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by Bamber Gascoigne

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William Saroyan (1908-1981)


American author whose stories celebrated optimism in the middle of trials and difficulties of the Depression-era. Several of Saroyan's works were drawn from his own experiences, although his approach to autobiographical facts can be called poetic. His advice to a young writer was: "Try to learn to breathe deeply; really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell." Saroyan worked tirelessly to perfect a prose style, that was full of zest of for life and was seemingly impressionistic. The style became known as 'Saroyanesque.'

"The writer is a spiritual anarchist, as in the depth of his soul every man is. He is discontented with everything and everybody. The writer is everybody's best friend and only true enemy  the good and great enemy. He neither walks with the multitude nor cheers with them. The writer who is a writer is a rebel who never stops." (from The William Saroyan Reader, 1958)

William Saroyan was born in Fresno, California,  the son of an Armenian immigrant. His father moved to New Jersey in 1905 – he was a small vineyard owner, who had been educated as a Presbyterian minister. In the new country he was forced to take farm-labouring work. He died in 1911 from peritonitis, after drinking a forbidden glass of water given by his wife, Takoohi. Saroyan was put in an orphanage in Alameda with his brothers. Six years later the family reunited in Fresno, where Takoohi had obtained work in a cannery.

In 1921 Saroyan attended the Technical School in order to learn to type. At the age of fifteen, Saroyan left the school. His mother had showed him some of his fathers writings, and he decided to become a writer. Saroyan continued his education by reading and writing on his own, and supporting himself by odd jobs. At the San Francisco Telegraph Company he worked as an office manager. A few of his early short articles were published in The Overland Monthly. His first collected stories started to appear in the 1930s. Among these was 'The Broken Wheel,' which was written under the name Sirak Goryan. It was published in the Armenian journal Hairenik in 1933.  

As a writer Saroyan made his breakthrough in the Story magazine with 'The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze' (1934), after the popular song. The protagonist is a young, starving writer who tries to survive in a Depression-ridden society. "Through the air on the flying trapeze, his mind hummed. Amusing it was, astoundingly funny. A trapeze to God, or to nothing, a flying trapeze to some sort of eternity; he prayed objectively for strength to make the flight with grace." Saroyan's character has some connections to Knut Hamsun's penniless writer in his famous novel Hunger (1890), but without the anger and nihilism of Hamsun's narrator. The story was republished in Saroyan's bestselling collection, and with its royalties Saroyan financed his trip to Europe and Armenia, where he learned to love the taste of Russian cigarettes. He also developed a theory that "you may tend to get cancer from the thing that makes you want to smoke so much, not from the smoking itself." (from Not Dying, 1963)

Many of Saroyan's stories were based on his childhood, experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley, or dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name Is Aram (1940), an international bestseller, was about a young boy, Aram Garoghlanian, and the colorful characters of his immigrant family. It has been translated among others into Finnish.

As a playwright Saroyan's work was drawn from deeply personal sources. He disregarded the conventional idea of conflict as essential to drama. My Heart in the Highlands (1939), his first play, was a comedy about a young boy and his Armenian family. It was produced at the Guild Theatre in New York. Among Saroyan's best known plays is The Time of Your Life  (1939), set in a waterfront saloon in San Francisco. It won a Pulitzer Prize. Saroyan refused the honor, on the grounds that commerce should not judge the arts, but accepted the New York Drama Critics Circle award. In 1948 the play was adapted into screen, starring James Gagney.

The Human Comedy (1943) was set in Ithaca, in California's San Joaquin Valley, where the young Homer, a telegraph messenger, becomes a witness of sorrows and joys of small town people during World War II. "Mrs. Sandoval," Homer said swiftly, "your son is dead. Maybe it's a mistake. Maybe it wasn't your son. Maybe it was somebody else. The telegram says it was Juan Domingo. But maybe the telegram is wrong." (from The Human Comedy) The story was bought by MGM and made Saroyan's shaky financial situation more secure. Louis B. Mayer had purchased the story for $60,000 and gave Saroyan $1,500 a week for his work as producer-director. After seeing Saroyan's short film, Mayer gave the direction to Clarence Brown. The sentimental final sequence of the Oscar-winning film, starring Mickey Rooney and Frank Morgan, has been called "the most embarrassing moment in the whole history of movies." ( David Shipman in The Story of Cinema, vol. 2, 1984) Before the war Saroyan had worked at one point on the screenplay of Golden Boy (1939), based on Clifford Odet's play, but he never gained much success in Hollywood, although his screenplay for The Human Comedy won the an Oscar for Best Original Motion Picture Story. The film was also nominated for best picture, best director, best cinematography and best actor.

Saroyan also published essays and memoirs, in which he depicted the people he had met on travels in the Soviet Union and Europe, such as the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and Charlie Chaplin. During World War II Saroyan joined the US army. He was stationed in Astoria, Queens, but he spent much of his time at the Lombardy Hotel in Manhattan, far from the Army personnel. In 1942 he was posted to London in as a part of a film unit and narrowly avoided a court martial, when his novel The Adventures of Wesley Jackson (1946) turned out to be pacifist.

Saroyan was well acquainted with the San Francisco night life, and had enjoyed multiple short lived "affairs" or one-night stands. According to a story, when a woman in Hollywood refused a late night telephone invitation to his bed, Saroyan was reportedly to have asked, if she had a sister who would comply. In his mid-thirties Saroyan married the seventeen-years-old Carol Marcus; they had two children, Aram and Lucy. Carol was blond, voluptious and witty, her mother was Russian and step-father of German-Jewish origin. When she revealed that she was Jewish and illegitimate, Saroyan divorced. They remarried again and divorced. Lucy became an actress. Aram became a poet, who published a book about his father. Carol Marcus married later the actor Walter Matthau.

After WW II, Saroyan's financial situation did not improve, when interest in his novels declined and he was criticized for sentimentalism. Saroyan praised freedom; brotherly love and universal benevolence were for him basic values, but with his idealism Saroyan was considered more or less out of date. However, he wrote prolifically. "How could you you write so much good stuff and still write such bad stuff?" asked one of his readers. In 1952 Saroyan published the first of several book-length memoirs, The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills. In the title novella of The Assyrian, and Other Stories (1950) and in The Laughing Matter (1953) Saroyan mixed allegorical elements within a realistic novel. The plays Sam Ego's House (1949) and The Slaughter of the Innocents (1958) examined moral questions, but they did not gain the success of his prewar works. When Saroyan joked on Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, Heminway responded: "We've seen them come and go. Good ones too. Better ones than you, Mr. Saroyan."

Many of Saroyan's later plays, such as The Paris Comedy (1960), The London Comedy (1960), and Settled Out Court (1969), premiered in Europe. A number of his plays, now housed at Stanford University with his other papers, have never been performed. Saroyan worked rapidly, hardly editing his text. Much of his earnings he spent in drinking and gambling. From 1958 the author lived mainly in Paris, where he had an apartment. "I am an estranged man, said the liar: estranged from myself, from my family, my fellow man, my country, my world, my time, and my culture. I am not estranged from God, although I am a disbeliever in everything about God excepting God indefinable, inside all and careless of all." (from Here Comes There Goes You Know Who, 1961) In the late 1960s and the 1970s Saroyan managed to write himself out of debt and create substantial income. Saroyan died from cancer on May 18, 1981, in Fresno. "Everybody has got to die," he had said, "but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case." Half of his ashes were buried in California, and the rest in Armenia.

For further reading: William Saroyan by H.R. Floan (1966); William Saroyan by A. Saroyan (1983), William Saroyan by E.H. Foster (1984); Saroyan by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee (1984); Willie & Varaz: Memories of My Friend William Saroyan by Varaz Samuelian (1985); William Saroyan, ed. by Leo Harmalian (1987); William Saroyan: A Study in the Shorter Fiction by E.H. Foster (1991); Critical Essays in William Saroyan, ed. by H. Keyishan (1995); William Saroyan by Jon Whimore (1995); Saroyan: A Biography by Lawrence Lee, Barry Gifford (1998, paperback); The World of William Saroyan by N. Balakian (1998); A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan by John Leggett (2002); William Saroyan: Places in Time by Janice Stevens and Pat Hunter  (2008)

Selected works:

  • The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, 1934
  • Those Who Write Them and Thosde Who Collect Them, 1936
  • Inhale & Exhale, 1936
  • Three Times Three, 1936
  • A Gay and Melancholy Flux, 1937
  • The Man with the Heart in the Highlands, 1937 (story)
  • Little Children, 1937
  • A Native American, 1938 (illustrated by 'hans')
  • Fragment, 1938
  • The Trouble with Tigers, 1938
  • Love, Here Is My Hat, and Other Short Romances, 1938
  • Love's Old Sweet Song, 1939
  • Christmas, 1939
  • Hairenik 1934-1939: An Anthology of Short Stories and Poems by Young Armenian Writers in the United States, 1939 (with  an introduction by William Saroyan)
  • My Heart’s in the Highlands, 1939 (play)
    - Sydämeni on kukkuloilla (suom. Matti Rossi, 1979)
    - films: The Man with the Heart in the Highlands, TV film 1949, prod. The Actors Studio, World Video Company, in Actor's Studio, starring Marc Connelly, John McQuade and Marc Cavell; My Heart's in the Highlands, TV film 1950, in The Silver Theatre, dir. Frank Telford, starring Conrad Nagel, Jay Barney and Howard Da Silva; My Heart's in the Highlands, TV film 1950, in The Bigelow Theatre, dir. Frank Telford, starring  Jay Barney, Howard Da Silva and Adeline De Walt Reynolds; My Heart's in the Highlands, TV film 1957, in ITV Television Playhouse. dir. Jerome Epstein, starring Robert Rietty, Robin Brown and Franklyn Fox; My Heart's in the Highlands, TV film 1960, in Play of the Week, starring Walter Matthau, Eddie Hodges; My Heart's in the Highlands, TV film 1970, in NET Opera Theater, dir. Kirk Browning, libretto by Jack Beeson   
  • Peace, It's Wonderful, 1939
  • The Time of Your Life, 1939
  • Three Fragments and a Story, 1939
  • The Hungerers: A Short Play, 1939 (play)
  • The Time of Your Life, 1939 (play)
    - Tämä elämäsi aika / Elämän liekki (suom. Toini Aaltonen, 1942)  
    - films: 1948, dir. by H.C. Potter, adaptation by Nathaniel Curtis, starring James Gagney, William Bendix, Wayne Morris, Jeanne Cagney; TV film 1958, in Playhouse 90, dir. Tom Donovan; TV film 1958, in Armchair Theatre, dir. Philip Saville, starring Franchot Tone, Susan Strasberg and Ann Sheridan; TV film 1976, dir. Kirk Browning, starring Patti LuPone; Elämäsi parhain aika, TV film 1978, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. Jotaarkka Pennanen, starring Kari Franck, Svante Martin and Eeva-Maija Haukinen
  • Hero of the World, 1940 (play)
  • A Theme in the Life of the Great American Goof, 1940 (play)
  • Love’s Old Sweet Song, 1940 (play)
  • The Agony of Little Nations, 1940 (play)
  • The Ping Pong Game: A Play in One Act, 1940 (play)
  • A Special Announcement, 1940 (play)
  • Subway Circus, 1940 (play)
  • Sweeney in the Trees, 1940 (play)
  • My Name Is Aram, 1940 (illustrated by Don Freeman)
    - Nimeni on Aram (suom. Vappu Roos, 1953)
  • Harlem as Seen by Hirschfeld, 1941 (text by William Saroyan)
  • Saroyan's Fables, 1941 (with illustrations by Warren Chappell)
  • Three Plays, 1941 (My Heart’s in the Highlands; The Time of Your Life; Love's Old Sweet Song)
  • Three Plays, 1941 (The Beautiful People; Sweeney in the Trees; Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning)
  • The Insurance Salesman, 1941
  • The Beautiful People, 1941 (play)
    - De vackra människor, TV film 1962, dir. Jan Molander, translated by Herbert Grevenius  
  • The People with Light Coming out of Them, 1941 (play)
  • Hilltop Russians in San Francisco, 1941
  • Razzle Dazzle, 1942 (frontispiece by Arthur Szyk)
  • 48 Saroyan Stories, 1942
  • Best Stories of William Saroyan, 1942
  • Hello Out There, 1942 (play)
    - films: Hello, jij daar! TV film 1964, prod. Belgische Radio en Televisie (BRT); Hei siellä!, TV film 1965, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), translation by Arvo Turtiainen, dir. Sirppa Sivori-Asp, starring Matti Oravisto, Tarja-Tuulikki Tarsala and Åke Lindman
  • Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning, 1942 (play)
  • Bad Men in the West, 1942 (play)
  • Coming Through the Rye, 1942 (play)
  • Elmer and Lily, 1942 (play)
  • The Poetic Situation in America, 1942 (play)
  • Talking to You, 1942 (play)
  • Get Away, Old Man: A Play in Two Acts, 1943 (play)
  • From Inhale & Exhale, Thirty-One Selected Stories, 1943
  • The Human Comedy, 1943 (illustrated by Don Freeman)
    - Ihmisiä elämän näyttämöllä (suom. Lauri Miettinen, 1945)
    - films: 1943, dir. by Clarence Brown, screenplay by Howard Eastbrook, starring Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, Jackie "Butch" Jenkis, James Craig, Donna Reed; TV film 1959, in The DuPont Show of the Month, dir. Robert Mulligan,
  • Dear Baby, 1944
  • Some Day I’ll Be a Millionaire: 34 More Great Stories, 1944
  • The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, 1946
  • Jim Dandy: Fat Man in a Famine: A Play, 1947 (play)
  • Don't Go Away Mad, 1949 (play)
  • The Saroyan Special: Selected Short Stories, 1948 (illustrated by Don Freeman)
  • The Fiscal Hoboes, 1949
  • A Decent Birth, a Happy Funeral: A Play in Three Acts and Six Scenes, 1949 (play)
  • Sam Ego's House: A Play in Three Acts and Seven Scenes, 1949 (play)
  • The Assyrian, and Other Stories, 1950
  • The Son, 1950 (play)
  • The Twin Adventures: The Adventures of William Saroyan, a Diary. The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, a Novel, 1950
  • Tracy's Tiger, 1951 (drawings by Henry Koerner)
  • Rock Wagram: A Novel, 1951
  • The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, 1952
  • The Slaughter of the Innocents, 1952 (play)
  • The Laughing Matter: A Novel, 1953
    - film: Izgnanie, 2007, prod. Hélicotronc, Ren-TV, dir. Andrei Zvyagintsev, starring Konstantin Lavronenko, Maria Bonnevie, Aleksandr Baluev, Dmitriy Ulyanov
  • The Oyster And The Pearl, 1953 (television play)
    - films: Østersen og Perlen, TV film 1955; L'huitre et la et la perle, TV film 1964, dir. Lazare Iglesis, starring Henri Guisol, Didier Haudepin and France Anglade; Osteri ja helmi, TV film 1965, prod. Suomen Televisio, dir. Sirppa Sivori-Asp, starring Lasse Pöysti, Harri Hyttinen, Åke Lindman, Birgitta Ulfsson
  • The Stolen Secret, 1954 (play)
  • Love, 1955
  • Mama I Love You, 1956 (sometimes listed as The Bouncing Ball)
  • The Whole Voyald and Other Stories, 1956
  • Opera, Opera: One-Acts Opera Goofo, 1950 (play)
  • Papa, You're Crazy, 1957
  • Ever Been in Love with a Midget?, 1957 (play)
  • The Cave Dwellers, 1957 (play)
  • The Accident, 1958 (play)
  • The Slaughter of the Innocents, 1958
  • The William Saroyan Reader, 1958 (introd. by William Saroyan)
  • Cat, Mouse, Man, Woman, 1958 (play)
  • Once Around the Block, 1959 (play)
  • The Paris Comedy; or, The Secret of Lily, 1960 (play)
    - film: Die Pariser Komödie, TV film 1961, prod. Schloßpark-Theater Berlin, Sender Freies Berlin (SFB), dir. Boleslaw Barlog, starring Karin Remsing, Käthe Braun and Eva Lissa
  • Settled out of Court, 1960 (play, with F. Cecil)
  • Sam, The Highest Jumper Of Them All, or the London Comedy, 1961 (play)
  • High Times along the Wabash, 1961 (play)
  • Sam, the Highest Jumper of Them All; or, The London Comedy, 1961 (play)
  • Here Comes There Goes You Know Who, 1961
  • Gaston, 1962
  • A Note on Hilaire Hiler, 1962
  • Ah Man, 1962 (play, with P. Fricker)
  • Not Dying, 1963 (with drawings by the author)
  • Me, 1963 (illustrated by Murray Tinkelman)
  • Boys and Girls Together, 1963
  • Patient, This I Believe, 1963 (play)
  • The Playwright and the Public, 1963 (play)
  • After Thirty Years: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, 1964
  • One Day in the Afternoon of the World, 1964
  • Short Drive, Sweet Chariot, 1966
  • My Kind of Crazy, Wonderful People: Seventeen Stories and a Play, 1966
  • Look At Us, Let's See, Here We Are, 1967 (photos. by Arthur Rothstein)
  • Dentist and Patient, 1968 (play)
  • Horsey Gorsey and the Frog, 1968
  • Husband and Wife, 1968 (play)
  • The Man With The Heart in the Highlands and Other Stories, 1968
  • I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I'm Not So Sure, 1969
  • 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, 1969 (play)
  • Letters from 74 Rue Taibout; or, Don't Go, but if You mustm, Say Hello to Everybody, 1969
  • Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, 1970
  • The New Play, 1970 (play)
  • Places Where I've Done Time, 1972
  • Armenians, 1974 (play)
  • The Tooth and My Father, 1974 (illustrated by Suzanne Verrier)
  • The Rebirth Celebrations of the Human Race at Artie Zabala's Off-Broadway Theatre, 1975 (play)
  • An Act or Two of Foolish Kindness, 1976
  • Famous Faces and Other Friends, 1976
  • Morris Hirschfield, 1976
  • Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever, 1976 (illustrated by Al Hirschfeld)
  • The Ashtree Talkers, 1977
  • Chance Meetings, 1978
  • Hayats'uts' Hovhannes, 1978 (ed.)
  • Assassinations; & Jim, Sam & Anna: Two Short Paris Summertime Plays of 1974, 1979  
  • Obituaries, 1979
  • Tales from the Vienna Streets, 1980 (play)
  • Births, 1981 (introduction by David Kherdian)
  • My Name is Saroyan, 1983 (edited with a commentary by James H. Tashjian)
  • The New Saroyan Reader: A Connoisseur’s Anthology of the Writings of William Saroyan, 1984 (edited by Brian Darwent)
  • The Pheasant Hunter: About Fathers & Sons, 1986 (illustrated by Etienne Delessert)
  • An Armeinian Trilogy, 1986 (plays)
  • The Circus, 1986 (illustrations by Berta Zimdars)
  • Madness in the Family, 1988 (edited by Leo Hamalian)
  • The Man with the Heart in the Highlands  & Other Early Stories, 1989 (introduction by Herb Caen)
  • The Parsley Garden, 1992
  • Warsaw Visitor; Tales from the Vienna Streets: The Last Two Plays of William Saroyan, 1991 (edited and with an introduction by Dickran Kouymjian)
  • Saroyan's Armenians: An Anthology, 1992 (edited by Alice K. Barter)
  • Where the Bones Go, 2002 (edited by Robert Setrakian)
  • Essential Saroyan, 2005 (edited with an introduction by William E. Justice)
  • He Flies through the Air with the Greatest of Ease: A William Saroyan Reader, 2008 (edited by William E. Justice)
  • Young Saroyan; Follow and Other Early Writings, 2009 (edited by William B. Secrest Jr., with an introduction by Dickran Kouymjian)

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