Saroyan, William (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
William Saroyan 1908-1981
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Archie Crashcup and Sirak Goryan) American playwright, short story writer, novelist, and scriptwriter.
The following entry provides criticism on Saroyan's works from 1975 through 2000. See also William Saroyan Short Story Criticism, William Saroyan Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 8, 10, 29.
One of the most prolific writers in the United States, William Saroyan is best remembered for such works as The Time of Your Life and My Heart's in the Highlands (1939), plays that reflected Saroyan's vision of life in the United States, permeated with the perspective he had on America as an immigrant of Armenian heritage. Saroyan wrote over two hundred plays in his lifetime, in addition to numerous short stories, novels, and three autobiographies. Many of his plays were never published or produced during his lifetime, although he did achieve both critical and commercial success for his work during the 1930s and 1940s. Characterized by many scholars as a maverick, Saroyan is known for the free style and intensely autobiographical elements of his works. He drew heavily on his own life experiences for the subject matter of his plays and short fiction, and his tendency to present a uniquely personal vision of humanity in his writing has led many critics to disregard his work as sentimental and superficial. Regardless, at the height of his popularity, Saroyan's work met with great success, and he won both the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in playwriting for The Time of Your Life. More recent appraisals of Saroyan's works have been more receptive to the quality of his writing and the significance of his themes, especially in relation to his depiction of immigrant experiences in America.
Saroyan was born on August 31, 1908, in Fresno, California. His parents, Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, immigrated to the United States from Bitlis, Armenia, with his two brothers and sister a few years before William was born. His father died shortly after William turned three, and as a result, Saroyan and his siblings moved to an orphanage in Oakland, California. The breakup of his family affected Saroyan deeply, and for five years he and his siblings lived alone, until their mother found a job in a fruit-packing plant and reunited the family. Back in Fresno, Saroyan attended public school, and later the Fresno Technical School. Ostensibly studying for a career as a clerk, in fact Saroyan had already made up his mind that he wanted to be a writer. He was taking classes at the school in order to learn how to type and therefore improve his ability to write. In addition to attending school, Saroyan worked at various jobs through childhood. These experiences gave him the opportunity to work with and get to know working-class people, many of whom would later serve as inspiration for characters in his plays and stories. In addition, he also spent a great deal of time attending local and traveling theatrical performances. As an immigrant Armenian, Saroyan often had to deal with prejudicial attitudes because of his ethnicity. His family life, in contrast, was warm and supportive, and he was proud of his heritage ethnic pride. Later, Saroyan would use this juxtaposition of pride and prejudice, as well as the significance with which he regarded family and community, in his writing. Although he began writing seriously as early as 1921, it was several years before Saroyan was able to publish his work. In 1928, Saroyan was able to get a short story published in the Overland Monthly. More short stories followed in other publications, and in 1934, with the publication of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, Saroyan's career as a writer was established. A collection of short stories titled Inhale & Exhale followed in 1936 and was well-received by his readers. Critics, however, were less receptive to Saroyan's writing style, characterizing it as unstructured and unfocused. Regardless, his commercial success guaranteed that his work would continue to be published. Saroyan soon moved on to writing plays, and in the early 1930s and 1940s, his popularity continued unabated. In 1943, he married Carol Marcus. They divorced in 1949, however, only to remarry in 1951, followed by another divorce a year later. The couple had two children together, Aram and Lucy. The mid-1940s were also tumultuous years for Saroyan professionally. He had a difficult time working with theater producers; this, coupled with the breakdown of his marriage and being drafted into service during World War II, took a great emotional toll on Saroyan, and he withdrew from public life. Although he continued to write, he did not want his plays produced onstage. In the late 1950s, he moved to France and returned as playwright-in-residence at Purdue University several years later. He continued writing during these years, but for twenty years he refused to publish or produce his plays theatrically. In 1980, he finally agreed to a performance of Play Things. It would be his last production before his death due to cancer in 1981. A final collection of plays including Warsaw Visitor and Tales from the Vienna Streets was published posthumously in 1990.
Although Saroyan was a prolific writer of short stories and novels, he is best remembered for his contribution to the theater. His most successful works for the stage were My Heart's in the Highlands and The Time of Your Life. Adapted from a previously published short story by the same name, My Heart's in the Highlands was Saroyan's first foray into theater. Saroyan wrote with a natural, easygoing style that attracted a large audience among people who would ordinarily not read literature. Written during the years of the Great Depression, Saroyan's tales of middle- and lower-class American life appealed to his readers, who identified with his characters and their problems. Drawing deeply from his own experiences, Saroyan did little to disguise his own voice in his writing. In contrast to his readers, critics felt that his work was too personal and that his writing style had little structure. In Inhale & Exhale Saroyan did change his style somewhat, acknowledging in the introduction that his previous work may have been too focused on his own experience. This collection also contained “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands,” the short story that would inspire his theatrical debut, My Heart's in the Highlands. He continued to write and produce plays, as well as publishing several more short-story collections, including My Name Is Aram (1940). Often cited as some of Saroyan's best work, the stories in this collection are all narrated by Aram, a young boy living in California's San Joaquin Valley. The lyrical prose and interconnected stories are also considered precursors to Saroyan's first novel, The Human Comedy (1943). In 1941, Saroyan's The Time of Your Life opened on Broadway, catapulting him to success and acclaim. By the 1950s, however, personal difficulties and a sense of disillusionment following the end of the war and his own forced participation in it led Saroyan to leave for Europe. Although he continued to write plays, he refused to have them published or performed. He also worked on and published several autobiographical works during this period, including Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who (1961) and Not Dying (1963). Several short-story collections also followed, including Places Where I've Done Time (1972), and An Act or Two of Foolish Kindness (1976). In 1980, Saroyan returned to the stage with Play Things. His next two plays were published and performed after his death.
Critical acclaim did not come easily to Saroyan. Despite the commercial success of his work and the popularity he enjoyed with the American public, critics and scholars during his lifetime often criticized Saroyan for his unstructured style of writing, his deeply personal themes and narratives, and a perceived sentimentality about his optimistic approach to life. Recent appraisals of Saroyan's works, however, have remarked on the fact that contemporary critics disregarded for the most part the sense of despairing existentialism that pervades much of his writing. Despite the optimistic worldview he proclaimed, the characters in Saroyan's short stories and plays reflect his concern with and awareness of the isolation and loneliness felt by many of his immigrant characters. In fact, notes Margaret Bedrosian, Saroyan's resilient philosophy is deeply connected to his Armenian roots and an understanding of this relationship is pivotal to the comprehension of Saroyan's works. Bedrosian also points out that Saroyan's laughter and optimism are often shadowed by the sadness and isolation of the struggle of his people in America, and that this is a significant key to understanding Saroyan's work. Similarly, Walter Shear feels that Saroyan's writing contains a subtext, an “emotional record of what it means to be a member of the Armenian subculture,” and that this sentiment permeates the body of his work. In an interview with Garig Basmadjian, Saroyan himself remarked on his dual heritage, both Armenian and American, as being a central defining factor of his writing. The last two decades have seen the publication of several anthologies about Saroyan's work, including a collection of essays edited by Leo Hamalian. In this book, Hamalian points out that largely because Saroyan wrote works that were contrary to intellectual tastes of his time, his writing was denied serious critical attention for many decades. This was compounded by the attention Saroyan received for his personal life and problems, leading to a dismissal of his work as a serious creative writer. However, contends Hamalian, contributors to his book on Saroyan agree that his work has been hitherto undervalued, and that in the future, it is likely that he will be “hailed as a trailblazer for writers … of the immigrant experience in America.”
The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories (short stories) 1934
Inhale & Exhale (short stories) 1936
Three Times Three (short stories) 1936
Love, Here Is My Hat (short stories) 1938
The Hungerers (play) 1939
My Heart's in the Highlands (play) 1939
The Time of Your Life (play) 1939
My Name Is Aram (short stories) 1940
Subway Circus (play) 1940
A Theme in the Life of the Great American Goof (play) 1940
Hello Out There (play) 1941
Saroyan's Fables (short stories) 1941
Three Plays: The Beautiful People, Sweeny in the Trees, Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning (plays) 1941
The Human Comedy (novel) 1943
Dear Baby (short stories) 1944
Don't Go Away Mad (play) 1949
The Assyrian and Other Stories (short stories) 1950
Rock Wagram (novel) 1951
Tracy's Tiger (novel) 1951
The Laughing Matter (novel) 1953
A Lost Child's Fireflies (play) 1954
The Cave Dwellers (play) 1957
Ever Been in Love with a...
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SOURCE: Saroyan, William, and Garig Basmadjian. “Candid Conversation.” In William Saroyan: The Man and the Writer Remembered, edited by Leo Hamalian, pp. 132-57. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1975, Saroyan discusses his life and works with Basmadjian.]
(25 May 1975 in Paris)
[Basmadjian]: In February 1934 Story published The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. In October Random House brought out your first book. In less than one year you became one of the most read, discussed writers of the time. You were 26. Looking back forty years, how would you explain your sudden and spectacular appearance in American letters and what was the key of your success?
[Saroyan]: I am obliged to reply that there is an element of the unaccountable in such things. It will be a little bit mistaken for me not to acknowledge the unaccountable. I certainly wanted only to have my writing published, so that I could make a beginning and a living. I was hoping for the kind of reception which would permit me to continue (I had much writing to do) and at the same time not to need any financial assistance from anybody.
Was that the best reception you've gotten as a writer?
I would have to say that I received from the outset perhaps the...
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SOURCE: Bedrosian, Margaret. “William Saroyan and the Family Matter.” MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 9, no. 4 (winter 1982): 13-24.
[In the following essay, Bedrosian examines three of Saroyan's early works, contending that the sense of self-sufficiency Saroyan portrays in his fiction is permeated with a sense of isolation and loneliness due to the personal circumstances of his own life.]
In one of his numerous autobiographies, William Saroyan once wrote of his dead father's failure to express the emotional truth of his life through aborted literary attempts. Now, over a year after his own death, these words offer one of the aptest commentaries on Saroyan's writing as well:
He hadn't made it. But as if as a special favor to me he had kept a record of it, of the failure, the loss, and the finality. …
In a sense the writing was my own, and I didn't like it. It just wasn't tough enough for the truth of us, of this world, and I wished it had been.1
What we discover in the work of this most famous and prolific of Armenian-American writers is a lifelong tension between the forces of good-humored acceptance and the more insistent voice of his own experience as the orphaned son of an Armenian immigrant. For...
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SOURCE: Shear, Walter. “Saroyan's Study of Ethnicity.” MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 13, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1986): 45-55.
[In the following essay, Shear reflects on Saroyan's portrayal of the relationship between ethnicity and mainstream culture through an analysis of his short story collection My Name Is Aram.]
At one time William Saroyan was America's most famous ethnic writer—more famous than ethnic, perhaps. In the late 1930s and early 1940s Saroyan exploded onto the literary scene as a true wunderkind, the writer who was single-handedly revolutionizing the form of both the short story and the drama. He was the man who refused the Pulitzer Prize and argued with Louis B. Mayer over the issue of artistic integrity. As a literary personality, he had an instinctive desire to be a part of the American cultural scene, to feel that he counted on such a stage. Yet at the same time he felt apart from it, hating the entrepreneurs of culture and his writing rivals with such a passion he was often dismissive of the popular mainstream culture of his day. In these moods he was apparently satisfied with his own artistic ego and his quieter working out in his fiction of his own cultural dilemma.
Saroyan's ethnic writing, which is in essence his emotional record of what it means to be a member of the Armenian...
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SOURCE: Haslam, Gerald W. “William Saroyan.” In A Literary History of the American West, pp. 472-81. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Haslam provides a brief overview of Saroyan's works, focusing particularly on his contribution to the advancement of ethnic literature in the United States.]
Few American writers tumbled as dramatically from critical acclaim as did William Saroyan. There were many reasons, not the least of which was his personality. Because, as Saroyan's son Aram has argued, the writer came to personify “what might be called the mythic potential of his particular social-historical moment,” Saroyan's self-centered, sometimes abrasive character became perhaps more important than his writing in the eyes of some. William Saroyan was, during the first half of his career, as much a public figure as an artist, and the confusion of those two roles made it easy to ignore his literary accomplishments once his notoriety faded.
In fact, the artist's psychological contradictions are finally much less important than the quality of his art and, from his first published volume (The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, 1934) until his last (Obituaries, 1979)—both of which were cited as among their years' best books—Saroyan was an authentic, singular American genius. He was also, as Bob Sector has...
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SOURCE: Kouymjian, Dickran. Introduction to “Warsaw Visitor” and “Tales from the Vienna Streets”: The Last Two Plays of William Saroyan, edited and with an introduction by Dickran Kouymjian, pp. 1-37. Fresno: The Press at California State University at Fresno, 1991.
[In the following essay, Kouymjian characterizes Saroyan's last two plays as his final theatrical statements, noting that although there are differences among them, the two works share a special kinship due to their link with Saroyan's experiences in the last year of his life.]
William Saroyan wrote Warsaw Visitor and Tales from the Vienna Streets in Paris during June and July of 1980. He had cancer and knew it. He died less than a year later on May 18, 1981 in the Veteran's Hospital in Fresno, the city where he was born on August 31, 1908. Were these then his last plays? I am not sure and have not wanted to investigate too far in order to allow for the surprises always associated with Saroyan. He was an interior man gifted with a dramatic public presence. He did not talk with others about his writing projects. My files record no later works written in Paris before his departure in late August, and no play titles after Tales from the Vienna Streets. When we spoke and met in Fresno in September 1980 and after, he always said he was writing. In November he showed me a thick pile of typed sheets which he said was his...
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SOURCE: Calonne, David Stephen. “William Saroyan and Multiculturalism.” Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies 6 (1992-1993): 107-17.
[In the following essay, Calonne remarks on the centrality of ethnicity and diversity issues in Saroyan's work.]
William Saroyan was “multicultural” long before it became the fashion: questions of “ethnic” identity are central to his lifework and his writings are directly relevant to the current fierce debate on university and college campuses concerning what shall be defined as “American culture.” His Armenian heritage sensitized him from childhood to the situation of “minorities” (or what used to be called “foreigners”), to racism and injustice, and characters representing virtually every race are depicted throughout his stories, plays, novels, and memoirs. Armenia's historic role as an intermediary zone between Orient and Occident, its ability to assimilate other cultures yet retain its own unique character, gave Saroyan a perfect vantage point from which to create his own New World. He envisioned an America where racial/ethnic differences were not a barrier to human community, but rather were powerful sources of meanings and values which might contribute towards the making of a new, broader, richer, energetic spiritual and cultural life.
Saroyan's profound awareness of “diversity” is in marked contrast to the work of...
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SOURCE: Calonne, David Stephen. “William Saroyan and the Armenian Genocide.” Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies 7 (1994): 93-100.
[In the following essay, Calonne discusses Saroyan's response to the Armenian genocide in his work, characterizing it as a complex relationship that affected his writing but did not negate his essentially positive outlook towards humanity.]
William Saroyan found little in life simple or free from ambiguity. Although his prose often gives the sense of effortless bonhomie and improvisatory ease, he achieved such spontaneous expression at the hard cost of constant work and careful artistry. His relation to his Armenian heritage and the genocide of his people was also complex, yet in his response to the tragedy of his people, he ultimately was faithful to his affirmative vision of life and his belief in the basic goodness of humanity.
Born in 1908, Saroyan was seven at the climax of the Armenian Genocide in 1915. On the one hand, he registered with anger and horror “the pain and the grief of our torn land” (as he wrote in “The Death of Children”), yet he also asserted a Franciscan love and acceptance of the universe: he could not condone hatred.1 He remained committed to pacifism throughout the Thirties, as his story collections from The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934) to Little Children (1937), Love,...
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SOURCE: Haslam, Gerald. “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, pp. 111-25. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Haslam offers an account of Saroyan's rise to fame in the 1930s and 1940s, highlighting the significance of California and the Fresno area as important settings in and literary influences on his fiction.]
First the terrain: not flat, but swooping, swerving, leading the eye first skyward where gulls seemed to hang, then down toward the bay or the vast Pacific, then up once more toward hills where the rich lived.
And the fog: On the coast, it was fluffy and damp and it visited much of summer—unlike the frigid miasma that burdened Fresno each winter. The young writer wore a sweater during June, July, and August, the searing season in his native Fresno.
And the people: his hometown was hardly as homogeneous as outsiders might imagine, but San Francisco was a world capital where turbanned Sikhs might rub elbows with Filipinos as they passed White Russians, a social stew that seemed exactly correct for a young artist.
In a sense, though, William Saroyan wasn't a newcomer at all when he arrived in the Bay Area as an adult. He had spent formative years, 1911 to 1916,...
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SOURCE: Balakian, Nona. “The Broadway Years.” In The World of William Saroyan, pp. 242-52. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Balakian describes Saroyan's years in Broadway, focusing on critical reception of his works, Saroyan's reaction to his critics, and brief overviews of his most successful productions.]
I began to see! I didn't used to see. The street cars going by had people in them suddenly. There had always been people in street cars, but now they were beautiful people.
—Saroyan, The Beautiful People
“This man Saroyan will be the death of us yet,” was how Brooks Atkinson began his review of Saroyan's third play to be produced on Broadway within thirteen months. Love's Old Sweet Song, called by the playwright “a theatrical entertainment,” had opened at the Plymouth Theatre on 2 May 1940 after a brief out-of-town run the month before. What had puzzled the Times's critic was how with all its “beguiling improvisations”—and the towering presence of Walter Huston in the role of “an amiable charlatan”—“nothing had been accomplished.” In a patronizing way he had used before with this playwright, he both acknowledged Saroyan's “inventive” and “original” gifts and complained of the play's “platitudinous” message. “Sooner or...
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SOURCE: Radavich, David. “War of the Wests: Saroyan's Dramatic Landscape.” American Drama 9, no. 2 (spring 2000): 29-49.
[In the following essay, Radavich proposes that Saroyan's plays are reflective of the conflicts inherent in the inspiration for his dramatic landscape—the American West—and that they echo this tension by presenting characters that navigate between the romance and ideals and the unforgiving nature of reality and cultural conflict in the West.]
For some years now, William Saroyan's worldview has remained largely out of favor, despite the ongoing popularity of such works as The Time of Your Life and My Name Is Aram. In an America currently beset with deeply troubling patterns of violence, crime, and even terrorism, Saroyan's works have been regarded as too whimsical, optimistic, and willfully carefree to stay relevant to contemporary issues, his “quixotic brand of escapism and wish-fulfilment … no longer effective in a world desperately staving off annihilation” (Hewes 163). Yet Saroyan's worldview is less rosy than is often supposed. The major plays marking the famous “Saroyan period” (Block and Shedd 669) from 1939-42 in fact document a conspicuous darkening of mood and disillusionment. And his depiction of conflicting “Wests”—among them, the California of mind and fantasy as well as of harsh, unforgiving landscape—has become prescient now that we...
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Bedrosian, Margaret. “William Saroyan in California.” California History 68, no. 4 (1989-99): 202-09.
Outlines the setting of California and the significance of the Armenian immigrant experience, in particular as it relates to Saroyan's work.
Bulbulian, Stephen Y. “William Saroyan: A 90th Birthday Celebration.” Ararat 40, no. 1 (winter 1999): 53-4.
Summarizes speaker remarks on a birthday celebration held in Saroyan's honor by his niece Jacqueline Kazarian.
Calonne, David Stephen. “William Saroyan's Assyrians and Armenians.” Journal of the Society of Armenian Studies 9 (1996-1997): 65-73.
Outlines the way in which Saroyan integrated the Assyrian and Armenian history and plight in his works.
Everding, Robert G. “Shaw and Saroyan.” Independent Shavian 24, nos. 2-3 (1986): 35-40.
Points to Shavian elements in Saroyan's dramatic technique, commenting on the similarities between the work of the two playwrights.
Foster, Edward Halsey. “A New Kind of Fiction.” In William Saroyan: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 11-9. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Discusses the influence of Sherwood Anderson on Saroyan's short fiction, highlighting the similarities between their...
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