New York Times: "A hardboiled romantic, Saroyan shows that he can be more in the vanguard than many of the official literary map personages in Esquire; that he'll be around long after this year's hipsters have become next year's squares."
Often Saroyan's mood was morose in his later works; he seemed preoccupied by death. Of Not Dying He observed, "I haven't laughed once in the writing of this book." William Saroyan had always been concerned over the degree to which artificiality dominates reality in human experience, a situation he thought literary critics apotheosized. Ironically, in the biography which offers his ex-wife's and his children's perspectives on the author's life, Saroyan's son Aram asserts that the truth of his father's character remains obscure, while "his legend, dating back to the earliest part of his career, continues to dominate popular consciousness of both his literary career and public image."
A more balanced assessment of Saroyan has been offered by his friend and associate James H. Tashjian, editor of The Armenian Review. "No question: William Saroyan was a battlefield on which Ormuzd and Ahriman fought relentlessly-good versus evil," he wrote in his preface to My Name Is Saroyan (1983), explaining:...There is little question that Saroyan's personal conduct was in direct contradiction of his father's rigid code-Saroyan gambled and gamboled, he was flaky and notoriously unreliable, he drank heavily on occasion, wenched and was twice divorced-all mis-virtues...But he was, at the same time, a dedicated pacifist, a ridiculer of the goosestep, a foe of peonage and patronage. He was impatient of dissimulation, generous and charitable...and was respectful of all religions. William Saroyan was a flawed, passionate man, a complicated mixture of virtue and vice whose great talent magnified all aspects of his personality.”
Tashjian makes one other major point, observing that "Saroyan is only `enigmatic' to those who cannot...understand what his Armenian heritage meant to him." Both Aram Saroyan and Tashjian agree that a major element in William Saroyan's makeup was the early death of his father, Armenak, a subject he returned to, both directly and indirectly, throughout his literary career. It "forged in him a basic Oedipal urge-to find the father who had left him," Tashjian points out. "This was to grow into a veritable passion in his manhood. It colored his thoughts and his career." Perhaps the most touching of such work is "Armenak of Bitlis" (Letters from 74 rue Taitbout, 1969), which recounts a visit to his father's grave in San Jose, then leads the author to recount a sterile meeting with his own son in New York. It is a powerful piece that illustrates well the writer's continuing abilities. Sham remained a continuing theme. Early in his career Saroyan had lamented the influence of tastemakers such as literary critics this way:
It's wonderful to get up in the morning and go out for a little walk and smell the trees and see the streets and the kids going to school and the clouds in the sky....This is a nice world. So why do they make all the trouble?
Late in his career, once he had become somewhat reclusive, his tone changed. "Can a society which has thrived on lies be expected to survive?" he asked. He answered himself this way: "Possibly, but the people of that society can't be expected not to be grotesque." In some places, his style turned preachy and verbose. Still, flashes of the old spirit surfaced. In a 1978 interview with Herbert Gold, Saroyan remarked, "I'm growing old! I'm falling apart! And it's VERY INTERESTING!" He worked out of one of two tract houses in Fresno which he had bought in the 1960s-he also kept an apartment in Paris-and rode around his hometown on a bicycle. An eleven-year-old neighbor remembered, "I saw him ridin' with no hands and everything, lots of times." He was a great favorite of neighborhood children, and they were
favorites of his.
Bella Stumbo, in the Los Angeles Times, added that "He refused all interviews with the press (on the grounds that the `knotheads' asked him stupid questions), and even turned down invitations to the White House in later years."
Shortly before his death, Saroyan called the Associated Press to leave a posthumous statement: "Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?" Following Saroyan's death, a memorial service was held in Paris. His Holiness Vazken I, the Catholicos of all Armenians, eulogized the author, calling him "the prodigy of the nation, the vehicle through which three millennia of Armenian experience was perhaps most perfectly expressed." The Catholicos concluded by observing that "William Saroyan's writing, his humanism, speaks not just about or to Armenians but to all people."
As usual, Saroyan himself merits the last word. The final sentence of the final volume published during his lifetime, what Herbert Gold calls "his wonderful late book, Obituaries," reads: "I did my best, and let me urge you to do your best, too. Isn't it the least we can do for one another?"
BIO # 2
Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, as the son of an Armenian immigrant. His father moved to New Jersey in 1905 - he was a small vineyard owner, who had been educated as a Presbyterian minister. In the new country he was forced to take farm-labouring work. He died in 1911 from peritonitis after drinking a forbidden glass of water given by his wife, Takoohi. Saroyan was put in an orphanage in Alameda with his brothers, but six years later the family reunited in Fresno.
At the age of fifteen, Saroyan left the school. His mother showed him some of his fathers writings and he decided to become a writer. Saroyan continued his education by reading and writing on his own, working in several jobs and later as a journalist, living on his writing from 1920. The Overland Monthly published a few of his short articles. His first collected stories started to appear in the 1930s, among them 'The Broken Wheel', which was written under the name Sirak Goryan, and was published in the Armenian journal Hairenik As a writer Saroyan made his breakthrough with THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1934), a story of an impoverished young writer in a Depression-ridden society. It became a huge success, and was followed by a number of highly original novels. Many of them were based on his childhood, experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley or his struggles as a young writer in San Francisco. Saroyan worked tirelessly to perfect a prose style, that was swift and seemingly spontaneous, blended with his own ebullient spirit, which became known as 'Saroyanesque.'
As a playwright Saroyan's work was drawn from deeply personal sources, depicting the bittersweet loneliness of the foreign born American. He disregarded the conventional idea of conflict as essential to drama to create a theater of mood. Among Saroyans best known works is the play THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE (1939), which won a Pulitzer Prize but Saroyan refused it, on the grounds that commerce should not judge the arts. The short story collection MY NAME IS ARAM, a boy's view of the American Dream, appeared in 1940, and his film scenario, THE HUMAN COMEDY, was bought by MGM and made his financial situation more secure. Saroyan also published essays and memoirs, depicting the people he had met on travels in the Soviet Union and Europe, among them the playwright George Bernard Shaw and the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
During World War II Saroyan joined the US army. He was posted to London in 1942 as a part of a film unit and narrowly avoided a court martial, when his novel THE ADVENTURES OF WESLEY JACKSON (1946) turned out to be pacifist.
In 1943 Saroyan married the seventeen-years-old Carol Marcus. When she revealed that she was Jewish and illegitimate, Saroyan divorced. They remarried again and divorced. Their son Aram became a poet and wrote a book about his father, and their daughter Lucy became an actress. Carol Marcus married later the actor Walter Matthau.
Saroyan's financial situation did not improve after WW II when interest in his novels declined and he was criticized for sentimentalism. In the title novella of THE ASSYRIAN, AND OTHER STORIES (1950) and in THE LAUGHING MATTER (1953) Saroyan experimented with allegorical effects within the framework of realistic novel.
In 1952 Saroyan published the first of several book-lenght memoirs, THE BICYCLE RIDER IN BEVERLY HILLS. He worked rapidly, hardly editing his text. From 1958 the author lived mainly in Paris. In the late 1960s and the 1970s he produced works that earned him substantial income, among them autobiographical scetchbooks. Saroyan died on May 18, 1981, in Fresno. Half of his ashes were buried in California, and the rest in Armenia.
William Saroyan was an internationally renowned Armenian-American writer, playwright and humanitarian. His fame, and his most enduring achievements as a writer, date from the 1930's. He dazzled, entertained and uplifted millions, with hundreds of short stories, plays, novels, memoirs and essays; they continue to charm and touch us today.
Saroyan's talent was first projected to the world through the medium of an Armenian-English newspaper, Hairenik of Boston. In 1934, at the age of 26, with the publication of his first book The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, William Saroyan became an overnight literary sensation. His first successful Broadway play was My Heart's in the Highlands in 1939, and in the same year, Saroyan was the first American writer to win both the Drama Critic's Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his play, The Time of Your Life. He refused to accept the Pulitzer Prize on the grounds that, "Commerce should not patronize art...," and he added, "it is no more great or good than anything else I have written."
Saroyan is unique among writers. He acknowledged the Armenian culture as an important source of literary inspiration, especially notable in the book-of-the-month choice, My Name Is Aram, in 1940. In 1943, another book-of-the-month choice, The Human Comedy, was dedicated to his mother and made into an MGM movie which won him an Academy Award for Best Writing Original Screen Story.
In February 1943, 35 year old William Saroyan and 18 year old New York debutante, Carol Marcus, married in Dayton, Ohio. They were blessed with two children: Aram, born in 1944, and Lucy, born in 1946. Their first marriage ended after six years. Two years later, in 1951, Saroyan's remarriage to the same wife ended in divorce for the second and final time.
William Saroyan achieved great popularity through the thirties, forties and fifties. During his lifetime, he published over sixty books. His works have been translated into more than two dozen languages and have sold millions. To fully enjoy Saroyan, either in prose or on the stage, you have to be "with" him. This may require effort, but once you are with him, he can take you places you have never been before. Saroyan writes humanely and powerfully, with restless enthusiasm. His major themes are aspiration, hope and honesty; materialism and success mean nothing. His works show the basic goodness of all people, especially the obscure and naive and the value of life. He once observed that he needed to write, "Because I hate to believe that I'm sick or half dead, because I want to get better; because writing is my therapy." In the last book published during Saroyan's lifetime, Obituaries, he wrote: "My work is writing, but my real work is being."
Saroyan spoke for Armenians to the world. He gave international recognition to his people at a time when they remained dispersed and continued to meet with prejudice and outright hatred. He brought more public understanding to the culture and the quality of the Armenian people, than any other person in the history of the Armenian experience in America. By international standards, he is very likely the most famous literary figure produced by his ancient people.
William Stonehill Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, on August 31, 1908; the 4th child of Armenian immigrants Armenak Saroyan preacher and poet, and Takoohi Saroyan, of Bitlis. On May 18, 1981, he died of prostate cancer at the age of 72, about a mile from where he was born. "Everybody has got to die," he said, "but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?" William Saroyan died, an artistic era ended. He loved America, but he did not forget Armenia. Saroyan wanted his heart in the Armenian highlands. A year after his death, half of his cremated remains were permanently enshrined in the Pantheon of Greats in Yerevan, Armenia, while the other half remained in Fresno, California.
On May 22, 1991, William Saroyan was the first and only individual to be jointly honored by the USA--as part of its Literary Arts Series and the USSR Postal Services on their Commemorative Postal Stamps. First-day-issue ceremonies took place simultaneously in Fresno, California, and in Yerevan, Armenia.
The number of unpublished manuscript left by William Saroyan, surpasses the massive bibliography of his published works. Since his death in 1981, over 15 books have been published about his life and works.