Born on August 31, 1908: an American
stories celebrated the best of life, even during the most difficult trials
of the Great Depression. William Saroyan drew for influence for his
writing from his personal experiences. His advice to one young writer
summarized his philosophy on life:
"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."
William Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, of an
Armenian immigrant father who came to New Jersey in 1905 with his wife, Takoohi. Armenak had been a preacher and a poet in Armenia, but
he was forced to take farm-labor work in America. He died in 1911 from
peritonitis, and Saroyan and his brothers were placed temporarily in an
orphanage in Alameda. Six years later, the family reunited in Fresno,
where Takoohi had found work in a cannery.
In 1921, Saroyan attended the Technical School in order to learn to become a
But when at age 15 his mother shared with him some of his father's writings,
he decided to become a writer. He worked hard at developing a style of
his own that reflected his zest for living and his impressionistic outlook
on life, a
style that would eventually be called Saroyanesque.
After leaving school, Saroyan continued his education by
reading and writing on his own while supporting himself at odd jobs.
He worked as an office manager at the San Francisco Telegraph Company while
several of his early short articles were published in The Overland Monthly.
His first collected stories appeared in the 1930s. Among these was
The Broken Wheel, which was published under the pseudonym of Sirak
Goryan in the Armenian journal, Hairenik, in 1933.
"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
Saroyan's big break as a writer came with the release of
The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934). In it, 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." The story was
republished in Saroyan's bestselling collection, from which royalties the
writer 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."
Many of Saroyan's stories are largely autobiographical, based on his childhood,
his experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin
Valley, or his views of immigrant migrant workers. The short story
collection, My Name Is Aram (1940), a bestseller, was about a young
boy, Aram Garoghlanian, and the colorful characters of his immigrant family.
As a playwright, Saroyan drew upon the unconventional idea
that conflict is not necessarily essential to drama. His first play,
My Heart in the Highlands (1939), 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 he accepted the New York Drama Critics Circle award. In 1948
the play was adapted to the big screen and starred James Cagney.
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
purchased by Louis B. Mayer at MGM for
$60,000. Mayer also gave Saroyan a job for $1,500 a week as a
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
by David Shipman "the most embarrassing moment in the whole history of
movies." Saroyan also worked on a screenplay of Clifford Odet's play,
Golden Boy (1939).
Besides short stories and plays, Saroyan published numerous essays and
memoirs in which he depicted the people he met on his travels in the Soviet
Union and Europe, including playwright George Bernard Shaw,
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and Charlie Chaplin. During World War
II, Saroyan joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Astoria, Queens. He
spent most of his time at the Lombardy Hotel in Manhattan, far from army
life. In 1942, he was posted to London as part of a film unit
and narrowly avoided a court martial when his novel, The Adventures of
Wesley Jackson, turned out to be pacifist.
In 1943, Saroyan married seventeen-year-old Carol Marcus, with whom he had
two children, Aram and Lucy. When Carol admitted that she was Jewish
and illegitimate, Saroyan divorced her. They remarried and
divorced a second time. Lucy became an actress. Aram was a poet who published a
book about his father. Saroyan's ex-wife later married actor Walter
Saroyan's financial situation--which was often grim because of the writer's
carelessness with money and his penchant for drinking and gambling--grew worse following
the war as public interest in his work declined. Suddenly he was seen
in the wake of novelists such as Hemingway and Falkner as old-fashioned and overtly
sentimental. Saroyan praised freedom, brotherly love, and universal
benevolence while continuing to write prolifically. One of his readers
asked, "How could you you write so much good stuff and still write such bad
In 1952, Saroyan published the first of several book-length
memoirs, The Bicycle
Rider in Beverly Hills. In the title novella,
The Assyrian, and Other Stories (1950), and in The Laughing Matter
(1953), he combined allegorical elements within a realistic novel. His
plays, Sam Ego's House (1949) and The Slaughter of the Innocents
(1958), explored moral issues but still failed to catch the public's eye.
Once, when Saroyan joked about Ernest Hemingway's Death in the
Afternoon, Hemingway replied: "We've seen them come and go. Good
ones too. Better ones than you, Mr. Saroyan."
Many of Saroyan's later plays, including The Paris Comedy (1960),
The London Comedy (1960), and Settled Out of Court (1969),
premiered in Europe. Even more of his works, housed at Stanford University with his
other papers, were never performed. Saroyan wrote quickly, rarely
editing his text or rewriting.
From 1958, the author lived mainly in Paris, where he had an
"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
By the early 1970s, Saroyan
had managed to write himself out of debt and had actually created a
substantial income. He 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."
At his bequest, half of his ashes were buried in California
and the remaining half in Armenia.
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