Saroyan, William 1908–1981
Saroyan, William 1908–1981
PERSONAL: Born August 31, 1908, in Fresno, CA; died of cancer, May 18, 1981, in Fresno, CA; son of Armenak (a Presbyterian preacher and writer) and Takoohi Saroyan; married Carol Marcus, February, 1943 (divorced, November, 1949; remarried, 1951; divorced, 1952); children: Aram, Lucy. Education: Left high school at age fifteen.
CAREER: Short story writer, playwright, and novelist. Began selling newspapers at the age of eight for the Fresno Evening Herald; worked in his uncle's law office, then held numerous odd jobs, including that of grocery clerk, vineyard worker, postal employee, and office manager of San Francisco Postal Telegraph Co. Co-founder of Conference Press, 1936. Organized and directed Saroyan Theatre, August, 1942 (closed after one week). Writer-in-residence, Purdue University, 1961. Military service: U.S. Army, 1942–45.
AWARDS, HONORS: O. Henry Award, 1934, for "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze"; Drama Critics Circle Award, and Pulitzer Prize for drama (declined), both 1940, both for The Time of Your Life; Academy Award for best screenplay, 1943, for The Human Comedy; California Literature Gold Medal, 1952, for Tracy's Tiger; American Book Award nomination, 1980, for Obituaries; William Saroyan International Prize for Writing established by Stanford University Libraries/William Saroyan Foundation, 2002.
The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1934, reprinted, Yolla Bolly, 1984.
Inhale and Exhale (includes International Harvester; also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1936, Books for Libraries Press, 1972.
Three Times Three (also see below), Conference Press, 1936.
Little Children, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1937.
A Gay and Melancholy Flux (compiled from Inhale and Exhale and Three Times Three), Faber (London, England), 1937.
Love, Here Is My Hat, and Other Short Romances, Modern Age Books, 1938.
The Trouble with Tigers, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1938.
A Native American, George Fields, 1938.
Peace, It's Wonderful, Modern Age Books, 1939.
3 Fragments and a Story, Little Man, 1939.
My Name Is Aram, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1940, revised edition, 1966.
Saroyan's Fables, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1941.
The Insurance Salesman and Other Stories, Faber (London, England), 1941.
48 Saroyan Stories, Avon (New York, NY), 1942.
Thirty-One Selected Stories, Avon (New York, NY), 1943.
Someday I'll Be a Millionaire Myself, Avon (New York, NY), 1944.
Dear Baby, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1944.
The Saroyan Special: Selected Short Stories, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1948, reprinted, Books for Libraries Press, 1970.
The Fiscal Hoboes, Press of Valenti Angelo, 1949.
The Assyrian, and Other Stories, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1950.
The Whole Voyald and Other Stories, Atlantic-Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1956.
After Thirty Years: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (includes essays), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1964.
Best Stories of William Saroyan, Faber (London, England), 1964.
Deleted Beginning and End of a Short Story, Lowell-Adams House Printers (Cambridge, MA), 1965.
My Kind of Crazy and Wonderful People, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1966.
Man with the Heart in the Highlands, and Other Stories, Dell (New York, NY), 1968.
My Name Is Saroyan (autobiography), edited by James H. Tashjian, Coward-McCann (New York, NY), 1983.
Madness in the Family, edited by Leo Hamalian, New Directions (New York, NY), 1988.
The Man with the Heart in the Highlands and Other Stories, New Directions (New York, NY), 1993.
Fresno Stories, New Directions (New York, NY), 1994.
The Human Comedy (also see below), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1943, revised edition, 1966.
The Adventures of Wesley Jackson (also see below), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1946.
The Twin Adventures: The Adventures of William Saroyan, a Diary; The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, A Novel, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1950.
Rock Wagram, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1951.
Tracy's Tiger (fantasy), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1951, revised edition, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1967.
The Laughing Matter, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1953.
Mama I Love You, (originally named "The Bouncing Ball"), Atlantic-Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1956, reprinted, Dell, 1986 (New York, NY).
Papa You're Crazy, Atlantic-Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1957.
Boys and Girls Together, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1963, reprinted, Barricade, 1995.
One Day in the Afternoon of the World, Harcourt, 1964.
The Hungerers: A Short Play, S. French (New York, NY), 1939.
My Heart's in the Highlands (produced on Broadway at Guild Theatre, April 13, 1939; first published in One-Act Play Magazine, December, 1937; also see below), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1939.
The Time of Your Life (produced on Broadway at Booth Theatre, October 25, 1939; produced in London, England, by Royal Shakespeare Company, 1982; also see below), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1939, acting edition, S. French (New York, NY), 1969, Methuen (London, England), 1983.
A Theme in the Life of the Great American Goof (ballet-play; also see below), produced in New York City at Center Theatre, January, 1940.
Subway Circus, S. French (New York, NY), 1940.
The Ping-Pong Game (produced in New York, 1945), S. French (New York, NY), 1940.
A Special Announcement, House of Books, 1940.
The Beautiful People (produced under the author's direction on Broadway at Lyceum Theatre, April 21, 1940), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1941.
Three Plays: My Heart's in the Highlands, The Time of Your Life, Love's Old Sweet Song, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1940.
Love's Old Sweet Song (first produced on Broadway at Plymouth Theatre, May 2, 1940; also see below), S. French (New York, NY), 1941.
Radio Play, CBS-Radio, 1940.
The People with Light Coming out of Them (radio play; first broadcast, 1941), Free Company (New York, NY)/CBS-Radio, 1941.
Three Plays: The Beautiful People, Sweeney in the Trees, Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1941.
Jim Dandy, A Play, Little Man Press (Cincinnati, OH), 1941, published as Jim Dandy: Fat Man in a Famine, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1947.
Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning, first produced in Pasadena, CA, February, 1941, produced under the author's direction on Broadway at Belasco Theatre, on the same bill with Talking to You, August, 1942.
Hello out There (first produced in Santa Barbara, CA, at Lobeto Theatre, September, 1941, produced on Broadway at Belasco Theatre, September, 1942), S. French (New York, NY), 1949.
Razzle-Dazzle (short plays; includes A Theme in the Life of the Great American Goof), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1942.
Talking to You, produced in New York, 1942.
The Good Job (screenplay based on his story "A Number of the Poor"), Loew, 1942.
The Human Comedy (screenplay scenario based on his novel), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1943.
Get away Old Man (produced on Broadway at Cort Theatre, November, 1943), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1944.
Sam Ego's House (produced in Hollywood, 1947), S. French (New York, NY), 1949.
Don't Go away Mad, produced in New York, 1949.
Don't Go away Mad, and Two Other Plays: Sam Ego's House; A Decent Birth, A Happy Funeral, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1949.
The Son, produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1950.
Once around the Block (produced in New York, 1950), S. French (New York, NY), 1959.
A Lost Child's Fireflies, produced in Dallas, TX, 1954.
Opera, Opera, produced in New York, 1955.
Ever Been in Love with a Midget?, produced in Berlin, Germany, 1957.
The Cave Dwellers (produced on Broadway in New York City, October 19, 1957), Putnam (New York, NY), 1958.
Cat, Mouse, Man, Woman, 1958.
The Slaughter of the Innocents (produced in The Hague, Netherlands, 1957), S. French (New York, NY), 1958.
Dentist and Patient and Husband and Wife, 1968.
The Paris Comedy; or, The Secret of Lily (produced in Vienna, Austria, 1960), published as The Paris Comedy; or, The Dogs, Chris Sick, and 21 Other Plays, also published as The Dogs; or, The Paris Comedy, and Two Other Plays: Chris Sick; or, Happy New Year Anyway, Making Money, and Nineteen Other Very Short Plays, Phaedra (London, England), 1969.
Sam, the Highest Jumper of Them All; or, The London Comedy (produced in London under the author's direction, 1960), Faber (London, England), 1961.
(With Henry Cecil) Settled out of Court, produced in London, 1960.
High Time along the Wabash, produced in West Lafayette, IN, at Purdue University, 1961.
Ah, Man, music by Peter Fricker, produced in Adel-burgh, Suffolk, England, 1962.
Four Plays: The Playwright and the Public, The Handshakers, The Doctor and the Patient, This I Believe, 1963.
The New Play, 1970.
Bad Men in the West, produced in Stanford, CA, 1971.
Armenians, produced 1974.
(With others) People's Lives, produced in New York, NY, 1974.
The Rebirth Celebration of the Human Race at Artie Zabala's Off-Broadway Theater, produced in New York, NY, July 10, 1975.
Two Short Paris Summertime Plays of 1974: Assassinations and Jim, Sam and Anna, Santa Susana Press, 1979.
Play Things, produced 1980.
The Armenian Trilogy, California State University Press, 1986.
Warsaw Visitor and Tales from the Vienna Streets, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1990.
Also author of plays Something about a Soldier, Hero of the World, and Sweeney in the Trees, produced c. 1940. Author of radio plays and There's Something I Got to Tell You. Author of teleplays The Oyster and the Pearl, televised, 1953. Plays represented in anthologies, including Famous American Plays of the 1930s, edited by Harold Clurman, and One Act: Eleven Short Plays of the Modern Theatre, edited by Samuel Moon.
A Christmas Psalm (poetry), Gelber, Lilienthal, 1935.
Those Who Write Them and Those Who Collect Them, Black Archer Press, 1936.
The Time of Your Life (miscellany), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1939.
Christmas, 1939 (poetry), Quercus Press, 1939.
Harlem as Seen by Hirschfield, Hyperion Press (New York, NY), 1941.
Hilltop Russians in San Francisco, James Ladd Delkin, 1941.
Fragment, Albert M. Bender, 1943.
(With Henry Miller and Hilaire Hiler) Why Abstract?, New Directions (New York, NY), 1945, reprinted, Haskell House, 1974.
(Author of introduction) Khatchik Minasian, The Simple Songs of Khatchik Minasian, Colt Press, 1950.
The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills (autobiography), Scribner (New York, NY), 1952, reprinted, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1971.
The William Saroyan Reader, Braziller (New York, NY), 1958, reprinted, Barricade (New York, NY), 1994.
Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who (autobiography), Trident, 1962, reprinted, Barricade (New York, NY), 1995.
My Lousy Adventures with Money, New Strand (London, England), 1962.
A Note on Hilaire Hiler, Wittenborn, 1962.
Me (juvenile), Crowell-Collier, 1963.
Not Dying: An Autobiographical Interlude (autobiography), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1963.
Short Drive, Sweet Chariot (reminiscences), Phaedra (London, England), 1966.
(Author of introduction) The Arabian Nights, Platt & Munk (New York, NY), 1966.
Look at Us; Let's See; Here We Are; Look Hard, Speak Soft; I See, You See, We All See; Stop, Look, Listen; Beholder's Eye; Don't Look Now But Isn't That You? (Us? U.S.?), Cowles, 1967.
I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I'm Not So Sure, Cowles, 1968.
(Author of foreword) Barbara Holden and Mary Jane Woebcke, A Child's Guide to San Francisco, Diablo Press, 1968.
Horsey Gorsey and the Frog (juvenile), illustrated by Grace Davidian, R. Hale, 1968.
Letters from 74 rue Taitbout, or Don't Go, but If You Must, Say Hello to Everybody, World (Cleveland, OH), 1968, published as Don't Go, but If You Must, Say Hello to Everybody, Cassell (London, England), 1970.
Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, Dial (New York, NY), 1970.
(Editor and author of introduction) Hairenik, 1934–1939: An Anthology of Short Stories and Poems (collection of Armenian-American literature), Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
Places Where I've Done Time, Praeger (New York, NY), 1972.
The Tooth and My Father, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1974.
An Act or Two of Foolish Kindness, Penmaen Press & Design, 1976.
Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang In Forever, Franklin Library, 1976.
Morris Hirschfield, Rizzoli International, 1976.
Chance Meetings, Norton (New York, NY), 1978.
(Compiler) Patmuatsk'ner / Uiliem Saroyean; hayats'uts' Hovhannes Sheohmelean (selected Armenian stories), Sewan, 1978.
Obituaries, Creative Arts, 1979, second edition, 1979.
Births, introduction by David Kherdian, Creative Arts, 1983.
The New Saroyan Reader: A Connoisseur's Anthology of the Writings of William Saroyan, edited by Brian Derwent, Creative Arts, 1984.
The Circus (juvenile), Creative Education (Mankato, MN), 1986.
The Pheasant Hunter: About Fathers and Sons, Redpath Press, 1986.
The Parsley Garden (juvenile), Creative Education (Mankato, MN), 1989.
Also author of Famous Faces and Other Friends, 1976. Writer of song lyrics, including "Come on-a My House" with Ross Bagdasarian, in 1951. Contributor to Overland Monthly, Hairenik (Armenian-American magazine), Story, Saturday Evening Post, Atlantic, Look, McCall's, and other periodicals.
The Human Comedy and The Adventures of Wesley Jackson have been translated into Russian; Mama I Love You and Papa You're Crazy have been translated into French.
ADAPTATIONS: A film version of The Human Comedy starring Mickey Rooney was released in 1943; United Artists made a film based on The Time of Your Life starring Jimmy Cagney in 1948; an opera version of Hello, out There prepared by composer Jack Beeson was widely performed in 1953; a television adaptation of The Time of Your Life was produced on Playhouse 90, 1958; "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Mrs. Murphy" was produced by NBC-TV, 1959; "The Unstoppable Gray Fox" was produced by CBS-TV, 1962; My Heart's in the Highlands was adapted for opera by Beeson and broadcast on television March 18, 1970; selections from Making Money and Nineteen Other Very Short Plays were presented on television by NET Playhouse, December 8, 1970; a musical version of The Human Comedy was produced on Broadway by Joseph Papp in 1986.
SIDELIGHTS: William Saroyan's career began in 1934 with the publication of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories. From that time on, he wrote prolifically, producing a steady stream of short stories, plays, novels, memoirs, and essays. His career can be divided into five phases. From 1934 to 1939 he wrote short stories; from 1939 to 1943 his energies were directed toward playwriting; the years 1943–1951 saw the appearance of his first two novels—The Human Comedy and The Adventures of Wesley Jackson—as well as plays and short fiction; between 1951 and 1964 Saroyan published a series of novels dealing with marriage and the family; and finally, from 1964 until his death in 1981, Saroyan devoted himself primarily to the exploration of his past through autobiographical writings.
It is through the short-story genre that Saroyan made his initial impact as a writer. During this first creative period, he published eight volumes; in the preface to The Assyrian, and Other Stories, he estimated that during these years he wrote "five hundred short stories, or a mean average of one hundred per annum." These early collections project a wide variety of thematic concerns, yet they are united in their portrayal of America between the two world wars. Saroyan's first books reflect the painful realities of the economic depression of the 1930s. The young writer without a job in his first famous story "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" goes to be interviewed for a position and finds that "already there were two dozen young men in the place." The story "International Harvester" from the 1936 collection Inhale and Exhale also gives a bleak vision of complete economic collapse: "Shamefully to the depths fallen: America. In Wall Street they talk as if the end of this country is within sight."
Readers clearly saw their troubled lives vividly portrayed in Saroyan's stories; though they depicted the agony of the times, the stories also conveyed great hope and vigorously defiant good spirits. However, as Max-well Geismar remarked in Writers in Crisis: The American Novel, 1925–1940, "the depression of the 1930s, apparently so destructive and so despairing," was actually a time of "regeneration" for the major writers of the period. Furthermore, "the American writer had gained moral stature, a sense of his own cultural connection, a series of new meanings and new values for his work." The crisis these writers were experiencing was, of course, more than merely economic. A deep cultural schism had rocked Europe since Friedrich Nietzsche's nineteenth-century apocalyptic prophecies and affected such American writers as Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer appeared in the same year as Saroyan's first collection of short fiction.
Collections of Saroyan's short stories continued to appear regularly until 1956; after that point, his stories mostly appeared only in periodicals such as the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. A collection of seventeen Saroyan stories written during this later period were collected and published as Madness in the Family in 1988. The stories cover typical Saroyan terrain: eccentric characters, minor plot development, and a focus on the Armenian immigrant community near Fresno, California. Reviewing the collection in the Chicago Tribune Books, John Blade remarked on "the buoyant, daredevil quality of so many of the stories" in the book.
Between 1939 and 1943, Saroyan published and produced his most famous plays. Works such as My Heart's in the Highlands, The Beautiful People, and Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning were well received by some critics and audiences; The Time of Your Life won the Pulitzer Prize as the best play of the 1939–1940 season, but Saroyan refused the award on the grounds that businessmen should not judge art. Although championed by critics like George Jean Nathan, Saroyan had a strained relationship with the theatrical world. From the time his first play appeared on Broadway, critics called his work surrealistic, sentimental, or difficult to understand. His creation of a fragile, fluid, dramatic universe full of strange, lonely, confused, and gentle people startled theatergoers accustomed to conventional plots and characterization. His instinctive and highly innovative sense of dramatic form was lost on many audiences. These plays were a wonderful amalgam of vaudeville, absurdism, sentiment, spontaneity, reverie, humor, despair, philosophical speculation, and whimsy. His plays introduced a kind of rambunctious energy into staid American drama. His "absurdity" bore a direct relationship to his sorrow at observing the waste of the true, vital impulses of life in the contemporary world. His artist figures—Joe, Jonah Webster, Ben Alexander—all feel within themselves the dying of the old order and the painful struggle to give birth to a new consciousness.
In 1941, after two active years on Broadway, Saroyan traveled to Hollywood to work on the film version of The Human Comedy for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. When the scenario was completed, it was made into a successful motion picture. From the beginning of his career, Saroyan had committed himself to celebrating the brotherhood of man, and in The Human Comedy he preached a familiar sermon: love one another, or you shall perish. This portrayal of love's power in small-town America offered consolation to millions ravaged by the suffering and death brought on by World War II.
Saroyan went on to publish four novels between 1951 and 1964: Rock Wagram, The Laughing Matter, Boys and Girls Together, and One Day in the Afternoon of the World. Each novel explores in fictional form the troubled years of Saroyan's own marriage to Carol Marcus and that marriage's aftermath. These thinly disguised transcriptions of Saroyan's own life might be termed the "fatherhood novels," for they are linked thematically through the author's concern with founding a family. Each Armenian-American protagonist in these novels is searching for—or has already found—a wife and children, his emblems of human community. Edward Krickel, in a Georgia Review article, correctly pointed out that sex and love in Saroyan's novels are not ends in themselves, but rather "lead to family and the honorable roles of parent and grandparent, in short the traditional view. Children are the glory of the relationship." In the novels, as in the plays and short stories, the family symbolizes the family of humanity in microcosm and localizes the desire for universal brotherhood that had always marked Saroyan's vision. The Webster family in The Beautiful People, the Macauleys in The Human Comedy, the Alexanders in My Heart's in the Highlands, and the Garoghlanians in My Name Is Aram all were his imaginary families before he sought to become a father himself and realize his dreams.
During the 1930s and 1940s Saroyan reached the peak of his fame; by the mid-1950s his reputation had declined substantially. Many critics have dismissed him for not being what they wanted him to be, rather than considering the writer's virtues and faults on his own terms. Saroyan was aware early in his career that he was being neglected, as is apparent from his reaction in Razzle-Dazzle to the critical reception of the plays: "As it happened first with my short stories, my plays appeared so suddenly and continued to come so swiftly that no one was quite prepared to fully meet and appreciate them, so that so far neither the short stories nor the plays have found critical understanding worthy of them. If the critics have failed, I have not. I have both written and criticized my plays, and so far the importance I have given them, as they have appeared, has been supported by theatrical history. If the critics have not yet agreed with me on the value of my work, it is still to be proved that I am not the writer I say I am. I shall some day startle those who now regard me as nothing more than a show-off, but I shall not startle myself." What he said of his short stories and plays proved to be true of the novels and autobiographical writings as well.
Peter Collier, writing in the New York Times Book Review, attributed the critical devaluation of Saroyan's work to the fact that "the generation of academic criticshad now come to power who were overseeing the development of the kind of dense, cerebral literature which justified their profession." Saroyan's often flippant and antiacademic tone was not calculated to endear him to the professors. Another complaint commonly voiced by critics was Saroyan's tendency toward "escapism." Philip Rahv found Saroyan's role as lover of mankind irritating; in the American Mercury Rahv wrote that in The Human Comedy Saroyan insisted "evil is unreal," although the world was obviously mired in pain and tragedy. Linked to this charge of escapism was Saroy-an's nonpolitical stance; he supported no 'ism' and was therefore accused of lacking a social conscience. This attitude put him out of favor with the proletarian writers of the 1930s who were eager to enlist him in their cause. Although Saroyan always affirmed the brotherhood of man, he recognized no authorities, no leaders, no programs to save the world.
Among the negative comments about Saroyan's works is the charge that he was a simple-minded, sentimental romantic whose naive optimism did not reflect the terrible realities of the age. However, the angst of the twentieth century pervades his work; his brooding depression appears not only in the later books but also in an early play, The Time of Your Life. Saroyan's lonely and pathetic characters sense the oncoming fury of World War II, and the knowledge that life is poised at the rim of disaster haunts their dialogue. Commentators have almost completely ignored this darker, despairing existential side of Saroyan's work.
Though the alienation and melancholy that characterize much of Saroyan's work are typical of twentieth-century literature, the feeling of rootlessness that pervades his imagination finds an important source in his Armenian heritage. In 1896, twelve years before Saroyan's birth, 200,000 Armenians were massacred by the Turks. In 1915, the Turks deported the Armenian population of 2,500,000 to Syria and Mesopotamia; more than a million and a half Armenians were killed during this process. The Armenian migration began in earnest; of those who escaped deportation, many fled to Russia and the United States. Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan were among the thousands who came to America during the first wave of the massacres. William, the only one of their four children to be born in America, was born in Fresno, California.
In California's San Joaquin Valley, Saroyan's parents found a region similar to their native land. Although Armenians would establish communities in other parts of America, California attracted the greatest number because it was the ideal region for a predominantly agricultural people. Although California seemed idyllic, the racial conflicts that had driven the Armenians to their newfound land continued. In the autobiographical Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who, Saroyan remarked: "The Armenians were considered inferior, they were pushed around, they were hated, and I was an Armenian. I refused to forget it then, and I refuse to forget it now, but not because being an Armenian had, or has, any particular significance." Because the Armenians were not really absorbed into American life, isolated within their own communities, it is no accident that Saroyan's work conveys a powerful sense of not being at home in the world.
If the Armenian people were symbolically homeless in their American exile, Saroyan himself, after the age of three, was literally homeless. The death of his father in 1911 surely contributed to his lifelong obsession with death and estrangement. Saroyan's mother was forced to place him in an orphanage, and it is evident from his autobiographical writings that his childhood was often profoundly unhappy. Midway through his career, Saroyan wondered, as he says in Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who: "Well, first of all, just where was my home? Was it in Fresno, where I was born? Was it in San Jose, where my father died? Was it in Oakland, where I spent four very important years?… Home was in myself, and I wasn't there, that's all … I was far from home." The poverty of his early life drove him to literature, and to the quest for meaning: "I took to writing at an early age to escape from meaninglessness, uselessness, unimportance, insignificance, poverty, enslavement, ill health, despair, madness, and all manner of other unattractive, natural, and inevitable things. I have managed to conceal my madness fairly effectively," he wrote in Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who.
Saroyan returned obsessively throughout his career to the theme of "madness," to a consideration of the possible reasons for his sorrow and psychic dislocation. He revealed a kind of "race-melancholy" underlying the Armenian temperament. In the late story "The Assyrian," he explored the dark side of his sensibility under the guise of an Assyrian hero, Paul Scott: "The longer he'd lived, the more he'd become acquainted with the Assyrian side, the old side, the tired side, the impatient and wise side, the side he had never suspected existed in himself until he was thirteen and had begun to be a man." Another foreign alter ego, the Arab in The Time of Your Life, repeats to himself: "No foundation. All the way down the line"—at once expressing the pain of the exile and Saroyan's own sense of disorder and spiritual emptiness.
Saroyan also identified this madness with illness, which was, he declared in The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, "an event of the soul more than of the body." He asserted in the same volume, "I have been more or less ill all my life," a statement remarkable for both its extremism and its honesty. In Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, a late memoir, he drew together various aspects of his own self-analysis in reexamining the past: "Most of the time illnesses of one sort or another came to me regularly, all the year round. I can't believe it is all from the sorrow in my nature, in my family, in my race, but I know some of it is." Saroyan was thus aware that his psychology derived from his Armenian heritage, the effects of his family life, and some quality inherent in his own personality.
If Saroyan was not at home in the world as it was, he was very much at home in his own imaginative recreation of it in his work. There may not be "real" homes and families like the one depicted in Saroyan's play The Beautiful People, but that is beside the point. As Wallace Stevens pointed out, the artist must create nobility, must press back against the world's chaos to create a livable sphere of existence. For Saroyan, art was a way toward health, toward reconciliation, toward psychic regeneration. He observed in the preface to Don't Go away Mad, and Two Other Plays that he needed to write "because I hate to believe I'm sick or half-dead; because I want to get better; because writing is my therapy."
Deeply aware of the fragmentation and spiritual anarchy of life in the modern world, Saroyan exhibited a driving impulse toward joy, self-realization, and psychic integration. In the introduction to Three Plays he remarked that "the imperative requirement of our time is to restore faith to the mass and integrity to the individual. The integration of man is still far from realized. In a single age this integration can be immeasurably improved, but it is impossible and useless to seek to imagine its full achievement. Integration will begin to occur when the individual is uninhibited, impersonal, simultaneously natural and cultured, without hate, without fear, and rich in spiritual grace." Saroyan's work, then, records the attempt to integrate the divided self.
Following the final dissolution of his marriage in 1952 Saroyan turned increasingly to the exploration of his past through a series of autobiographies, memoirs, and journals. Although he continued to publish plays and fiction, autobiography became his main form of self-expression. This impulse reflected a shift in emphasis from art to life, from "doing" to "being," from the creation of works to the creation of self. Saroyan sought in memory a key to his identity, a meaningful pattern underlying the chaos of experience. In The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, he wrote: "I want to think about the things I may have forgotten. I want to have a go at them because I have an idea they will help make known how I became who I am." Like Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, and Henry Miller, Saroyan obsessively focused on his own responses, emotions, and experiences in search of the psychological matrices of his behavior and personality. The writings of his final phase, however, are not only an important source of biographical insights—they also represent some of his best prose.
There is in these last writings a vibrant joy, a deep pleasure taken in small details of daily living. Saroyan buys cheap second-hand books in a Paris shop, brings home basil plants to his apartment, delights in solitude and reading. He writes of casual long walks, visits to libraries, meetings with dear friends. Musing over the strange disjunctions of a long life, he remembers many people: family, writers, former teachers, childhood comrades.
Saroyan's search in these last years was the search of his youth. His continuing antipathy toward authority, repression, and the fettering of the human spirit made him an influence on writers of the Beat Generation, who responded to his innovative, hip, casual, jazzy voice. Beginning his career in San Francisco, meeting ground of the spiritual East and expansive West, Saroyan wrote of beautiful people and preached love not war; he had been a flower-child of the 1930s. It is thus no accident that he was a literary godfather to such writers as Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger.
In his last work published during his lifetime, Obituaries, Saroyan wrote: "My work is writing, but my real work is being." Essentially a collection of monologues, Obituaries consists of writings produced at the same time every day for a period of one month. A companion volume, Births, published posthumously in 1983, likewise contains Saroyan's musings on the subject of births, musings that he produced in half-hour sessions every day for a month.
In Rahv's conception, Saroyan was a literary "redskin." As Stephen Gould Axelrod explained in Robert Lowell: Life and Art, Rahv believed that "American literature composes itself into a debate between 'palefaces' and 'redskins.' The 'palefaces' (Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Allen Tate would belong to this part) produce a patrician art which is intellectual, symbolic, cosmopolitan, disciplined, cultured. The 'redskins' (Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams would tend to belong here) produce a plebian art which is emotional, naturalistic, nativist, energetic, in some sense uncultured…. All such formulations attest to a basic bifurcation [or, rift] in American literature between writers who experience primarily with the head and those who experience primarily with the blood." Saroyan wanted to feel the world directly, intuitively—like D.H. Lawrence, "with the blood." Saroyan's work is thus a great deal more complex than many commentators have acknowledged. His writing is a blend of the affirmative, mystical, and rambunctious qualities of the American romantic sensibility and of the profound sadness that finds its source in the tragic history of the Armenian people. On the one hand, Saroyan was thoroughly American in his persistent expansiveness, verve and spontaneity. Yet he was also the Armenian grieving for his lost homeland, speaking for those lost in an alien culture.
Precisely this sense of man's essential aloneness links Saroyan's work directly to the main currents of modern philosophical thought and to the major modernist writers; he has acknowledged his deep love for the work of both Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. One of the few observers to have discerned this important aspect of Saroyan's work was Edward Hoagland, who, in the Chicago Tribune Book World essay, called Saroyan "brother at once to Thomas Mann and to [Samuel Beckett.]" The existential strain was noted by Thelma Shinn, who remarked in Modern Drama that his work may be seen as the record of the search for meaning within the self. The difficulty of this quest for true meaning was also emphasized by William Fisher, who argued in College English that in mid-career Saroyan's "novels and plays became strange battlegrounds where belief struggled with skepticism." These articles are among the few devoted to a serious consideration of Saroyan's place in modern literature.
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