Following the success of his prize-winning Broadway play The Time of Your Life (pr., pb. 1939) and his short-story collection My Name Is Aram (1940), William Saroyan was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in December of 1941 to write (and, he believed, to direct) a major film. The screenplay for the film, The Human Comedy (1943), was completed in February of 1942. Shortly after the work’s completion, however, Saroyan, was fired from the film project as a result of a disagreement with the head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, over the question of direction. He then proceeded to turn his screenplay into a novel, publishing the book shortly before the film was released, in early 1943. This history of the novel’s development helps account in part for its episodic character: It is composed of short chapters that jump quickly from scene to scene without clear transitions. While this style was somewhat unusual for the time, it had been used earlier by William Faulkner in works such as As I Lay Dying (1930), and it works well for Saroyan in this work.
The Human Comedy, with its emphasis on family life, simplicity, and the inherent goodness of the working classes, clearly falls into the mode of the 1930’s and early 1940’s literary attempt to return to traditional values. The Macauley family, like the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), prevails in the midst of hardship through a mixture of toughness and perseverance and a deeply ingrained sense of doing what is right. In this way, the events of the family’s life in fictional Ithaca, California—based on the author’s own experiences growing up in Fresno, California, in the early years of the century—typify the larger American experience of the Great Depression and World War II. If the novel is occasionally sentimental in its content, there is still an edge and a quality of freshness to Saroyan’s...
(The entire section is 795 words.)