A Biographical Sketch Based Largely on His Own Writings
Armenak Saroyan journeyed from the old Armenian city of Bitlis to American ahead of his family in 1905, establishing himself in New York, where he worked to raise the money that would be needed when they joined him. He expected that they would wish to remain in New York, but soon after their arrival he found himself obliged to abandon the beginnings of a career as a preacher and travel on with them to California, a land said to resemble Armenia itself, where many other Armenians (refugees from the Turkish troubles) were settling. His fourth child and second son William (the only one to be born in the New World) was born in Fresno on the last day of August, 1908. Armenak died from peritonitis at San Jose only three years later, at the early age of thirty-six, a failing fruit farmer, far from home in body and spirit. He was to remain in William’s mind as a very dim memory, but also as an enduring source of motivation and encouragement, for Armenak had also been a writer, an unpublished one. The son meant to succeed where the father, in impossible circumstances, had failed.
Following their father’s death, William, his brother Henry and his sisters Zabel and Cozette spent several years at the Fred Finch Orphanage in Oakland, while Armenak’s young widow Tahooki took up menial work in nearby San Francisco. The family was eventually reunited back in Fresno, in the San Joaquin Valley, and William Saroyan’s formidable maternal grandmother Lucy (also widowed), who was to be a strong influence on him, joined the household. As he grew up there, an American boy also becoming part of the exiled Armenian tribe, he assimilated the raw material for many of his later stories.
It is not surprising that young William Saroyan, who was destined to be a writer strongly in the American unschooled tradition, had an undistinguished academic career. He left school early — the school work was too slow and predictable and there was constant friction, caused by boredom and by frequent reminders that he was the son of an immigrant. He was urged to go to college, but college was not in his plans. When he was twelve years old, little Saroyan read, by chance, the Guy de Maupassant story ‘The Bell,’ and the secret ambition to be a writer started to form. He became, then, a frequent visitor to Fresno’s public library and he learned to touch-type at the Technical School.
While still at school he had sold newspapers in his spare time to earn money badly needed by his family, who were living in what he describes, in My Name Is Aram, as ‘the most amazing and comical poverty in the world.’ Later he became a messenger with a postal-telegraph company, acquiring a reputation for high-speed deliveries.
By the time William was eighteen Fresno was too small for him and the urge to leave town and seek his fortune grew strong. His first attempt to leave took him only — and by mistake — as far as Los Angeles, where in a moment of desperation he joined the National Guard, though this unsuitable employment lasted only for two weeks. He had a story accepted by The Overland Monthly, a western magazine which in its day had published the work of such famous writers as Jack London and Ambrose Bierce, but it couldn’t pay anything. Then, a year or so after he’d left Fresno, Saroyan took a Greyhound Bus to New York. Things started badly when he discovered on arrival that his suitcase containing nearly all his money had been sent in error to New Orleans. His luck didn’t improve much and in less than six months the adventure was over. The hoped-for major literary breakthrough hadn’t come and William was homesick. He returned to California wiser, more sober, embarrassed, yet glad to be rid of the absurd expectation that he would suddenly write something to irresistible that it would bring him instant fame.
It was becoming clear that his literary apprenticeship was going to be a lengthy affair. He moved to San Francisco, working when he could at a variety of uninspiring jobs (one was with a funeral establishment). On a number of occasions he sought more congenial work on newspapers and in bookstores, but always without success. The Saroyan scowl (as he later termed it) may have been a problem. With the coming of the Great Depression he was more committed to writing than ever, and gave up all pretense of following seriously any other career. Occasional winnings from gambling supplemented the scant living he earned, at this time, by working on Saturday market stalls selling vegetables. Although the prospect for an unknown young writer specializing in his own unorthodox brand of short stories was bleak indeed, during this difficult period he refused to compromise his literary integrity. He continued instead to work in defiance of what was commercially acceptable — a hard and lonely path but the only choice for a writer of true originality.
An Armenian journal, Hairenik, began to publish his work in 19331, but he was growing tired of rejection elsewhere and was almost ready to stop sending stories to ‘idiot editors of insignificant magazines.’ Late in the same year, though, he sent to Story, a national magazine, ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,’ a story, part experimental, about a young writer who starves to death, with dignity. The editors of Story, Whit Burnett and Martha Foley, were on the lookout for new writing talent; Saroyan’s story was accepted and he was paid fifteen dollars.
The young writer, now in his middle twenties and feeling that time was running out for him, decided on an act of boldness to convert this piece of good fortune into a decisive breakthrough. In After Thirty Years: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1964) he tells us that he wrote to the editors of Story — without invitation, and not knowing how they would react — informing them that for the whole of the month of January 1934 he would send them one newly written story each day.
This he proceeded systematically to do, still full of the usual doubts that harass the unestablished writer, but determined to carry through the ambitious work program in as positive frame of mind as possible. He began with no firm ideas as to what the stories would be about — no plots or characters in mind — but this didn’t matter because his basic working method of choosing a starting point more or less at random and taking it from there — at speed — was already well established. Midway through the month a telegram, both expected and unexpected, arrived from the editors with the message he needed: yes, the stories were being received with great interest — keep them coming! This was the decisive moment of acceptance, marking the end of his long apprenticeship. Many years afterwards he was to write that the only success that means anything to a writer happens when he becomes accepted as a writer at all. The rest is beside the point.
More of these pieces were printed in Story in later months, and as word spread of this new and exciting literary find stories were soon appearing in such magazines as The American Mercury, Harper’s, The Yale Review, Scribner’s and The Atlantic Monthly. By October 1934 Random House was ready to publish The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories. Surprisingly, for a collection of short stories, the book was a best-seller. William Saroyan — or Saroyan, as he now became — had arrived on the literary scene with a bang.
Naturally, there were those who resented this sudden leap to fame and fortune of an unschooled writer from the slums, who broke or disregarded the rules to an unprecedented degree, and one who already had a reputation as a self-proclaimed genius. He was attached in Esquire by Ernest Hemingway, in petulant mood, while James Thurber was inclined to dismiss him as just another proletarian writer who couldn’t write anyway and tried to make a virtue of the fact. It was a controversial beginning, but Saroyan was unimpressed wither way. Soon he was planning a trip to Europe, and to the land of his forebears.
Judging by the number of references to it in his later writings, this first journey to foreign parts was to remain the most important and deeply meaningful of his life. He didn’t quite reach his father’s city, Bitlis, however. That was in the part of the old country finally annexed by Armenia’s ancient enemy Turkey. His travels, taking in London, Edinburgh, Paris, Vienna and Moscow, could extend only as far as Erivan, in Soviet Armenia, some two hundred miles short. Saroyan opposes nationalistic ideas in his writings while exhibiting a strong emotional attachment to Armenia, and this inconsistency — or dilemma — is nowhere more apparent than in his short story Antranik of Armenia, written shortly after this first visit to the scene of the racial effacement of his own people. In Moscow he met the Armenian poet Yeghishe Charentz, and was promised an interview with the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky, though this offer was later withdrawn because he had written unflatteringly that Russia under Communism had disappointed his hopes for the emergence of a new civilized order based on the ideals of the common man. Passing through Finland before returning to America he paid the composed Sibelius an unplanned visit, which he recorded in energetic style in Finlandia, a piece written the same evening in his hotel room.
More collections of short stories (Inhale and Exhale; Three Times Three; Little Children; Love, Here Is My Hat; The Trouble with Tigers; Peace, It’s Wonderful) followed against the continuing background of the Depression. Written in a variety of styles and moods, though with the Saroyan voice always clearly in evidence, these early stories established his reputation, as a writer with staying power, and provided the foundation for the rest of his career. Despite thinking of himself as a ‘world writer,’ he could not avoid being a writer of his time and place — America in the years of the Depression — and many of the stories are intimately bound up with the poverty and hardship of the time. In fact, his most successful early collection was My Name Is Aram (1940), a book presenting in a poetical light the Armenians of his home town in the days of his boyhood. Having known such conditions himself from an early age, he did not see the situation as greatly abnormal, and this in combination with youthful exuberance and the strong poetic streak always present in his work helped lift his stories of the Depression well above the level of mere realism or mere criticism of wealth and privilege.
Saroyan’s career as a playwright began in earnest with My Heart’s in the Highlands in 1939, a play adapted from one of his best short stories, ‘The Man with the Heart in the Highlands’ (written some years earlier in a condition close to fever just prior to an operation for appendicitis which saved his life). The play was well received, most importantly by George Jean Nathan, and was swiftly followed by his greatest theatrical success, The Time of Your Life. This American classic earned for the new playwright the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize (it was the first play to win both), though the latter he declined because of his strong feelings about commerce patronizing the arts. After returning from a last short visit to Europe before the now inevitable war broke out, he had been inadvertently tipped off by a cousin that the play was in difficulties. Saroyan flew to Boston to take personal charge against a very tight schedule. This action, as well as his assertion that he had written the first draft of the play in six days, added to his reputation for arrogance, despite the great success which followed on Broadway (where the case included the young Gene Kelley). The Time of Your Life was followed by a series of Broadway productions Love’s Old Sweet Song, The Beautiful People, Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning, Talking to You, Hello Out There), and for a period in 1941 he established a Saroyan Theatre at the Belasco. Suspicious of the New York theatrical establishment, he preferred to finance and direct his own work.
Late in 1941 he took time off from his theatre activities to write a film scenario in Hollywood, The Human Comedy. He sold the script to M.G.M. for sixty thousand dollars, but then offered to buy it back for a larger sum when his demand to produce and direct the film himself was refused. A trade paper denounced the studio when it declined. The film, starring Mickey Rooney, was a hit, but was hardly to Saroyan’s liking. He turned the script into a novel, which became his most successful book — and ironically the one he was, later on, least happy with because of the patriotic note he had introduced towards the end.
Marriage and World War II now intervened. In October 1942 he allowed himself to be drafted into the army, despite his pacifist opinions, and early in the following year he married Carol Marcus, a young society girl and a friend of Oona O’Neill (who was to marry Charlie Chaplin). After the birth of their son Aram, Saroyan was posted to England. In London in 1944 (with the Signal Corps) he was allowed time off to write a novel to promote Anglo-American relations. Working in the Savoy Hotel (at his own expense)( he produced in just a few weeks The Adventures of Wesley Jackson. His reward was supposed to be leave to visit his new family in New York; but the novel failed to please (publication was in fact delayed until after the way) and the deal was forgotten. Instead the possibility of a court-martial was talked about, for the book was strongly anti-way at a time when such sentiments were unthinkable. Discharged at last in September 1945, he later said that he had fought the army for three years — and won.
But the late nineteen forties were to be very difficult years for William Saroyan. He had lovingly dedicated a 1944 collection of short stories, Dear Baby, to his wife, but after the birth of daughter Lucy in 1946 the marriage began to fail.2 And at the same time his literary career went into steep decline. He had already ceased offering plays to Broadway producers because of his intense dissatisfactions with the system (in particular, he was appalled by the growing practice of arranging a private viewing of a play before potential backers, which put Art directly on trial before Money); and the critics disliked Wesley Jackson when it finally appeared in 1947. Fashions had changed, hastened by the impact of the way, and Saroyan was suddenly almost old hat. Responding to this challenge would be difficult enough, but he was now in earnest pursuit of the ‘fantasy of founding a family,’ which in his view meant satisfying the social ambitions of his wife and mother-in-law. He was in poor condition for dealing with such demands. He was drinking and gambling heavily, and these were no doubt contributory factors in the marriage breakdown. When things finally came to a head in 1949, however, he felt sufficiently the aggrieved party to walk out and leave immediately for Europe.
In Paris, in a mood of despair, he wrote The Assyrian. This long story about a dying writer, en route to the homeland to which he feels drawn, became the basis of a new collection. On his return to America, noting that his wife was having a ‘grand time,’ he went to Reno for a divorce, spending time in Las Vegas, gambling, while he established the necessary residence period in Nevada. This particular gambling spree was financed in part by an advance of thirty-six thousand dollars on three as yet unplanned books — an indication that his career had not yet touched rock bottom. The books were eventually produced in a single month: two novels, Rock Wagram and The Laughing Matter, in both of which marriage breakdown is a major theme; and a shorter fantasy work, and something of a personal favorite, Tracy’s Tiger. None was commercially successful, but soon afterwards he had a surprising world-wide hit with a pop song, ‘C’mon-a My House,’ sung by Rosemary Clooney.
Saroyan’s divorce from Carol Marcus lasted only until 1951, when they were remarried — a seemingly disastrous move, for it soon let to fresh divorce proceedings, and this time his wife was represented by the celebrated Hollywood lawyer Jerry Giesler, a deeply despised adversary. Carol was given custody of the children, and once they were satisfactorily housed, Saroyan began looking for a place for himself. He finally settled into a modest but instantly loved house on the beach at Malibu, where he began trying to pick up the pieces. The marriage, especially in its final stages, had been a costly and killing experience, and he was now head-over-heels in debt to the Tax Collector.
Saroyan probably never recovered fully from the twin psychic blows of his unhappy marriage and the three wasted years in the army (to these could be added the fact and character of the war itself), but at Malibu in the fifties he regained his soul sufficiently to arrest the alarming decline of his literary fortunes. In 1952 he published The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, the first of his several book-length experiments in autobiography. This book was followed by a warm-hearted novel of the theatre (written for his daughter and serialized in the Saturday Evening Post), Mama, I Love You; a new collection of short stories, The Whole Voyald; and a book for his son, Papa, You’re Crazy. He had another play on Broadway, The Cave Dwellers, in 1957, and there were a number of television productions and adaptations of his works. Meantime he was publishing short stories and articles in the usual wide variety of magazines and newspapers. During the six years at Malibu he learned (on later estimate) around a quarter of a million dollars – an accomplishment involving no serious concession to commercial pressures despite his desperate need of money in those days. But these earning did nothing to improve his tax situation; the debt remained (roughly fifty thousand dollars in 1958) and there seemed little prospect of ever paying it off.
He left Malibu in 1958 and headed for Europe, with no clear plan, only the vague thought that he would buy a vineyard and perhaps even forget about writing. His typewriter stayed in its case for a period. But gambling losses used up the vineyard money and at length he found himself in Paris, faced once more with the unwelcome prospect of trying to work himself out of debt. (His book Not Dying is mainly concerned with this period.) He contacted the film producer Darryl Zanuck, who was based in Paris at the time, and uncharacteristically agreed to write a play for money. This was by no means a complete sell-out because Saroyan had never learned how to write specifically for money, so that anything he wrote was bound to be at least partly authentic. In this particular case he was asked to do a film scenario, but elected instead to write a play, for which he was paid sixth thousand dollars. The Paris Comedy, or The Secret of Lily was a big hit in German translation in Vienna, and later in Berlin, and more work of the same lucrative though somewhat distasteful kind followed for a time. Typically, though, the money earned was not used for the careful paying off of debts. ‘I certainly didn’t gamble away every penny,’ he wrote in a memoir, in a flippant mood. ‘I drank some of it away, and I bought a raincoat.’
Gambling was only the most uncontrollable manifestation of his compulsion to get rid of money as fast as he earned it. He was also an insatiable traveler, and as a matter of course would seek out the best and most expensive hotel in a new town or city. And in his day he had given away vast amounts. But gambling was the worst of it; and yet he needed to gamble. It was central, he claimed, to his approach to writing, and to life. He often justified it by saying that it helped his work, and many of his best stories and plays were apparently written in the aftermath of a bad gambling experience. He despised the whole business of money-making — or The Money, as he sometimes put it (‘Had The Money not revealed itself as a stupid thief, I might have lingered a year or two longer in the Business World’) — and gambling provided the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his contempt for the stuff.
But throwing it away on lavish scale clearly couldn’t go on if he was ever to get the Tax Collector off his back. He had always been able to earn money when he needed it; now he had to learn how to hold onto it, even if that meant according it a grudging respect. He set up home and a working base in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in a none too prosperous district of Paris, and the fight back to solvency began in a serious way, if not exactly in earnest.
He was invited to write an autobiography and, believing it would pay his debts, he produced his most complete and conventionally arranged autobiographical work, Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who. But on his own admission the book did rather poorly, and in any case he had made a bad deal through his customary habit of not bothering to study the small print. Amongst his other activities in the early sixties, he created Sam, the Highest Jumper of Them All with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in London, after admiring its production of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage. Two novels followed. Boys and Girls Together and One Day in the Afternoon of the World;then in 1964, thirty years after the publication of his first book, he repeated his early effort of writing a new story or piece each day for a whole month, keeping at the same time a daily journal in which he discussed his present life and work in relation to January 1934. This was published alongside the original stories as After Thirty Years: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. Meanwhile his plays were being taken up with enthusiasm in eastern Europe, notably in Czechoslovakia.
Gradually he brought his gambling and drinking under reasonable control, though there were lapses. During a three month stay in London in 1966, for instance (occupying a flat with his son and daughter, now both young adults), he managed to get through twenty thousand dollars. But by 1967 he was able to declare in Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon: ‘I’m free… I’ve paid all debts, I’m earning a living.’ He had acquired a second home in Fresno (though he hated what the developers had done to the city over the years), and it became his habit to spend part of the year in each location, when he wasn’t on the move.
In the late sixties he finally got around to sifting through some of the mass of stuff he had written through the years which had appeared only in magazines or newspapers, or in some cases hadn’t been published at all. The result was an entertaining collection of articles, essays, short stories, memoirs, poems and short plays, each with a specially written introduction. Indulging his fondness for long titles to the full, he called the collection I used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure (actually the title of one of the plays). In his last book of the sixties he used the autobiographical device of writing a series of ‘letters’ to various people, eminent and otherwise and most now dead, who had either influenced him or remained in his memory for some important reason. A number of these pieces were first published in the Saturday Evening Post. He called the book Letters from 74 rue Taitbout, or, Don’t Go But If You Must Say Hello to Everybody.
These autobiographical books were turning into a series. Next came Places Where I’ve Done Time (1972), in which, with no regard to chronology, he used the theme of places that had figured importantly in his life. But a note of rancor and vindictiveness was creeping in as the series progressed. As a matter of principle, he had always tried to write about people with the ‘largest possible sympathy,’ but now he was beginning to see them in a wholly realistic way. This trend continued in Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever (1976); though Chance Meetings (1978), with its delicious memories of some of the more obscure people he had met, is something of an exception.
He had always produced a great deal of material that he never got around to publishing (throughout his fiftieth year, for example, he had worked on a book called Fifty-Fifty, which on completion he immediately set aside as being too long and beyond salvaging); and in the seventies, perhaps because the money pressures had eased so much, it seems likely that a significant part of his output remained unprinted. His work was still very much in demand in Europe, however, as his career approached its end, with stage and television productions of his plays in recent years in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Finland, Spain, Germany and Poland. The Cave Dwellers continues to be a particular favorite.
With the gradual intrusion of a bitter tone in his memoirs went a growing preoccupation with death, as is indicated by some of the titles alone. This preoccupation reached its fullest expression in his last published book,Obituaries (1979).3 Finding that he had known a good number of them personally, he used Variety’s list of the show-business dead of 1976 to spark off his memories, thought, feeling and fears. Though scarcely a happy book,Obituariesmust be counted a tour-de-force — Saroyan in totally free mood, pushing expression and meaning to the limits of language. Latterly the critics were finding much to admire in his work, and Obituaries was accorded a generous attention in The New York Times Book Review.
William Saroyan once said that to write was for him simply to stay alive in an interesting way. In a career lasting nearly half a century he remained through the good times and the bad a writer in the purist sense, writing almost invariably out of himself (as he put it), in the manner of a poet, with only surface commitment to the orthodox literary forms. He sought in his fictional work to dispense with the device of emotionality, or spurious excitement. Nor was he much interested in creating strong, memorable characters — another phony device. Speaking of a novel sent to him by a publisher, he said it wasn’t bad, but it was about specific people in that peculiarly specific way that makes a novel meaningless. He cultivated a simple style of writing that was nevertheless sophisticated in its poetic depth and complexity and that was utterly devoid of cliches. He saw little value in what he termed safe writing, and was most pleased by the accidental element in his own work.
Having the peasant’s mistrust of doctors, Saroyan seldom consulted them. He saw the fight against illness and death as a personal struggle with God (the Witness), Fate or Bad Luck. When he visited Europe for the last time in 1980, however, cancer had already been diagnosed. Five days before he died in May 1981, at the Veterans Hospital in Fresno, he telephone a posthumous statement to the Associated Press: ‘Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?’
In a generous tribute The New York Times, accounting for his genius, described him as ‘an orphan hurt by a sense of rejection, craving love and bursting with talent.’ The Times in London felt that his reputation might come to rest on his later experiments with autobiography. and Time magazine (an old enemy) said that ‘the ease and charm of many of his stories will continue to inspire young writers. It is a legacy beyond criticism.’
1James H. Tashjian, in his preface to his My Name Is Saroyan collection (Coward-McCann Inc., New York, 1983) emphasizes that the appearance of Saroyan’s work in Hairenik Daily in 1933 (under the pseudonym Sirak Goryan) was important in launching his career. Saroyan evidently sent copies of his Hairenik stories to Whit Burnett and Martha Foley at Story, and to Edward J. O’Brien. The result was his near simultaneous discovery by Burnett and Foley, who asked for something fresh and got ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,’ and O’Brien, who selected a Hairenik story called ‘The Broken Wheel’ for his Best American Stories of 1934.
2 Aram Saroyan has published a very different view of his parents’ marriage from the one put out over the years by William Saroyan, and offered an unusual interpretation of his father’s evidently painful emotional problems. (Last Rites, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1982)
3 Births, a short sequel to Obituaries, written in Paris in June-July 1979, has been published posthumously. (Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, 1983)