My Name Is Saroyan

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

One of the staples in trade of short-story writer, novelist, and playwright William Saroyan was his Armenian ancestry. In 1933, he began sending various pieces to publications of the Armenian Hairenik (Fatherland) Association of Boston; his last piece was published in 1963. The Hairenik Daily had been published in Armenian since 1899, but in 1932, it began to include an English-language page, and it was to this page that Saroyan contributed some fifteen items in 1933 and 1934. In 1934, the Armenian Association began publication in English of the Hairenik Weekly, and to this outlet Saroyan contributed more than eighty items, mostly between 1938 and 1940. In 1948, The Armenian Review was founded, and Saroyan gave to it for first publication five items. My Name Is Saroyan, a posthumous collection edited by James H. Tashjian, the editor of The Armenian Review, presents ninety-seven short stories, four plays, and five poems. (The book jacket says two plays and four poems.) Tashjian’s preface indicates that there are eleven other Saroyan pieces, not creative or literary, which were published in the Hairenik journals but are not here collected. (The notes identify twelve.) Sixty-five of the short stories were never reprinted anywhere until this collection. (The book jacket says sixty-eight.)

Of the 106 pieces here collected, eighty-eight were published before 1941; of those, seventy-three were published in the three years from 1938 to 1940. The longest piece in the book, “The Broken Wheel,” is only nine pages long, and there are only a few of more than five pages; some are less than a page, no more than four or five hundred words. A number of the short stories can hardly lay claim to that title; they should more properly be called meditations or sketches, incidents or episodes.

William Saroyan first came to anything like national attention with the publication of “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” in Story magazine in 1934 and “The Broken Wheel” in Best American Stories of 1934. During the next six years, he wrote more than five hundred tales, culminating in 1940 with the publication of his best-known short-story collection, My Name Is Aram. (The title of the present collection, selected by the editor, is a deliberate effort to connect the collection with that earlier volume.) Though Saroyan never ceased to produce short fiction at any time in his career, he turned more, in the years just before and during World War II, to the theater. His two greatest successes, with the public if not always with the critics, were My Heart’s in the Highlands (1939) and The Time of Your Life (1939), winning the Pulitzer Prize (which Saroyan rejected) and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best play of the 1939 to 1940 season.

Saroyan’s only novel of much note, The Human Comedy (1943), was written as an outgrowth of a scenario for a movie of the same title at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He entered the army in 1942 and was discharged in 1945, serving thirteen months of overseas duty. Though he continued to produce much material in various genres, he was less popular than before the war and often seemed to be straining to recapture his original voice. His work had taken on a more querulous tone, and there was less patience and good humor in it. His final major works were a series of autobiographical reminiscences, published from 1952 until his death in 1981.

At his best, Saroyan is a celebrator of the joy of life, of the human splendor of experience. His characters are almost always immigrants, common people, those teetering on the brink of despair but refusing to give up. Almost all of his titles mentioned above speak of the sense of life which he finds in simple and apparently random human experience. He can be whimsical and bittersweet; his evocation of specific moments is often moving, and his rendering of place and character is sometimes on a par with that of Thornton Wilder or Damon Runyon. He is at his best with character and situation; his most common themes are loneliness, yearning, and courage.

At his worst, Saroyan is a garrulous, undisciplined writer, often guilty of sentimentality and seeking refuge in bloated significance. His unreasoning optimism cloys, and his characters frequently become caricatures. Throughout his career, the two most common faults alleged against him were that he talked too much and too easily and that he lacked any sense of plot or structure. All of the above, the best and the worst, are true, and all are represented in this collection.

It is probably unfair to read straight through a collection of short stories (or of poetry for that matter); short stories are not meant to be read in that fashion, and it is unfair to one’s judgment of an author and unfair to the author himself, whose foibles, habits, and faults are magnified by such a procedure. Such a procedure, however, can be helpful to the critic or scholar because it will reveal trends, themes, repetitions, and patterns that are useful for discussion; such things are more easily noticed in a consecutive reading, though the procedure...

(The entire section is 2123 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Library Journal. CVIII, June 15, 1983, p. 1260.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 22, 1983, p. 10.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, August 21, 1983, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LIX, August 22, 1983, p. 93.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, June 10, 1983, p. 57.