Saroyan, Aram 1943-
Saroyan, Aram 1943-
Born September 25, 1943, in New York, NY; son of William Saroyan (a writer) and Carol Matthau; married Gailyn McClanahan (a painter), October 9, 1968; children: Strawberry Cara, Cream, Armenak. Education: Attended University of Chicago, New York University, and Columbia University.
Poet, novelist, biographer, essayist, playwright, educator, and publisher. Lines magazine, New York, NY, publisher and founding editor, 1964-65, Lines (publishing house), New York, NY, and Cambridge, MA, publisher and editor, 1964-67; Telegraph Books, Cambridge, MA, editor, 1971-72; University of California, Los Angeles, extension, faculty member, 1988-94; University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Masters of Professional Writing Program, lecturer, beginning 1996. Public speaker.
Two National Endowment for the Arts awards for poetry, including one for "lighght"; California Arts Council grant for Genesis Angels; Los Angeles Times Book Review Critics' Choice selection for The Romantic; William Carlos Williams Prize, Poetry Society of America, for Complete Minimal Poems.
(With Jenni Caldwell and Richard Kolmar) Poems (also see below), Acadia (New York, NY), 1963.
In, Bear Press (LaGrande, OR), 1965.
Top, Lines (New York, NY), 1965.
Works, Lines (New York, NY), 1966.
Sled Hill Voices, Goliard Press (London, England), 1966.
Aram Saroyan, Lines (Cambridge, MA), 1967.
Coffee Coffee, 0 to 9 (New York, NY), 1967, reprinted, Primary Information (New York, NY), 2007.
@ 1968, Kulchur (New York, NY), 1968.
Aram Saroyan, Random House (New York, NY), 1968.
Pages, Random House (New York, NY), 1969.
Words and Photographs, Big Table Publishing (Chicago, IL), 1970.
The Beatles, Barn Dream Press (Cambridge, MA), 1970, published as A Christmas Greeting for Friends of the Publisher and the Poet, Granary Press, 2000.
Cloth: An Electric Novel, Big Table (Chicago, IL), 1971.
5 Mini-Books, privately printed, 1971.
The Rest, Telegraph Books (New York, NY), 1971, reprinted, Blackberry Books (Bolinas, CA), 1986.
Poems, Telegraph Books (Yeadon, PA), 1972.
(With Victor Bockris) Six Little Poems, Unicorn Books, (Brighton, England), 1972.
(With Victor Bockris) By Air Mail, Strange Faeces (London, England), 1972.
(With Andrei Codrescu) San Francisco, privately printed, 1972.
The Bolinas Books, Other (Lancaster, MA), 1974.
O My Generation, and Other Poems, Blackberry Books (Bolinas, CA), 1976.
Open Field Suite, Backwoods Broadslides (Ellsworth, ME), 1998.
Day and Night: Bolinas Poems, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Rosa, CA), 1998.
Complete Minimal Poems (includes Aram Saroyan, Pages, and The Rest), Ugly Duckling Presse (Brooklyn, NY), 2007.
The Street: An Autobiographical Novel, Bookstore Press (Lenox, MA), 1974.
Marijuana and Me, Bolinas (Bolinas, CA), 1974
Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation, Morrow (New York, NY), 1979.
Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan, Morrow (New York, NY), 1982.
William Saroyan (illustrated literary biography), Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1983.
Trio: Carol Matthau, Oona Chaplin, Gloria Vanderbilt: Portrait of an Intimate Friendship, Linden Press/Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1985.
(Editor and author of afterword) Archie Minasian, Selected Poems, Ashod Press (New York, NY), 1986.
The Romantic (novel), McGraw (New York, NY), 1988.
Friends in the World: The Education of a Writer (memoir), Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1992.
Rancho Mirage: An American Tragedy of Manners, Madness, and Murder (true crime), Barricade Books (New York, NY), 1993.
(Editor) Ted Berrigan, Selected Poems, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Artists in Trouble: New Stories, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Rosa, CA), 2001.
Starting Out in the Sixties: Selected Essays, Talisman House (Jersey City, NJ), 2001.
At the Beach House (two-act play), produced in Los Angeles, CA, 2005.
Also author of plays Pollen Count; Landslide; Hollywood Night; The Laws of Light: Pasternak, Akhmatova, and the Mandelstams under Stalin; The Evening Hour; Artie Shaw Talking (solo performance piece); and A Tender Mind: The Life and Times of Lew Welch, Beat Poet (solo performance piece). Author and narrator of documentary film The Moment, director by George Sandoval, 2001. Contributor of poetry and prose to New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Times Book Review, Village Voice, Nation, Los Angeles
Times, Rolling Stone, Paris Review, and Poetry, as well as to online periodicals, including JacketMagazine.com. Works featured on Web sites and included in numerous anthologies.
Author's papers are housed at University of California, Los Angeles; University of Connecticut, Storrs; Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University; New York University; and Fresno, CA, County Library.
The Street was adapted by Noam J. Christopher as a short film in 1994 and as a feature film in 2003.
The son of Armenian-American playwright William Saroyan, Aram Saroyan has received both critical acclaim and censure for his minimalist poetry and his nonfiction writings about his famous parents. A poet, novelist, biographer, memoir- ist and playwright, Saroyan has published in a variety of genres, and his works include the poetry collections Aram Saroyan and Day and Night: Bolinas Poems, as well as the novel The Romantic, nonfiction titles Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation and Rancho Mirage: An American Tragedy of Manners, Madness and Murder, and the memoir Friends in the World: The Education of a Writer. His works Last Rites and Trio: Carol Matthau, Oona Chaplin, Gloria Vanderbilt: Portrait of an Intimate Friendship reveal the personal terrain Saroyan has traversed over the course of life, both as the son of a well-known author and a friend and relative of many celebrities.
Saroyan's early verse is frequently compared to the work of Robert Creeley, an American poet whom Saroyan counts as one of his early influences. Published in Poetry and Paris Review, these lean and direct statement poems express their meaning in only a few words. His study of photography in adolescence as a student/apprentice to well-known photographers Richard Avedon and Hiro may have helped to spur Saroyan's engagement with the visual aspect of words, moving his work toward the form known as concrete poetry. During the 1960s, fellow poet Ted Berrigan encouraged the young Saroyan to stretch this experimentation with language, a period during which Saroyan periodically utilized marijuana while writing. In volumes such as Works, Aram Saroyan, and Pages, his minimalist poems become fully concrete, self-consciously reflecting their subject through the visual effects of the words and letters on the page. Saroyan's oeuvre during this phase is represented in the 2007 retrospective collection Complete Minimalist Poems, a widely reviewed work which a Publishers Weekly contributor praised for emanating a "subtle beauty."
In the fall of 1965, Saroyan produced one of the briefest and most controversial poems of his career: "lighght." Described by Poetry Foundation Web site essayist Ian Daly as "something you see rather than read," as "a kind of photograph," the poem captured the imagination of the literary community. Selected by Robert Duncan for publication in the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) anthology The American Literary Anthology, the poem earned Saroyan the standard cash award of $500. However, the work was perceived by some members of Congress as a misuse of public funds and became a talking point of congressional efforts to cut the NEA budget. In 1981 Saroyan published an essay/memoir about the poem in Mother Jones titled "The Most Expensive Word in History." His title was intended as a reflection not on the dollar amount of the award, but on the millions of dollars cut from the NEA budget as a result of the firestorm that followed the NEA award. According to Daly, the controversy resulted in an NEA shakeup as well as a battle between government and the arts that is still ongoing.
In addition to unintentionally stirring up a nationwide conflict, Saroyan's approach to his work as a writer caused problems with his famous father, although for different reasons. The elder Saroyan disapproved of his son's sometime use of marijuana as part of the creative process during the Sixties. Another parental concern came in the form of emotional imperatives to build a stable marriage and family life, things which had eluded the elder Saroyan. Sharing his father's values in this regard, Saroyan eventually stopped writing poetry for several years in order to devote attention to building a relationship with his future wife. Turning to prose in the 1970s, he penned biographies and memoirs through which he evaluates his evolving perceptions about both himself and others.
While focusing primarily on his father in Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan and William Saroyan, Saroyan also reveals facets of a sometimes troubled past. While William Saroyan suffered as a result of his Armenian heritage, Aram Saroyan was scarred by his parents' early divorce and his subsequent separation from his father. Sometimes defensive of the elder writer, critics have sometimes taken issue with these books for exposing the elder Saroyan's least-admirable traits. Reviewing Last Rites, Anatole Broyard pointed out in the New York Times: "We have only the son's word for this version, and before I was very deep in the book I began to wish I could hear the father's side, too." On the other hand, Los Angeles Times contributor Carolyn See found William Saroyan "at once so marvelously fascinating you can't put it down, and so unbearably painful you can't hold it in your hands." What it reveals about both authors, See concluded, "ends up shedding light on others as well."
In Trio, Saroyan turns to his mother, Carol Matthau, and recounts her experiences with heiress Gloria Vanderbilt and Oona O'Neill Chaplin, wife of film star Charlie Chaplin. The nonfiction work includes figures such as writer Truman Capote and Oona's famous ac- tor husband, who returned from exile in 1972 to receive a special Academy Award. He also examines the works of a writer he counts alongside Creeley as another early influence in Genesis Angels. Although his intent was to celebrate the experiences of the Beat generation, because Saroyan chronicles the suicides of several Beat artists in Genesis Angels—including Welch's disappearance into the desert with a loaded gun—he struggled through three revisions of the ending of the book, which was published in 1979.
Saroyan again turns to the past to write Friends in the World and Starting Out in the Sixties: Selected Essays. Described by a Publishers Weekly reviewer as a "brief, affectionate memoir" that "reads less like a narrative than a collection of essays," Friends in the World finds Saroyan sharing his impressions of friends, mentors, and fellow poets such as Berrigan and Allen Ginsberg. He also discusses his own life and writings, providing "a thoughtful self-depiction of a budding writer of the Sixties," as Kenneth Mintz wrote in Library Journal. Despite its title, Starting Out in the Sixties covers a broader range of topics than Friends in the World. Although, as a Publishers Weekly critic noted, the "essays are tinged with a sweet idealism redolent of the '60s," Saroyan's writings cover events as far from that decade as the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the presidency and legacy of William Jefferson Clinton.
Saryoan's first prose book was The Street: An Autobiographical Novel, published in 1974, and in 1988 he published a second novel, The Romantic, described as "a brief, elegant study in self-reflection" that at times "resembles a minimalist, hip Harlequin novel for men," according to Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Stuart Schoffman. Saroyan's protagonist, James, is a family man and screenwriter whose adulterous behavior he "experiences in a state of permanent apology," according to Schoffman. Fulfilling the intent stated in the title, the narrator of The Romantic confesses and is forgiven by his wife, then embraces the routines of family life, if for no other reason than his knowledge that children are the world's future. He realizes, too, said Schoffman, "that his solutions, however sublime, are only the next round of romantic panacea, just as trite and transitory as the celebrities and brand names with which this book of modern problems is peppered. But the answers will do for now, maybe for always."
In stark contrast to the portrait of a cohesive American family presented in The Romantic, Rancho Mirage
recounts the true story of Andrea Mims. A former prostitute, Mims married an older, physically challenged businessman and was ultimately convicted of his murder. For her part, Mims claimed that she was raped dozens of times in the two years following her husband's murder, part of a history of continual victimization by men. In Saroyan's account, readers see a woman who suffered from a personality disorder in addition to several other psychological problems. His "profile of [this] complex personality … will keep readers spellbound," predicted a Publishers Weekly contributor in a review of Rancho Mirage. In Booklist, Alice Joyce echoed this praise, calling Saroyan's true-crime account "riveting," and "not for the faint of heart."
Artist in Trouble encompasses two novellas—"Love Scenes" and "My Literary Life"—as well as thirteen short stories, showcasing Saroyan's success with the shorter fictional format. As Jonathan Kirsch wrote in his review of the collection for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, although the "short story seems to be often the last refuge for the writer with nothing much to say," "the stories in Artists in Trouble, by contrast, contain a measure of candor that is both breathtaking and, at moments heartbreaking." In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer praised the book's "humor and aplomb," noting that while "Hollywood … has certainly been skewered by some talented writers, … Saroyan's probing, funny glimpse into that unique universe can stand with the best of them."
In addition to short fiction, Saroyan has also turned to writing for the stage, admitting that until he reached his fifties he was daunted by his father's famous achievements. His play At the Beach House, a character study that featured actor Orson Bean in the role of the head of a dysfunctional Hollywood family, was produced in Los Angeles in 2005.
Saroyan contributed the following autobiographical essay to Contemporary Authors in 1987:
The first thing I ever wrote that wasn't at someone else's bidding, but rather because the sound and sense had come to me and I thought it might be worth preserving, was this:
The whistle of the wind
and the crinkle of the trees
made everything sound
like the birds and the bees.
I was ten years old and had my own room in the ranch house in Pacific Palisades, California, that had been a part of the second divorce settlement between my mother and my father. I lived with my mother and my younger sister, Lucy. My father had a house on stilts on Malibu Beach and we saw him frequently, but not enough to satisfy my craving for a father's companionship, support, and instruction.
I was in the Little League, where I played outfield and, at least once, pitched. In addition to this supervised play, our neighborhood was full of other boys around my age and it was easy to find adventure or a game or practice most any time. I remember losing my timing for hitting pop flies for fielding practice after I seemingly had mastered this skill. It was around this time too—I was now almost twelve—that my mother moved my sister and me to New York City.
New York was as different from Pacific Palisades as anything I could imagine. On one of our first evenings in the city, Al and Dolly Hirschfeld (the caricaturist and his actress wife) drove my mother and Lucy and me through Times Square and I was dazzled by the
variety and magnitude of the neon lights. It seemed like some great man-made wonder, the Great White Way, as indeed it is.
But the change from suburbia to Manhattan was anything but smooth. In effect, my childhood turned into the equivalent of the old-fashioned "double feature," with the individual movies having even less in common than they usually did. That I was a preteen added to the malaise. At the same time, there were bonuses.
At Robert F. Wagner Junior High School, I fell in with a group of fast-talking, witty, and good-natured classmates: Jimmy Peck, Jimmy Fingeroth, Jay Feinberg, and Matthew Zukerman. For a year or so, I became a clown. J also encountered a teacher, Herb Greenhut, who introduced me to photography, which became my first overriding interest. At the East Eighty-sixth Street RKO and Loew's movie theaters I saw, among other movies, The Benny Goodman Story (my friend Jimmy Peck was an avid collector of Benny Goodman records), and Rebel without a Cause. Greatest of all, my mother managed to get me into a sixth- row center seat at the Winter Garden Theatre for a performance of Damn Yankees, starring Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston.
My mother's friend Gloria Vanderbilt and her then husband, Sidney Lumet, had an annual Christmas Day party and it was at one of these—in the Lumets' Gracie Square penthouse—that I met Richard Avedon, who, when I eventually asked him if there was anything I could do to help out at his Manhattan photography studio, hired me as an apprentice. I worked after school, and my immediate boss was Avedon's young assistant, only recently emigrated from Japan, Hiro Wakabayashi, later the renowned photographer Hiro.
This taciturn young man, already possessed of a portfolio of unmistakable distinction, became a friend and mentor. In the darkroom, waiting for film to develop in the dim glow of the red light bulb, we discussed everything from photography to my school pals. I realize now how much I must have monopolized the conversation. Yet Hiro may have allowed this only because to him I represented a sort of instant composite of American manners and mores, which he could study, as it were, at first hand. I remember one stormy winter weekend we agreed to meet at my mother's apartment on East Ninety-third Street near the corner of Madison Avenue and from there go to photograph the snow in Central Park.
But the snow proved unexpectedly heavy, and Hiro, a hundred blocks south in his Village apartment, told me over the phone it looked like he wouldn't be able to make it uptown that day. I was disappointed, but from our apartment window the snow looked like it had brought the city to a virtual standstill. I spent the day inside, trying, I imagine, to avoid coming to terms with my heavy homework assignments from Trinity, where I had started high school. Then in the late afternoon, the buzzer rang and it turned out to be Hiro. What a friend! And what a liberation from the dire straits of Latin, Science, Algebra, et al.
It all caught up with me in June. I flunked the ninth grade, and the following fall was sent to make up the year at Trinity Pawling boarding school in Pawling, New York. I was fifteen years old and poorly prepared to be on my own among a school full of boys and masters. Boarding school proved to be the familiar nightmare, a long, deeply unnerving encounter with
my own character as mirrored by my classmates. After losing a fistfight because I was afraid to use my fists, I was driven to a kind of sickly introspection.
Even so, I earned good grades in my make-up year at Pawling, and the following year I was back at Trinity in Manhattan. In the interim, photography had fallen away as my primary interest, to be eventually replaced by poetry. I also did a successful turn in a school production of You Can't Take It with You, and this had me wondering, momentarily, whether acting might be my path. During the summer of 1959, my mother had married Walter Matthau, then a successful Broadway actor, and Walter was a steadying presence through my adolescence without ever encroaching on my father's place.
The summer I was sixteen, in my first attempt at "going all the way," I got befuddled and, instead of trying again the next day (we were trying during the afternoon when my girlfriend's mother was at work), I took it as a sign and retired. I went back to my room in my mother and stepfather's new apartment on West End Avenue with the idea of discovering who I was. Once again, I'd known a loss of generic timing, as it were: first for hitting pop flies, then for throwing a punch, now for making love. In adolescence, the answer seemed to lie in a conscious retreat during which one could shore up the self.
It was at this time that poetry became a factor. Poetry, after all, was said to contain the deepest truth about man and I may have thought, pragmatically, why not look there? As it happened, I could scarcely have looked at a moment of more extraordinary ferment: the late fifties and early sixties. Reading Howl, and equally, Allen Ginsberg's early poems collected in Empty Mirror, was a major event in my life. It was as if an interior membrane suddenly broke inside me and I discovered my own deeper reality. The line between poetry and life itself effectively disappeared: this writing was simply the deepest expression I knew of the common humanity each of us shared, even in alienation.
In the poetry of Robert Creeley, which I found in an early small-press edition one evening in the Eighth Street Bookstore, I encountered such a spare and, at first glance, relentlessly "unpoetic" vision that I bought the book that night on the instinct that work so wanting in the externals I associated with poetry must contain a secret. I kept the book, A Form of Women (Jargon Press), in my room for the rest of my high-school years. And indeed, the poet's terse, "New England" style gradually yielded up a world—of men and women, marriage and children.
I'm speaking of finding, in essence, a window on the world that had eluded my father, as much as he had emphasized to me its importance. The fact that Creeley wasn't, at least stylistically, a "romantic," but more careful, and at times even contorted in carving out his statement, only further validated him for me. For my father himself, a freewheeling improvisatory prose stylist and playwright—one of the first influences on Kerouac, as it happens—had somehow failed in his own life to make the connection with wife and family that he himself held most important.
I'm speaking, then, of looking from my father to another writer, of a distinctly different style, as a
model. Implicit here is an equation of style and substance, an underlying assumption that life and literature are in a continuum and that one's way in one is related and perhaps critical to one's way in the other. Today, it seems to me that this fundamental assumption was one my father himself had made in his work, as indeed Kerouac had ("Write as you would live," he says somewhere), as much as had Creeley. But I took Creeley for my model because he seemed more self-conscious, more analytical, about it. Above all, his work was different enough from my father's, and its family reference pronounced enough, to promise me a passage into the life I wanted for myself, as my father had wanted it.
During my last years of high school I sometimes went walking through the streets of the pre-gentrified Upper West Side, and these walks had a way of filling me up. The little children, the sidewalk chalk drawings, the hopscotch games, the radios blaring, the men and women out on their stoops, and the afternoon sunlight touching it all—if I could take the feeling of it home, I thought, I could write a poem. Over a period of months, working with this experience, I arrived at my first high-school poem, which was printed in Trinity's literary magazine, Analysis, which I edited:
somebody drew with chalk
on the sidewalk
with strange teeth
showing in her mouth
with her dress on loose
and amazing hair
drew on the sidewalk
as small as your hand.
This poem pleased my father, among others, and is still among the poems of mine most likely to elicit a favorable comment. Yet today the chief interest of the poem for me is the fact that I was almost immediately suspicious of it. Steeped in the personal candor of the new American poetry; and the Beat Generation in particular, this poem's "romantic" slant seemed a sort of too-perfect cul-de-sac. I might be able to match its pleasing effect once or twice again, but where could I go from there? Hence, although it's in my collection of early work, it wasn't until several years later that I felt I made my genuine beginning as a poet.
It was the summer I was nineteen, the summer of 1963. I had dropped out of the University of Chicago and for the moment was living again in my mother and stepfather's apartment on West End Avenue. It was some time after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Freedom March on Washington, DC, which I'd participated in with a couple of New York friends, riding one of the chartered buses down and back the same day. The apartment was for the moment empty, my mother and Walter out of town. On an impulse one afternoon, I went to my stepfather's desk in the corner of the living room and, writing in hand, composed three or four poems in succession. The first of these set the tone for the others:
I have spent a year mostly alone.
Walking a lot.
With a poetic attachment
To street drawings.
Staring at concrete.
And going over my life.
And sitting in my room.
Working. Practicing the
The year has been good.
With long thoughts.
Care to myself.
This poem and the others that followed were written out of what seemed in me, just then, an unusually calm and contained center of self. As I went along, each word arriving, as it were, just in time for me to write it, I needed neither to hurry up or slow down, but only to keep to my own natural pace. Hence, writing the poem was in itself a satisfying, validating experience. At the same time, an interior critic warned me not to melodramatize my life. I wasn't, after all, Allen Ginsberg—only Allen Ginsberg was.
Less than a year later this poem and five others appeared in Poetry magazine, along with my review of Creeley's novel The Island, and this constituted my debut as a writer. Coincidentally, it was during the spring of 1964, when the issue of Poetry containing my poems and the review appeared, that I first began to encounter the poets of the New York School, and most importantly among them, Ted Berrigan.
I had up to this time been chiefly influenced by Creeley and other Black Mountain poets. The New York School poetry of Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara I tended to distrust for its romanticism. Ted Berrigan, however, changed all that, and his presence in New York was an important factor in enlarging my idea of what to write, and how to write.
Today, in the eighties, the work Berrigan did and the influence he exerted during the sixties, and, in fact to the end of his life (at age forty-eight in 1983) has still not been properly recognized. We are in a period of
conservatism, in poetry, as well as in politics, that harks back to the days of the New Criticism during the Eisenhower era. On a practical level, what this seems to mean is that poetry has receded significantly in public consciousness. I had my arguments with Ted and others of my peers in the New York School, but it seems a shame and a waste that their work is less known and honored than the more remote, but not more accomplished or genuine work of so many others. In over two decades as a writer, I've learned that the truly gifted in any generation aren't very many in number. Ted Berrigan, I would venture, was among the two or three most gifted poets of his generation, and the anthologies have yet to bear that out.
How did my work change in Ted's sphere of influence? I started playing, experimenting, being more willing to fall on my face for the sake of learning something; I began, I think, to be less tortured and to have a better time. Simultaneously, as the sixties went into gear, I started to use marijuana as a part of the process of composition and continued to work with it, off and on, for about two years. Everything got much closer up. Suddenly a single word had a resonance, not only inside a line or stanza, but all by itself:
This one-word poem, written one night in my new apartment on West Eighty-fifth Street during the fall of 1965, and subsequently the subject of two decades of government debate and censure from the Oval Office to the halls of Congress, was and is, to me, simply an expression of the stop-time sensibility of the sixties. The light expanded—an extra, silent diphthong came into it as it were—while we all for the moment forgot what time it was. Andy Warhol attested to this by putting Elizabeth Taylor's identical portrait in eight places in the same work. Donald Judd attested to it with his identical metal boxes, all in a row against a wall. In writing, however, it was an affront, at least after Robert Duncan chose the poem for a National Endowment for the Arts poetry award (for 1967) of $500.
By the time of the first wave of controversy regarding this poem, I had met my future wife, Gailyn McClanahan, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had for all intents and purposes stopped writing poetry altogether. In one sense this was only the logical extension of the minimalist work I'd been doing. On another level, it involved a recognition that my previous work represented a period of being alone and that whatever followed now would be changed by the fact of my no longer being alone. My father's work seemed to have foundered when he attempted marriage and a family, and no doubt that knowledge, too, played its part in my putting my writing aside. In the end, it was more important to me that my life work out than that my writing continue. In a certain sense, as my father's son, this was a critical issue.
Gailyn and I became a couple, and then, a year and a half later, got married. Two years after that, our first child, Strawberry Cara, was born in October, 1970, in Stoneham, Massachusetts. (We were living in Marblehead, but the hospital was in Stoneham.) Having a family, of course, changes one's life irrevocably and, for the first time, the issue of employment for me loomed precipitously.
The following year, back in Cambridge again, I worked as a poet in the schools in the National Endowment for the Arts program. A year after that, by a circuitous route that involved a trip to London and a commission from BBC Radio to do a program on the burgeoning California poets' colony, we arrived in Bolinas, in Mann County, California, where we settled for the next twelve years. It was here that our two other children were born: Cream in November, 1973, and Armenak in October, 1976, both of them at home. It was here, too, within weeks of our arrival, that I began to write again, five years after I'd stopped.
I remember a poetry reading I gave in Bolinas on one of our first evenings there. It was at the town's Community Center and the audience wasn't a large one, no more than two dozen people. But among that number it seemed that half or more were friends and fellow poets whom I'd known for years, among them Tom Clark, Lewis MacAdams, Lewis Warsh, Larry Fagin, and Bill Berkson. As I read my old poems, I felt at the
center of an almost palpable emanation of affection and approval. I was now twenty-eight years old, married, and the father of a little daughter, and that night there were people in the room with whom, it seemed, I had found a place.
What seems to have happened to me the night of the reading is that the atmosphere of approval was so strong and heartening that, speaking in Freudian terms, my ego and superego effectively merged. It was as a result of this, I believe, that I began to write again—this time more fully and directly out of my own life. Another way of looking at it might be that it was now that my apprenticeship ended. Over the course of three days in the late summer of that year, 1972, I wrote a poem called "Lines for My Autobiography" that later appeared as a full-page poem in Rolling Stone. A few months later, I began The Street: An Autobiographical Novel, my first prose book.
I subsequently worked as a journalist for Rolling Stone and wrote reviews for the New York Times Book Review, the Nation, and the Village Voice, among other publications. During the years we were in Bolinas, I also published Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation, Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan, and William Saroyan.
In all of these books, an essential theme is the position of the writer in American society, a position I'd been exploring myself now for some time, in addition to observing it firsthand in my father's career as well as the careers of other writers, both elders and peers. It is, I think, an extremely perilous position, and it seems to engender two broad strategies of response. The first might be exemplified by, say Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer, and the second, perhaps, by Emily Dickinson or Eugene O'Neill.
At the same time, in a figure like Kerouac one seems to see both tendencies—speaking broadly, both the extrovert and the introvert—at once: a burgeoning Hemingway figure periodically retreating to Emily Dickinson's attic. In my father's career, too, both tendencies are apparent, this time divided between the exuberant first half of his career and the more brooding, contemplative second half.
Curiously, this split in and of itself is a theme I find repeated over and over again in the work of contemporary American artists from Edward Albee to Martin Scorsese. For example, in Albee's breakthrough work, the two-character one-act play The Zoo Story, the wild, anarchic Jerry forces the conservative, orderly, and sedate Peter to stab him with his own knife. One reading of this play might be that Jerry, the artist maudit figure, makes a conscious choice to submit himself to the discipline cultivated by his less-creative, but more-settled and self-protective interlocutor, Peter; that Albee is saying, in essence, that the artist must have both his wild and domesticated sides, his masculine and feminine sides, if you will, in some kind of balance and harmony in order to be a whole figure. In a way, the most telling commentary on the symbolic enactment of this theme in The Zoo Story is the fact that it was followed only a year or so later by Albee's three-act masterwork, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
An artist like the filmmaker Martin Scorsese, on the other hand, seems to restate the theme of The Zoo Story again and again without ever quite making up his mind
or heart about it. In Mean Streets the anarchic, wild brother played by Robert De Niro gets himself and his more cautious, practical-minded brother, played by Harvey Keitel, both killed. In Raging Bull, De Niro as Jake La Motta, having aged and put on sixty pounds, is seen delivering jokes at the microphone in his nightclub. Here is a figure who seems tamed more by time than by any conscious choice of his own.
Yet in a way the question has to do with time. After all, the young artist may need to allow his intuitive, overreaching side free reign in order to begin at all. But as he goes on, unless his other, survival-oriented, disciplined side begins to assert itself, he is likely to have a hard time developing and maturing. When I wrote the long poem "Lines for My Autobiography" and a few months later, my first novel, The Street, it was as if I was catching the last wave of my youth and, as it were, riding it out in these works.
Genesis Angels followed in the fall of 1977, three-and-a-half years after The Street, and after numerous other attempts at writing a second book. In the interim, I had, I think, gradually come to terms with myself as no longer a young man. Indeed, in the figure of Lew Welch I found someone who helped to shepherd me through this passage. Welch's humanity and candor about himself, as I encountered it in his writing and correspondence, as well as in tape-recorded conversations and interviews, reassured me about myself at this crossroads and taught me, I would say, something about how to let go, about how to melt a little. My book pays homage to the style of Beat writing as well as to the story of the Beat Generation, a fact that seemed to puzzle or elude certain critics. The first draft of the book, however, was a dry, academic rehearsal of the ideas that seemed important in the story. But only after I'd done this, and put it aside, was it possible to move into the real writing and a rather different story than the one I'd sketched out in the first draft. I remember the beautiful afternoon I started the book in Bolinas. I walked from our garden into the house with the color of the sky in my mind. Just this blue, I thought, as I sat down to write, and the first pages followed from there.
The hardest part of the book proved to be the last chapter, about the early deaths of Kerouac and Neal Cassady and the presumed suicide of Lew Welch (who disappeared with his gun into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in 1971). The book is primarily a celebration of art and friendship among the Beats and I found it hard to give the proper weight to this dark side of the story. In the last chapter, I had, as it were, come up against another threshold in myself. At my wife's prompting and with her support, I wrote it three times before we were satisfied.
Last Rites, written as a journal over a period of three weeks as my father was dying during the spring of 1981, proved to be a book about the dark side that had troubled me at the end of Genesis Angels. By the time I wrote it, I had in fact decided to work henceforth as a screenwriter, but the book literally burst from my hand before I had time to consider the career choice.
Now a word, if I may, about our American critics. Character assassination, as I discovered in the reviews of Genesis Angels, is not unknown to them. Interestingly enough, I'm speaking less of the critics and reviewers of the American provinces, whose response is often more measured and thoughtful, than of those in the New York media axis, where positively awful,
personal things may be said about a writer and no one will look sideways at the reviewer.
We might take the case of Jack Kerouac, for example, since Genesis Angels is in the nature of a stylistic tribute to Kerouac and in the reviews of my book I seemed to sniff out some residual resentment at its progenitor. Here was an ex-football star, the American hero in looks and deeds, as it were, who dared to have a sort of long, tender nervous breakdown in prose. He broke through his own American dream, so to speak, and told us of its dark underside: his doubts, his foibles and failures, his—to use a phrase of Robert Duncan's—"darker dearnesses."
The response of the critics to this writer who took such bold risks proved to be devastating. In fact, sometimes our professional corps of writer-critics seems to comprise a kind of palace guard around the hallowed ground of the American Dream. If an artist comes along who says he's been inside it and actually it's a little different than he'd expected, his father was disappointed, his mother got fat, his sister married an s.o.b., and he himself is feeling a little down and/or a little playful within the sanctions of his art, the elite print corps are likely to jump on him with phrases that reflect not on his work, but rather on the artist personally. Words like "immaturity" will be thrown around—words like "bathetic." A favorite word is likely to be "infantilism."
All this seems to me not so very different from the attacks of the literary henchmen of the Soviet Union in their denunciations of Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, and Anna Akhmatova. The terms are a little different—as are, crucially, the consequences of such attacks—but "decadence" seems a more or less fair trade for "infantilism." It also seems quite probable that the Stalinist henchmen half-believed their own critiques, as it's apparent many of America's writer-critics believe in the terms of their attacks. But we know that in Russia every one was caught up, or trampled down, in the myth of building socialism.
A more complicated question is what the operative American myth is. In my books about my father, I grappled with a figure whose public and private sides reflected a profound ambivalence. Here was a man whose deepest wound—his father's death and his own subsequent confinement in an orphanage from the age of three to the age of eight—had somehow given him an amazing strength of character. In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, the young man who had been an orphan wrote stories of such sweetness and high spirits that they helped to keep hope alive in an ailing nation, and catapulted the writer to the literary equivalent of a movie star.
My father had, in effect, known the psychological equivalent of the Great Depression at the time of his father's death and his confinement to the orphanage. How he survived that crisis became, in a sense, his lifelong message. To simplify but I hope not to falsify, he did it by deciding to survive, by discovering his own capacity to be strong, to keep on, to brace up, and get on with life.
In its personal way, this may be the American answer at large. To get here in the first place, there was most likely in all our families someone who had to put pain and sorrow behind him or her and move on, for life's sake. As a result, for some of us, a part of our unconscious inheritance may be a transmitted habit of neglecting a reckoning with the darker dimensions of our experience. No doubt, at the beginning, there was good reason for it. But this course has its own dangers and deprivations. In avoiding a coming to terms with pain that may seem too great to bear, it may be impossible not to dismiss at the same time one's vulnerability and openness to experience at large, not to dismiss, in effect, both pain and pleasure, since each seems to come through the same door.
My father was a man of great complexity, a man of genius, I think, who knew these dilemmas intuitively and tried to deal with them as best he could as long as he lived. Some of his finest moments in life are in the pages of his writing, where the struggle assumed proportions that perhaps made it more manageable. At the same time, he suffered profoundly for the very alchemy by which he transformed an early wound into a skin of steel, so to speak; and it was this transformation, too, I think, that lay at the bottom of the pain he inflicted on those who were closest to him.
While it may be expedient, or even absolutely necessary, to turn pain into a capacity to endure, there is something irreducible in pain itself that begs for, and, in the end, seems to insist on recognition. Isn't it, in fact, an inextricable part of the substance of our humanity—pain and pleasure in us being a part of the same "mortal taste," as Allen Ginsberg put it?
When Nancy Reagan, with President Ronald Reagan at her side, addressed the nation on television on the subject of drug abuse, and made a special, heartfelt plea to young people, in particular, one felt moved and heartened by her concern. Yet at the same time, it seemed curious that while she told young people that life was a wonderful experience, she didn't say that it could be a very painful experience, too. After all, a significant part of the attraction of drugs is their proven effectiveness in obliterating pain, and, in a certain light, the drug problem might be viewed as yet another facet of our national penchant for the denial or avoidance of pain.
The paradox of my father's life was that in denying his own pain, he seemed helpless not to perpetuate it in others' lives. And this circular, centrifugal process, which sometimes appears characteristic of us as Americans, seems to have its parallel in America's identity as an international power. How is it possible, one asks oneself, that most of the beef for McDonald's Big Macs could be raised in Central America and at the same time the percent age of beef in the diet of Central American peasants could be lower now than before the huge rise in beef production? How could we support the murderous regimes we have supported in the Philippines and in Haiti, as well as in Guatemala and El Salvador?
These questions can stun the mind in their unanswerable multitude. And yet it seems to me that the same denial of pain at a personal level may lie at the heart of any answer. A study of my father's life suggested, in the end, that there was no easy moral judgment to be extracted: that he did what he had to do, some of it wonderful, some of it sad and painful indeed. What I think I learned, finally, was that it was useful and perhaps even healing to study and think about his life, to reflect on it; that while his own life may have made it impossible for he himself to do this, a part of his legacy to me was a life far less painful than his own: one from which I could turn around and try to take some measure of our history as a family.
After the two books about my father I wrote Trio: The Intimate Friendship of Carol Matthau, Oona Chaplin, and Gloria Vanderbilt: Portrait of an Intimate Friendship, and this was like turning through the dark back out into the light. The first and, in a very real sense, the only question with regard to the writing of that book was the question of the writer's approach: social history, celebrity biography, or nonfiction novel being only three of the more obvious choices. My special position with regard to the three ladies—being the son of Carol Matthau and having known the other two all my life—made the choice, if anything, even more critical. For, of course, implicitly it involved the delicate issue of the spirit of the project. Would I exploit an admittedly privileged access to the three for my own benefit? If I did, how would I ever face Oona and Gloria again, not to mention my mother?
The contract with the publisher was signed. I began talking with my subjects, and taking notes, but I hadn't yet written anything. Then one morning in the fall of 1982, while in Manhattan on business that had to do with the book, I went to the Whitney Museum to see the retrospective exhibit of the paintings of Milton Avery. It was here, coincidentally enough at the
museum founded by Gloria's aunt, Gertrude Whitney, that the solution first began to dawn on me.
I was walking the rooms of a whole floor of the museum, all of them hung with paintings by an artist who had lived through the era of abstract expressionism and gone on resolutely painting the recognizable: landscapes, interiors, still lifes, and the human. Of the last group, often the subject was a woman, and even more frequently two or more women together, talking.
Milton Avery, I would venture, is as superb a colorist as we have had in the history of American painting, and seeing his paintings had a profound effect on me, joyful and moving at the same time. My God, I thought, that was how to paint women. The way he handled their presences implied so much: a sense of the light they brought into a room, a suggestion of their grace in movement, their wit, and even—almost—a whiff of fragrance. If the two books about my father have a gritty, documentary, and, speaking of their essence in retrospect, a somehow black-and-white quality—now, in the presence of the Avery paintings, it struck me that I had an opportunity to write a book with a full palette of color.
In effect, Avery's paintings provided me the first glimmer of the idea of approaching Carol, Oona, and Gloria as a novelist rather than as a journalist, in any of the various incarnations of that term, including social historian, biographer, or even memoirist. Surrounded by the portraits Avery had painted of women 1 had never known and never would know, I realized some common denominator in them with the women I was to write about. They too possessed these subtle essences of color. Of course, in the end, a writer's medium is words and not paint, but that was technical. The important thing was to try to render these women as I had actually known them and also as I might imaginatively expand that knowing. Taking stories they told me and writing them with a different member of the trio as the protagonist of each, gave me the opportunity, like Dustin Hoffman's in his starring role in Tootsie, to play a woman, in fact to play three quite different women.
During the summer of 1984, at about midway in my work on Trio, we moved from Bolinas to Ridgefield, Connecticut. I was able to work more closely with my editor on the book; Gailyn, a painter in the East Coast "painterly realist" tradition of Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, could be closer to the New York galleries and museum exhibits; and our children, who had spent their whole lives in a small town, would have a standard for comparison and a broader horizon. We eventually sold our house in Bolinas and bought one in Ridgefield in a neighborhood not unlike the one I had known as a boy in Pacific Palisades.
After Trio I wanted to get away from family history for good, and my first impulse was to explore the novel purely as fiction. Our first year in the new house, I wrote a novel about contemporary family life cum midlife identity crisis, and worked on a play about Pasternak and Mandelstam, an idea I've been researching for years.
Now in the fall afternoons after school, out on our front lawn beside a hundred-year-old sugar maple whose leaves have turned a bright yellow, I sometimes
hit pop flies to my son, Armenak, ten years old and an avid baseball fan and player. More than thirty years later, I discovered that as a boy part of my problem with hitting pop flies had to do with my swinging too much at the ball, with not swinging at it evenly enough.
It would be nice to be able to summarize, as if from some stable eminence, sure of my terms. But at forty-three, I find my only real stability in my family. After more than twenty years as a writer, I'm more than ever aware of the risks and outright absurdities of my position. I'm not a member of a strong union, and the business side of the profession is a nightmare for the writer of my generic type who doesn't have another trade, like teaching, by which to carry himself and his dependents.
Then, too, I've watched the tide of literary politics turn on my generation, in essence the generation of the sixties, and, as I said, some of my most gifted peers are currently excluded from the anthologies. In any case, perhaps as a consequence of my background, I have a virtually inborn distrust of the essential instincts of our cultural climate; I'm not convinced that our established cultural arbiters are more than public trustees of an implicit and largely unconscious status quo. At the same time, I consider myself as corruptible as the next person, if not more so. A writer's greatest liability, it seems to me, is his or her distance from the work-a-day scheme of society. Therefore, to yield to the temptation to throw off solitude for the sake of money, company, and other benefits might prove to be, in certain circumstances, nothing less than a saving grace.
Or perhaps I'm speaking here from the perspective of one whose commitment to writing has always been
secondary to a commitment to survival beyond the terms of a literary career per se. Indeed, as a second-generation writer, this perspective may have been an inextricable part of my legacy from my father.
Saroyan contributed the following update to Contemporary Authors:
I grew up the son of a famous writer, grew up in his shadow in a general sense, except for two fortuitous graces. They say the universe never gives you more than you can handle—and I believe it (sometimes). Those two saving graces are, first, that astrologically speaking I had many planets in Leo and so was absurdly full of confidence when I wasn't struck numb with my own incapacities. And the other, and perhaps the decisive factor, was that I had the honor of being a member of the generation that came of age in the sixties. I wish that every generation could be so honored. I certainly wish it for my own children, of the so-called Generation X, because it was for me and for a great many of us I think, so empowering—such a great boost of confidence seemed to come forward to us out of that complex of circumstances we call the 1960s. We felt special—that we mattered, that we might have an impact on the way things were—and I believe all young people deserve to feel that way and know that more often than not they don't.
In my case, it meant, for instance, that I no longer had to wallow in the shadows of being the son of a famous man. I was rather, in the argot of those days, "what was happening, baby." The initiating incident. Act One, you might say. I exulted in feeling empowered, took multiple steps in several different directions. And along this charmed way made a mistake.
A mistake for a writer—for a writer like I was, anyway—is a serious situation. Let's not forget all those planets in Leo. Suddenly it came to me that my first two books of poetry, which had been published in fairly quick succession by Random House, contained a fundamental error. What pain! I went to sleep with it; woke up without it—and then it hit me again, although everything in me wanted to forego it, wanted it to be a momentary misapprehension. Now, I say this from the advanced perspective of several intervening decades: It was a misapprehension. There are no real errors in this dimension—there is only growth. But you can't have growth without the perception of error, or anyway without the perception that a change is desirable.
That first time was hard, and I owe a great deal to my wife, Gailyn, who allowed me to be wrong, who seemed at times to insist that I couldn't not be wrong, and thus permitted me to experience the reality that being wrong and being dead were not the same thing. One went on breathing, one continued to have energy. One needed only to go on and do more.
And that brings me to another grace, for a Libra, which is my sun sign, perhaps the preeminent grace: a partner, Gailyn. She was and is, simply, an equal who understood things in a way similar to the way I understood them, and then understood other things that I had no inkling of, and communicated that I would
do well to try to pick up on them. A great lifelong companion is perhaps the gift life can bestow. For me, I can say unequivocally that Gailyn made my life as a writer and, even more importantly, my life as a man. Librans are creatures of relationships, as I say, and for me that was the primary means of the process of tempering, of civilizing, that deepened my life with each passing day, week, month, and year.*
What are those of us who write trying to do? The Scots poet Ian Hamilton Finlay told us: "The best a writer writes is beautiful / Forget the mad and dutiful." Still we have it on Keats's good authority that what is true and what is beautiful may be one and the same. The question is how is one supposed to write that, the true and/or the beautiful? How does one get to it?
A little while after the sixties, it came to me that the way one might be able to do that, or to try to do it—was to trust oneself, to trust one's judgments, one's instincts, one's voice, should it make evidence of itself. "You don't have to be right," Allen Ginsberg said. "You just have to be candid."
One of the things I'd learned by now was that for me, always trying to get the scales to balance, the so-called psychoactive drugs popular in my generation were not a good idea. My father once wrote me: "Just be yourself—that will do it." It's funny. I once saw my father, in London in 1966, after he'd spent the night gambling and drinking. He'd misplaced his key and at dawn knocked on the door of the apartment where he and my sister Lucy and I were all staying together for a month or two, and I got up off the living room sofa, where I slept, and answered the door; and he smiled apologetically and mumbled something about the misplaced key; and he was, it seemed to me, so saturated in alcohol that he literally exuded an essence of booze from all his pores—but he wasn't drunk. I think I can say I never saw him drunk, and in that sense, at least, he was always himself. Pop was a Virgo, an earth sign, with a Taurus rising, another earth sign. He could handle the booze, and in fact was never terribly interested in it.
But I'm virtually all air and fire signs—and of course air will feed a fire—so I didn't have that ability to remain grounded in the same way. I needed to domesticate myself, so to put it, and that meant no psychedelic lift-offs. I was already airborne. It would have been redundant. I love what the late Michael Bennett, who choreographed A Chorus Line, once said about his hometown, Buffalo, New York. "Committing suicide in Buffalo," he said, "was redundant." It was like one of those great junior-high vocabulary examples.
This issue of being oneself and trusting oneself is very close to the issue of knowing oneself, for a writer perhaps the fundamental issue, certainly for a writer such as I was, one of the near-extinct genus without affiliation in either academia or the media. Louis Zukofsky wrote in his long poem, A, "The best man learns of himself / to bring rest to others." As my own boss, the matter was very close at hand. Then too, my generation had not enamored itself in the corridors of power. We had reversed the circuitry of the American post-war economic and psychological boom—those years of the unselfconscious American empire. Instead we had taken to heart tenets of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and put ourselves in harm's way in a nation conceived in the rhetoric of liberty that yet reserved fundamental, inalienable rights to the hierarchy. "All the children / were taught the pledge of Allegiance," the late poet
Edward Dorn wrote, "and the land was pledged / to private use, the walnut dropped in the autumn on the ground / green, and lay black in the dead grass in the spring."
If one doesn't write for Time, or for NBC, one has the op-ed page, the book review, the poem, the story, the essay, the novel. In effect one is trying to learn how to behave in a job for which there is no particular description or career track. There isn't a union, there are no benefits, no retirement, nothing but the dream one has somehow been given as an inheritance of one's time, perhaps having misunderstood it, the dream of being a writer.
When we speak of the American writer, the unaffiliated writer, perhaps we are speaking of one hundred individuals, those who earn their living in that profession. There are thousands of geologists, plumbers, photographers, doctors, taxi-cab drivers, pornographers, stock brokers, petty thieves, drug dealers, and newspaper and television writers, in no particular order. There are perhaps as many independent, self-supporting American writers as there are trapeze artists.
I had the great advantage and the erstwhile discomfort of having a father who had not only taken this journey before me but also had established himself, against great odds, as one of the hundred or so. At about this time, as the seventies took hold, things began to change in me with respect to my father and to predecessors in general. I began to take deeper sustenance from their various examples. I was now by hook or by crook, or by any other means, writing. Having started with poetry, I went on to write op-ed pieces and reviews, and then novels, biographies, nonfiction novels, and memoirs. And for a while my father, who died in 1981 at the age of seventy-two, was also simultaneously writing, and occasionally he would say something, send me a bulletin across the years as it were, that would give me pause and help me understand things in a larger way.
In the 1970s when he published a memoir and went on the Today Show, among several other television shows, his sales multiplied geometrically. He sold four or five times the number of books he had been used to selling at that point in his career. "We live in a bullshit culture," he remarked about that boost in sales at the time, not angry about it, only bemused. He was an early entry, as it were, in what would later be known as the Oprah Club. But let's not forget that as an American writer of the Depression years, William Saroyan had known the kind of mythic literary fame without television that only Kerouac knew after its advent.
Around this time, too, [James] Joyce's survival prescription for the writer, "silence, exile, and cunning," began to resonate in me. It grew on me that I was not necessarily a welcome guest in the higher offices of my society. I was, by definition it seemed, an outlander, and, in literary circles too, as a writer to whom controversy was not a stranger, as likely as not to be considered one. Gore Vidal has pointed out that writing is the only profession in which one is reviewed by one's competitors, and this can lead to unfortunate career collisions. The first large review I received in the New York Times Book Review was a slam by a writer a little older than I whom I've never had another occasion to read. The second big review was a rave, but it was followed closely by a slam in the daily New York Times by a writer I admired though obviously he had his blind spots. Now both of the books I refer to were major acts of my life, major works, and in the bad reviews I was dealt with only a little less harshly than I might have expected to be if I'd committed a heinous crime.
And I hasten to add, I was one of the lucky ones. My books were reviewed big, three times, and one of the reviews was a rave. I've seen young writers summarily slaughtered in the "In Brief" section of the New York Times Book Review, and these are writers, good writers too, from whom we may never hear again as a result of such reviews. So I'll come right out now and say it.
America is not particularly fond of writers. I don't mean Americans, my fellow citizens. I believe many of them truly and touchingly love writers and reading and books. I'm talking about official America: those corridors of power again. Writers are not genuinely welcome there. After all, as Doris Lessing pointed out, the writer may be the last single voice to enter the public discourse without being qualified, edited, or rewritten entirely, by affiliations and officialdoms of one sort or another. She or he stands apart.
Let's quickly add that that isn't necessarily a heroic posture—or rather, heroic though it might on occasion be, it can also be dangerous to the writer, a liability that can make learning and growing even more difficult than it already is. Here's a personal example. In the 1980s, I began to get around as a writer, earning more and being better published and writing as well as I had ever written, but a curious thing had started to happen to me. Having by now written quite a bit and published much of it, I began to feel a little depleted, a little spent, as though I had used up the better part of my writer's capital, to use Henry James's phrase. And I was uncertain about how to go about renewing my resources or finding new ones. I looked with secret envy on the commuters who crowded the L.A. freeways at rush hour each morning (we had moved to Southern California, after three years in Connecticut, in 1987)—all of them securely stitched into the American mainstream, or so it seemed to me. I wondered what things were like in their offices. I was in my mid-forties now, married and the father of three children, and yet I had no world, as it were, aside from whatever project I could come up with in the hope that it would interest a publisher.
Indeed, isolation can be very much a liability—and can be enforced by success as much or more than by failure. Failure makes a man get up in the morning and head out the door to find answers; it reinforces one's connection with one's fellows, with the larger world.
As it happens, no sooner had I begun entertaining such fugitive thoughts about what was going on in the offices of America, than my career went into involuntary, massive collapse. I say involuntary, and that was certainly how it felt at the time, but now I have to wonder if I wasn't perversely—or perhaps not perversely, but perseveringly—an active collaborator in the process. Sometimes a writer may need to do something that seems damnably inconvenient and even outright crazy to continue to be a writer. In my situation, I believe it was largely an involuntary, or let's say an unconscious process, but that it was dictated by a deeper necessity I recognized at a gut level. I burned bridges, with a certain profligacy, for no clear reason.
To make a long story short, in my mid-forties I began a new phase in which I took the sort of jobs that usually precede literary careers, later to be recounted in those book jacket biographical notes. Airport van driver… Editor of medical reports on job-related stress for workers' compensation claims… Public relations receptionist… Public relations account executive… and finally, Public Information Officer for a federally funded job training program in Ventura County. I wouldn't have taken any of these jobs unless I had to, and at the same time I had a gut instinct that each one was an opportunity to renew my resources as a writer—that they comprised individually and en masse my own next step.
This is an ineffable of my experience, and it may be outside any parameters of literary vocation that we recognize, but I've found that in the unfolding phases of my adult life there is often something I will perceive either clearly or dimly that I must do next. This is something that looms before me as—to make a convenient image of it—a door upon which I must knock to enter the next phase of my life. Once it was literally a door, a neighbor's door, one I approached with some trepidation, and with good reason, for I needed to knock at it and precipitate a crisis less for the neighbor—the crisis, that is—than for me. It was very uncomfortable, the event and its aftermath, and I believe necessary, with a long-term positive outcome.
Can I say that I knew that by doing this uncomfortable thing I would become a better writer? I don't think I knew that at the time. But in my response to the crisis, over the long aftermath, I recognized certain alternative responses that would or would not represent a deeper commitment to being a writer, and I opted to follow those alternatives that would deepen the commitment. The vocation of writer, after all, like any vocation—surgeon, gambler, singer/songwriter—is identifiably, especially as one gets deeper into it, a nervous system. That is to say, a certain kind of nervous system will foster and enforce one's best abilities in the arena one chooses. A surgeon, for instance, is going to be careful not to drink too much the evening before an operation. The chemistry of the writer may be fostered similarly. Norman Mailer remarked that he believed the ideal psychological state for a working writer was a low-grade depression, and I understood what he meant. For one tends to be a little more sensitive, in my experience, a little more open, when one is slightly depressed. I also like something Kurt Vonnegut said in a commencement address: Do something every day that scares you a little.
As for results, after six or seven years in the American workforce, getting to know all about the way things were at the office and on the freeway, it seemed I'd learned what I'd needed to learn to arrive at the next threshold in my work.
Here is the situation I encountered in my last station in that series of jobs. I had a partitioned cubicle in an office with sixty or seventy other workers, and in the cubicle was a desk, a computer that wasn't attached to a network and therefore wasn't subject to outside monitoring, and a telephone. This large office was occupied by employees of another agency, my own immediate supervisors being at another location. My job involved coordinating and making presentations about government services available to laid-off workers, and also included writing press releases and various kinds of reports, and there were interims during which none of that, or anything else, needed immediate attention. One afternoon in the cubicle during one of those interims I started to write a play. The play virtually exploded in my computer monitor, I should say.
There is, I think, a resident genius in form itself, in the right form when it manifests at the right time in the right place. It might be a poem the words of which seem to be virtually stitched into one's breathing; it might be an essay in which things finally achieve elusive equilibrium. Or it might be a play, in which voices and histories, a kind of personal music of life, come across in a way they never have before.
There I was, in my cubicle, with coworkers going by. With certain of the coworkers, too, I was coordinating presentations, so there was always that little buzz of danger in the fact that my computer monitor was full
of characters and dialogue that had nothing to do with the Employment Development Department or the Job Training Partnership Act, of which I was the vested representative to the citizens of Ventura County.
But it was no more than a buzz because my coworkers would no more look into my monitor than into my desk drawer, and if I believed for a moment that they might, I could close up the file. To summarize, then: I believed I'd pretty much run dry creatively, and I had a deep if virtually preconscious notion that I needed to step into the workforce and find out about the real American world of those daily commuters on the freeway. I did that, joined that world, and after six or seven years—and as I say I wouldn't have done any of this if I hadn't had an urgent need of money because of burning those various bridges, projects going down in flames et al.—after six or seven years, I was being paid by the government as I sat writing first one play, and then half of a second one, in a series that would eventually comprise five plays, and writing with the tremendous excitement that happens a few times in the course of one's working life: the sensation that one has struck gold. If I had tried to imagine beforehand such a salutary and beneficent scenario, I don't think I could have come close.
So I believe in a process that might be called God, or the universe ("the universe is the messiah," Michael McClure says in his poem "99 Theses"), or the Higher Power. Edmund Wilson refers somewhere to "the moral model of the death and resurrection," seeing in the Christian paradigm, it occurs to me, the process by which, for instance, we come to learn any new thing: "dying" at the level of ego in order to take in new information, and then "being reborn" with the new knowledge. And so it seemed to happen to me as a writer in that EDD office in Oxnard. Those were exciting days.*
These last years, teaching in the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, I've looked more closely than before at my own literary tradition and process, which I've tried to characterize in certain ways here, and to which I'll now add the issue of knowledge of the larger world, the historical reality of one's time if you will, as it evolved over the years of my engagement with writing.
Was it E.M. Forster who said that as a writer progresses it's natural to try to embrace more and more of this larger world in his or her writing?
As I've tried to characterize, I began with questions of self, of personal identity, the feeling of being overshadowed by a famous father, and then had an experience of a sort of historical intervention, the sixties, which delivered me out of those shadows and set me on the stage of the larger historical moment. In that sense, I was aware early on that history could be a potent and sometimes decisive factor in one's evolution. Publishing per se was never easier for me than it was in the sixties—well, it was easier for most writers in those days. But the honeymoon was over quickly, and I stood as bemused as my father had been when he saw the effect of his TV appearances on his book sales. What, or where, exactly, was the culture in all this?
That same question resonates even more crucially today. We've seen a closing of ranks against the individual voice the writer represents, a kind of corporate vise grip on the channels of communication that even as they multiply seem only to provide more of the same. However, as we've also seen, e-mail can be a potent resource for protesting that world which an unfettered free market, without an ethical or cultural base line of any kind, will foster. This is a world in which the transnational corporation will biogenetically alter a seed for a particular kind of food, so that the corporation will be able to hold the patent on that food.
The late Jean Michel Basquiat, the celebrated American painter of the 1980s, has the word "milk" in one of his paintings, and in the upper right corner of the word has also painted the little copyright symbol. Exactly right. Quietly, with poker faces, they are taking out a patent on broccoli. Could Woody Allen do something with this? It's good for profits, regardless of what biogenetic messing around may do to the food itself, the soil, the environment—or us, the people who are obliged to eat this new idea. Let me add that the New York Times, with which I have my own issues, has covered this story with enormous diffidence, if at all.
Marshall McLuhan told us back in the sixties: "There is no inevitability so long as there is a willingness to consider alternatives." We are now smack in that brave new world we've been warned off by our writers for a century or more. This is a world in which 350 billionaires have as much wealth as half the world's population. Publishing per se is only a single chess piece in the big international game of high finance. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation routinely canceled a book critical of China's human rights record scheduled for publication by HarperCollins, Murdoch's American publishing arm, because the chief was interested in China's media markets. What is true and/or important may itself be subject to redefinition now, at the whim of the CEO.
Not a good time for the independent writer. By now, though, that's an old story. And in the meantime we've learned a bit more about the way the world works that fosters, rather than hampers, the best that we know in ourselves. The same world in which the erstwhile CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, was drawing a salary of $278,000 an hour … (A student of mine remarked that he could work until lunch and then retire) … that same world also includes many unsung heroes. I'd love to see a new magazine called Other People about the people we never meet in our media who do important work with energy and spirit and conscience,
some of whom became my friends and exemplars when I took that series of jobs.
I'll end with a brief story I wrote in the period when I was largely engaged in work other than writing, a story that remembers, I realize now, an earlier exemplar of that work-a-day world. Here is a figure, then, of that ever-mysterious, generative world out there, which has gone on and continues to go on despite any and all interference. It's been said that the survival of the planet depends on such figures and that few if any of them are well known.
It was on an evening in the early seventies, still light out, that I boarded the bus for Bolinas at Seventh and Market streets in San Francisco. The driver was an African Ameri- can, tall and straight-backed in his seat, chewing gum, with a jaunty improvisatory quality about him. You sensed he was in a certain groove. The usual driver seemed to take the job as a routine diminution, a strictly mechanical operation, but this man was putting his personal, rhythmical stamp on it.
I was a new father and my whole idea was to become a dependable citizen. The sixties had been a kind of deconstruction for my generation—we had melted away our personalities, getting down to nothing at all—but now I wanted to feel something solid in myself. It wasn't an easy thing for me to feel, and paradoxically just then, with the sixties over, it probably got harder.
I took a window seat and looked out at the twilit streets with their after-work rush of pedestrians as we moved toward Lombard Street and the Golden Gate Bridge. The ride to Bolinas is fairly routine until you start up Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley. From there it's a long climb with turn after turn, and then a long descent, with as many more turns, into Stinson Beach.
All of us, his passengers, knew immediately that we were in the hands of a special driver. We moved both faster and more decisively than normally. Then as we started the climb up Mount Tam and at the same time darkness began to settle in, it was as if we were inside something infinitely greater than a commuter bus on an evening run. The ride was like an enactment of an extraordinary, overseeing, protective power: it was like being a passenger inside cosmic grace.
In the darkness at the front, he sat erect but loose-limbed, turning the steering wheel—which lay just above his knees in a slightly pitched horizontal position—left and then right, right and then left again, as he negotiated turn after turn.
For a while the sixties had been a wraparound, environmental reinforcement. Wearing long hair had been like being part of a ubiquitous and generally benevolent family. When we saw each other there was a sense of wearing our hearts on our sleeves. There was a lot of color on everybody. It was lovely in many ways.
These were dramatic, sometimes hairpin turns that required the greatest care and precision in a car, let alone a bus, and we were moving at an astonishing speed. Was it all right?
We stopped near the top of Mount Tamalpais. An old man moved to the front of the bus and before stepping down to the road he turned to the driver and said, "That was a beautiful ride. Thank you!"
Genius has the means to provide for what isn't as strong in others. Haydn seems to state something exactly right musically. D.H. Lawrence is sometimes the one writer of all of them to read. Black night now fallen outside, I realized what was happening was pure, unforetold wonder, and for a moment the tension in me broke.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Poets, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Booklist, November 15, 1993, Alice Joyce, review of Rancho Mirage: An American Tragedy of Manners, Madness, and Murder, p. 587.
Back Stage West, October 27, 2005, Paul Birchall, review of At the Beach House, p. 20.
Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), April 14, 2002, David Hale, "Father and Son: Nearing 60, Aram Saroyan Finds Perspective on His ‘Pop,’" p. H1.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1992, review of Friends in the World, p. 380; October 1, 1993, review of Rancho Mirage, p. 1256.
Library Journal, October 15, 1988, Maurice Taylor, review of The Romantic, p. 104; May 1, 1992, Kenneth Mintz, review of Friends in the World, p. 82.
Los Angeles Times, August 22, 1983, Carolyn See, review of William Saroyan, p. 8; December 18, 1988, review of The Romantic; December 23, 2001, Jonathan Kirsch, review of Artists in Trouble: New Stories, p. R2.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 7, 1992, review of Friends in the World, p. 10; November 21, 1993, review of Rancho Mirage, p. 13.
New York Times, August 14, 1982, Anatole Broyard, review of Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan, p. 12.
New York Times Book Review, August 1, 1982, Mark Harris, review of Last Rites; December 18, 1988, review of The Romantic; June 7, 1992, review of Friends in the World, p. 82.
Publishers Weekly, April 13, 1992, review of Friends in the World, p. 55; November 1, 1993, review of Rancho Mirage, p. 60; January 31, 1994, review of Selected Poems, p. 82; December 21, 1998, review of Day and Night: Bolinas Poems, p. 65; May 28, 2001, review of Starting Out in the Sixties, p. 63; February 11, 2002, review of Artists in Trouble, p. 163; June 25, 2007, review of Complete Minimal Poems, p. 37.
Rapport, February, 1994, review of Rancho Mirage, p. 27.
Small Press Review, winter, 1993, review of Friends in the World, p. 63.
Times Literary Supplement, June 21, 1991, Hugo Williams, "Freelance: Sixties Poetry, Marijuana, and Aram Saroyan," p. 12.
Washington Post Book World, June 21, 1992, review of Friends in the World, p. 4.
Aram Saroyan Home Page,http://www.aramsaroyan.com (February 26, 2008).
Poetry Foundation Web site,http://poetryfoundation.org/journal/ (August 22, 2007), Ian Daly, "You Call That Poetry?! How Seven Letters Managed to Freak Out an Entire Nation."