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Portrait by: Alexander Sadoyan


William Saroyan

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William Saroyan

" 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)
William Saroyan (Armenian: Վիլյամ Սարոյան, IPA: (August 31, 1908 - May 18 1981) was an American author who wrote many plays and short stories about growing up impoverished as the son of Armenian immigrants. These stories were popular during the Great Depression. Saroyan grew up in Fresno, the center of Armenian-Americans in California, where many of his works are set (although he sometimes gave the city a fictional name).

Asked how to say his name, he told The Literary Digest "In Armenian it is sor-row'yan, accent on row. In America it is mispronounced with... 'roy.'" Life

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. At a certain point his father was forced to take farm-laboring work, and he died in 1911. At the age of four, William Saroyan was placed in the Fred Finch Orphanage in Oakland, California, together with his brother and sister - an experience he later described in his writing. Five years later the family reunited in Fresno, where his mother, Takoohi, had obtained work in a cannery.

In 1921 Saroyan attended technical school to learn to type, but left at the age of fifteen; his mother had shown him some of his father's writings, and he decided to become a writer. Saroyan continued his education on his own, supporting himself by taking odd jobs. At the San Francisco Telegraph Company, for example, he worked as an office manager. A few of his early short articles were published in The Overland Monthly. His first stories appeared in the 1930s. Among these was "The Broken Wheel", written under the name Sirak Goryan and published in the Armenian journal Hairenik in 1933.

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 and the colorful characters of his immigrant family. It has been translated into many languages.

As a writer Saroyan made his breakthrough in Story magazine with "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" (1934), the title taken from the 19th century song " The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze". 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.



Short Stories

"Third day after Christmas" (1926) "Gaston" (date unknown) "An Ornery Kind of Kid" "The Parsley Garden"



"The Armenian and the Armenian"

While Saroyan's writing in general is particularly renowned among fellow Armenians, "The Armenian and the Armenian" is an especially stirring declaration of solidarity. The piece is set during the Armenian Genocide, in which over 1.5 million Armenians were killed. The words evoke notes of grief, rage, resilience, and rebirth, in relation to Armenian cultural and social life. A famous excerpt reads:


William Saroyan's stories celebrated optimism in the midst of the trials and tribulations of the Depression. Several of Saroyan's works were drawn from his own experiences, although his approach to autobiographical facts often takes poetic license in his writing.

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 for life and was seemingly impressionistic. The style became known as "Saroyanesque".

Saroyan's character has some connections to Knut Hamsun's penniless writer in his 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 trips to Europe and Armenia, where he learned to love the taste of Russian cigarettes, once observing, "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)

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's 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 a film starring James Cagney.

The Human Comedy (1943) is set in the fictional California town of Ithaca in the San Joaquin Valley (based on Saroyan's memories of Fresno, California), where young telegraph messenger Homer bears witness to the sorrows and joys of life 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)

Saroyan was hired to write the screenplay for and direct the film for. Louis B. Mayer balked at its length and an uncompromising Saroyan, removed from the project, rewrote his script in novel form. It was published just prior to the film's release, and often is erroneously credited as the source for the movie, when in fact the reverse is true. The novel served as the basis for a 1983 musical of the same name.

Before the war Saroyan had worked on the screenplay of Golden Boy (1939), based on Clifford Odets's play, but he never gained much success in Hollywood.

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 2 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 as part of a film unit. He narrowly avoided a court martial when his novel, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, was read as pacifist.

In 1943 Saroyan married the eighteen-year-old Carol Marcus (1924-2003); they had two children, Aram Saroyan and the late Lucy. By the late forties Saroyan's increasing problems with drinking and gambling had taken a toll on his marriage, and he filed for divorce upon his return from an extended European trip. They remarried again and divorced. Lucy later became an actress, and Aram became a writer who published a book about his father. Carol Marcus was subsequently married to the actor Walter Matthau.

Saroyan's financial situation did not improve after the war, 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 his idealism was considered out of step with the times. However, he still wrote prolifically. "How could 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 novellas 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 made jokes about Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway 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 of Court (1969), premiered in Europe. Manuscripts of a number of his unperformed plays are now at Stanford University with his other papers.

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.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s Saroyan managed to write himself out of debt and create substantial income. Saroyan died from cancer, aged 72, on May 18 1981, in his hometown of 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.


  • "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)
  • "I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia."

SOURCE: wikipedia.org

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