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William Saroyan

Born on August 31, 1908: an American institution whose 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 professional typist.  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 Matthau.

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 stuff?"

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 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

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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