Saroyan, William (Vol. 29)
William Saroyan 1908–1981
American dramatist, short story writer, novelist, and autobiographer.
Saroyan is best known for his plays The Time of Your Life (1939) and My Heart's in the Highlands (1939). Like his popular short fiction, Saroyan's plays are sentimental, nostalgic, and optimistic in their celebration of the potential of the human spirit and of the simple pleasures in life. The son of Armenian immigrants, Saroyan wrote of the lighter side of the immigrant experience in America, with special emphasis on the humor and importance of family life, which are central to Armenian culture. Most of his works are set in the United States and reveal his appreciation of the American dream and his awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of American society.
Saroyan's writing first became widely known in 1934, when Story magazine published "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." By the late 1930s Saroyan had a national reputation as a writer of short fiction. In 1937, magazine editor William Kozlenko persuaded him to turn his story "The Man with the Heart in the Highlands" into a play. My Heart's in the Highlands received mixed reviews when it opened in 1939, and Saroyan attributed many of the problems that critics noted in the production to his not having personally directed and produced the play. He was thereafter reluctant to allow others to produce his works. With the exception of The Cave Dwellers (1957), Saroyan's plays were not staged on Broadway after 1943 because he could no longer afford to produce them.
The Time of Your Life is one of the plays that established Saroyan's reputation. It is set on the waterfront in a San Francisco honky-tonk bar peopled with a variety of lonely characters. The central character is Joe, a financially secure but spiritually empty man who has been corrupted by society's warped values. Despite the dismal setting of this play, the message is ultimately optimistic, as the characters learn the satisfaction of trying to make life better for themselves and others. When the play was first produced, Saroyan had its moral printed on the program: "In the time of your life, live so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches." He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1940 for The Time of Your Life, but refused it because he did not believe in critical or commercial sanctions for art. In My Heart's in the Highlands, Saroyan also wrote of the triumph of the human spirit in adversity. In this play, a penniless Armenian-American family is evicted from its home, but they and their neighbors find comfort and enjoyment in the pleasures of music and poetry that they offer one another. Through the father of the family, a struggling poet who collects rejection slips, Saroyan demonstrates how institutions interfere with what should be a joyful sharing between artist and audience.
Saroyan's early success had faded by the time he reached middle age. Many critics cite Saroyan's refusal to adapt his writing to changes in American life as a significant factor in the decline of his literary reputation. During the Depression, Saroyan's fiction, with its nostalgia for an earlier, better time, was welcomed with relief by an American public who sought escape from the bleak reality of their lives. With the advent of World War II, however, the changing values and tastes of more cynical readers made Saroyan's stories of the goodness of human beings seem simplistic and superficial. Biographers also attribute Saroyan's change in fortune to his excessive drinking and gambling. In his memoirs Saroyan wrote: "Three years in the Army and a stupid marriage had all but knocked me out of the picture and, if the truth is told, out of life itself." In recent years, there has been renewed appreciation of Saroyan's early plays and stories.
Saroyan's work has been widely reviewed, but has rarely received serious critical analysis. In structure and in philosophy, his writing is simple, an attribute for which he has been both praised and scorned. Many critics contend that Saroyan did not grow as an artist after the 1940s, that his subject matter and outlook were stuck in the Depression-World War II era, and that he did not challenge himself to vary from his proven formulae. Especially in the later years, critics were almost unanimous in calling Saroyan's work overly sentimental. Although many have claimed that his loosely structured, anecdotal stories and memoirs overflow with sentiment and description and lack structure and form, Saroyan's works are still widely read. His special talent lay in his ability to create poetic, humorous characters and situations, and, as one critic said, "to write from joy, which is … sparse as a tradition in our literature."
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 8, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vol. 103 [obituary]; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981.)
Winifred L. Dusenbury
[The Time of Your Life] is set in a San Francisco waterfront honky-tonk, through which twenty-six strongly individualized persons pass, each one of whom expresses one facet of the character of mankind. Every man at some time in his life might be like Dudley, who lives for love; or like Wesley, who considers life a battle between himself and the machine; or like Harry, sick at heart, but wanting to make people laugh; or like McCarthy, the muscular longshoreman who is a philosopher; or like his friend, Krupp, who likes people and hates his duties as a policeman; or like Joe, who is trying to find the answers to life's problems; or, unfortunately, like Blick, whose meanness makes him hated by all; or like the other characters who enter the scene…. Each character of the play, isolated in some degree from every other one, is trying in his own way to discover how to live in a way that life may seem filled with delight. (p. 157)
In The Time of Your Life the only momentary suggestion of family life is made by the two-minute entrance of Nick's little daughter, and later, the walk-on entrance of his mother. The pleasure and pride which each of these two female characters evince toward Nick increase the sense of loneliness which pervades the characters who make use of the honky-tonk. The breath of family joy which blows upon Nick makes the atmosphere of his Entertainment Palace seem cold by comparison. The difficulty of "smiling...
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Richard R. Lingeman
Older and less brilliant in his new book, "Obituaries," William Saroyan is still defying the rules, still the daring young man on the flying trapeze. Characteristically, this latest performance has a bit of the stunt in it, like a pie-eating contest or a six-day bicycle race. It might even be described as a death-defying leap, for "Obituaries" is a book about death. Its pretext—and here is the stunt—is that Mr. Saroyan will write about each of the 200 or so names listed in the Necrology section of Variety's annual review of the year 1976. Reading through the names, Mr. Saroyan discovered that he had known 28 of them; the others are strangers….
Mr. Saroyan considers each name in turn, letting it trigger a flood of reminiscences, thoughts, digressions, observations, paeans, sour notes and epiphanies. He keeps at it day after day, standing at his desk, typing away. He is like a man on an exercycle logging the words like miles on his odometer, his imagination providing the changing scenery, a kind of stream-of-consciousness travelogue projected on a screen in his mind, like the movies of an unwinding road that driver trainees watch in their mockup cars. But he keeps always in mind the end of the road we are all heading for—death.
Speed is uppermost, for all the disgressions. He refuses to pause to look up an occasional spelling he is unsure of, or the title of a movie. "I'll be damned if I'm going to hang around...
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What we discover in the work of this most famous and prolific of Armenian-American writers [Saroyan] 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…. Saroyan's relationship to his ethnic group [is] an affinity based less on the shared values of communal life than the common experience of "wounded homelessness," of belonging to a dying race, of having been abandoned by one's father into a world devoid of security and rest.
This was an attitude he had portrayed movingly in his 1934 short story, "Seventy Thousand Assyrians." Here Saroyan depicts the Assyrians as the one ethnic group whose claim to world attention fell even below that of the Armenians…. The moral of this bittersweet tale is that the fragility of his national ties has freed the humble Assyrian barber to join the race of man," the part that massacre does not destroy." (pp. 13-14)
Saroyan's laughter is sad, because the "tougher truth" of his family's and ethnic group's struggles stands at the back of his celebrations of earthy Armenian homelife, where flat bread and sun ripened grapes may nurture individual quests into a chancy world, but can't lighten the journey. Throughout, the thrust of Saroyan's life and art came from a radical existentialism, isolated from communal solace. It was an orphan's creed, sinewy and street-wise,...
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[Saroyan's] strongest writing, and there is much that is strong indeed, has always been in the short story, and there are many of those wonderful early ones in ["My Name Is Saroyan"]. He was a master of this most difficult of the prose forms and, in particular, could run the reader through changes with the discursive, free-flowing, seemingly inadvertent. Here is the beginning of "The First Day of Summer":
The first day of summer was cold, foggy, damp, dark, and like a day of winter. He had had no idea it was the first day of summer until the neighbor boy, Jimmy Barcos, now thirteen, told him….
And of course the story is about the first day of summer, the boy, the ball, Russia, Edmund Wilson and everything. This story, like many of the others, flows effortlessly and maintains its tone, its point of view, and its concerns so steadfastly that it can be dismissed as "Saroyanesque." Professors want something more arcane to demonstrate their tastes, and since the stories concern boring and mundane matters like life and death and love and hate, they can be dismissed even more quickly.
But these stories had, and still have, the power to move the reader. It is 50 years later, times and places and paraphernalia have changed, but Saroyan's vision of the needs of the human being is still pertinent and stirring. It's also probably true that that vision is too sweet—not...
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