Although William Saroyan (August 31, 1908 – May 18, 1981) cultivated his prose to evoke the effect of a “tradition of carelessness,” of effortless and sometimes apparently formless ruminations and evocations, he was in reality an accomplished and conscious stylist whose influences are varied and whose total effect is far more subtle than the seemingly “breezy” surface might at first suggest. His concern for the lonely and poor—ethnic outsiders, barflies, working girls, children—and their need for love and connectedness in the face of real privation recalls Sherwood Anderson. All of Saroyan’s best work was drawn from his own life (although the central character must be regarded as a persona, no matter how apparently connected to the author). In this aspect, and in his powerful and economical capacity to evoke locale and mood, Saroyan is in the tradition of Thomas Wolfe. The empathetic controlling consciousness and adventurous experiments with “formless form” also place Saroyan in the tradition that includes Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein. It might also be noted that Saroyan’s work shows the influence of Anton Chekhov in his use of seemingly “plotless” situations which nevertheless reveal some essential moment in the characters’ lives and philosophical insight into the human condition.
Certainly, while the tone of Saroyan’s stories evolves from the comic to the stoical to the sadly elegiac mood of his later work, his ethos stands counter to the naturalists and the ideologically programmatic writers of the 1930’s, the period during which he produced some of his best work. Often his stories portray the world from the perspective of children, whose instinctual embrace of life echoes the author’s philosophy. Saroyan wrote, “If you will remember that living people are as good as dead, you will be able to perceive much that is very funny in their conduct that you might never have thought of perceiving if you did not believe that they were as good as dead.” Both the tone and outlook of that statement are paradigmatic.
The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze
The title story of his first and most enduring collection, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” is still one of the most ambitious stylistic exercises of the Saroyan canon and an embodiment of the first phase of his career. The impressionistic style uses a welter of literary allusions in a stream-of-consciousness technique to portray the inner mind of an educated but destitute writer during the Depression who is literally starving to death as his mind remains lucid and aggressively inquiring. The poignant contrast between the failing body and the illuminated mind might evoke pity and compassion on the part of the reader, but somehow Saroyan invokes respect and acceptance as well.
The story begins with the random associated thoughts of the half-dreaming writer which reveal both the chaos of the present era—“hush the queen, the king, Karl Franz, black Titanic, Mr. Chaplin weeping, Stalin, Hitler, a multitude of Jews . . .”— and the young protagonist’s literary erudition: “Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant, a wordless rhyme of early meaning, Finlandia, mathematics highly polished and slick as green onions to the teeth, Jerusalem, the path to paradox.”
Upon awakening, the writer plunges into “the trivial truth of reality.” He is starving, and there is no work. He ironically contemplates starvation as he combines the food in a restaurant into a mental still life; yet without a shred of self-pity, and with great dignity in spite of a clerk’s philistine and patronizing attitude, he attempts to obtain a job at an employment agency where the only skill which the writer can offer to a pragmatic world is the ability to type. He is relieved when there is no work because he can now devote his remaining energies to writing a literary last will and testament, an “Apology for Permission to Live.”
The writer drinks copious amounts of water to fill his empty belly, steals some writing paper from the Y.M.C.A., and repairs to his empty apartment to compose his manifesto. Before beginning to write, he polishes his last remaining coin—a penny (he has sold his books for food, an act of which he feels ashamed)—and savors the “absurd act.” As he contemplates the words on the coin which boast of unity, trust in God, and liberty, he becomes drowsy, and he takes final leave of the world with an inner act of grace and dignity reminiscent of the daring young man of the title. His last conscious act of thought is the notion that he ought to have given the coin to a child.
A child could buy any number of things with a penny. Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze he was gone from his body. . . . The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.
The story embodies Saroyan’s control of his materials and the sensitive and ironic understatement for which he is famous. Although the stories written during the Depression express bitterness about the situation, Saroyan eschews political solutions of any particular stripe and emphasizes the dignity of the individual and his tenacious connection to the forces of life and survival with grace and good humor.
My Name Is Aram
A second collection which gained worldwide fame is the series of interconnected stories which form the book My Name is Aram. Told through the eyes of the title character, a young boy in the milieu of Armenian Fresno, the collection reveals the characteristics of the stories of the middle part of Saroyan’s career and foreshadows the direction taken in his later work. The reader sees childlike adults and children imbued with the burdens of adulthood. Throughout, the collection explores the often contradictory claims of emotional, poetic, and instinctive needs and the claims of reality. The author’s vision is dualistic. Some of the stories show a happy symbiosis between the poetic and the rational needs of his characters; others portray the conflicting demands unresolved. Even in the latter case, however, his characters cheerfully accept their fate, not with a stoicism so much as with a recognition that such a condition is a necessity to life and does not preclude savoring the moments of beauty which occur even in the midst of squalor or hardship.
The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse
The first aspect of the mature and late phase of Saroyan’s writing is aptly illustrated by the story “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse.” Typical of Saroyan’s boyhood reminiscences, this tale concerns the seven-year-old Aram Garoghlanian and his slightly older cousin Mourad, who “borrow” a horse from their neighbor’s barn and keep him for months at an abandoned farm, enjoying clandestine early morning rides. The owner of the horse, John Byro, complains to the boys’ uncle Khosrove, a Saroyan eccentric who responds, “It’s no harm. What is the loss of a horse? Haven’t we all lost the homeland? What is this crying over a horse?” When the owner complains that he must walk, the uncle reminds him that he has two legs. When Byro laments that the horse had cost him sixty dollars, the uncle retorts, “I spit on money.” Byro’s loss of an agent to pull his surrey brings a roar of “Pay no attention to it!”
Uncle Khosrove’s attitude is typical of the charming impracticality of many of Saroyan’s characters. When the boys at last secretly return the animal, the farmer is merely thankful that it has been returned and makes no attempt to find out who had stolen it. He marvels that the horse is in better condition than when it had been stolen. The story charmingly resolves the conflicting demands of the poetic and the practical (in favor of the poetic).
“Pomegranate Trees” illustrates the darker and more elegiac side of the later Saroyan canon. Uncle Melik purchases some arid desert land which he intends to farm. The land is obviously impossible to render productive; yet the uncle persists in tilling the soil, planting his crops, and beating back the encroaching cactus while holding little dialogues with Aram and the prairie dogs. He decides against all reason to produce pomegranate trees, since he associates the fruit with his Assyrian past, but the trees are stunted, and the fruit yield is merely enough to fill a few boxes. When the meager harvest fails to bring a high enough price to suit Melik, he has the fruit sent back to him at still more expense. For the uncle, the enterprise has nothing to do with agriculture. “It was all pure aesthetics. . . . My uncle just liked the idea of planting trees and watching them grow.”
The real world of unpaid bills intrudes, however, and the man loses the land. Three years later Aram and his uncle revisit the land which had given Melik such quixotic pleasure. The trees have died and the desert has reclaimed the land. “The place was exactly the way it had been all the years of the world.” Aram and his uncle walk around the dead orchard and drive back to town. “We didn’t say anything because there was such an awful lot to say, and no language to say it in.”
There is nominal defeat, yet the still wistfully remembered joy in attempting the impossible for its own sake is a counterweight to the sadness of the finality of the experience. Such a resonance is at the heart of Saroyan’s ethos, expressed in countless stories which have made him a popular favorite, and which are beginning to elicit a high critical acclaim as well.
Children’s literature: Me, 1963; Horsey Gorsey and the Frog, 1968; The Circus, 1986.
Plays: My Heart’s in the Highlands, pr., pb. 1939; The Hungerers: A Short Play, pb. 1939, pr. 1945; The Time of Your Life, pr., pb. 1939; Love’s Old Sweet Song, pr., pb. 1940; Subway Circus, pb. 1940; The Beautiful People, pr. 1940, pb. 1941; The Great American Goof, pr. 1940, pb. 1942; The Ping-Pong Game, pb. 1940 (one act); Three Plays: My Heart’s in the Highlands, The Time of Your Life, Love’s Old Sweet Song, pb. 1940; Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning, pr., pb. 1941; Hello Out There, pr. 1941, pb. 1942 (one act); Jim Dandy, pr., pb. 1941; Three Plays: The Beautiful People, Sweeney in the Trees, Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning, pb. 1941; Razzle Dazzle, pb. 1942 (collection); Talking to You, pr., pb. 1942; Get Away Old Man, pr. 1943, pb. 1944; Sam Ego’s House, pr. 1947, pb. 1949; A Decent Birth, a Happy Funeral, pb. 1949; Don’t Go Away Mad, pr., pb. 1949; The Slaughter of the Innocents, pb. 1952, pr. 1957; The Cave Dwellers, pr. 1957, pb. 1958; Once Around the Block, pb. 1959; Sam the Highest Jumper of Them All: Or, The London Comedy, pr. 1960, pb. 1961; Settled Out of Court, pr. 1960, pb. 1962; The Dogs: Or, The Paris Comedy, and Two Other Plays, pb. 1969; An Armenian Trilogy, pb. 1986 (includes Armenians, Bitlis, and Haratch);Warsaw Visitor and Tales from the Vienna Streets: The Last Two Plays of William Saroyan, pb. 1991.
Novels: The Human Comedy, 1943; The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, 1946; Rock Wagram, 1951; Tracy’s Tiger, 1951; The Laughing Matter, 1953 (reprinted as The Secret Story, 1954); Mama I Love You, 1956; Papa You’re Crazy, 1957; Boys and Girls Together, 1963; One Day in the Afternoon of the World, 1964.
Miscellaneous: My Name Is Saroyan, 1983 (stories, verse, play fragments, and memoirs); The New Saroyan Reader, 1984 (Brian Darwent, editor).
Nonfiction: Harlem as Seen by Hirschfield, 1941; Hilltop Russians in San Francisco, 1941; Why Abstract?, 1945 (with Henry Miller and Hilaire Hiler); The Twin Adventures: The Adventures of William Saroyan, 1950; The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, 1952; Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who, 1961; A Note on Hilaire Hiler, 1962; Not Dying, 1963; Short Drive, Sweet Chariot, 1966; Look at Us, 1967; I Used to Believe I Had Forever: Now I’m Not So Sure, 1968; Letters from 74 Rue Taitbout, 1969; Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, 1970; Places Where I’ve Done Time, 1972; Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever, 1976; Chance Meetings, 1978; Obituaries, 1979; Births, 1983.
Screenplay: The Human Comedy, 1943.
Balakian, Nona. The World of William Saroyan. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.
Dyer, Brenda. “Stories About Stories: Teaching Narrative Using William Saroyan’s ‘My Grandmother Lucy Tells a Story Without a Beginning, a Middle, or an End.’” In Short Stories in the Classroom, edited by Carole L. Hamilton and Peter Kratzke. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.
Floan, Howard R. William Saroyan. New York: Twayne, 1966.
Foster, Edward Halsey. William Saroyan: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1991.
Haslam, Gerald W. “William Saroyan and San Francisco: Emergence of a Genius (Self-Proclaimed).” In San Francisco in Fiction: Essays in a Regional Literature, edited by David Fine and Paul Skenazy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Keyishian, Harry, ed. Critical Essays on William Saroyan. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.
Lee, Lawrence, and Barry Gifford. Saroyan: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.
Leggett, John. A Daring Young Man. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Whitmore, Jon. William Saroyan: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.