Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2123
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...
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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 is not conducive to aesthetic pleasure.
The reader, then, who wishes to experience, or reexperience, Saroyan, will be best advised to dip randomly into this book, to take what is offered on its own terms. Some things are very good, and some are evanescent and silly. For example, if one were to read straight through the work, one could easily get a little tired of simple peasants and common drifters talking cutely and philosophically, making simple statements of purportedly significant depth. Better to search out those stories which do render the experience of the moment, which do give through the presentation of simple characters and trivial situations the flash of insight or of human recognition.
Perhaps a consecutive reading first calls attention to the distinctive Saroyan style—informal, colloquial, conversational. Saroyan had a fine ear for the cadences of speech, especially for that of children and young men down on their luck. There is a realism here that recognizes the importance to such people of cliché, slang, and the objects of popular culture such as music, cars, and family relationships. The plain and the simple can often be turned to music by Saroyan, and it is not hard to see why he seemed, in the years before World War II, to be a fresh voice. Such a style, however, is easily turned to the trivial, and this too may be found here. At times, Saroyan substitutes lists, and the mere piling-up of nouns and names and details, for the actual re-creation that is the job of art; at times, bad Saroyan sounds like bad Walt Whitman.
In the great majority of stories here, at least one theme is that of loneliness and isolation, but it is Saroyan’s trademark that his characters seldom give way to despair, seldom quit trying. At their best, as in “The Broken Wheel,” the characters find strength from the awareness of the essentially human mixture of life and death, of sorrow and laughter commingled. Saroyan’s characters forever struggle to establish relationships, to achieve a place in the sun, even if only as a paperboy, as in the story “Print.” Sometimes, however, the endings of the stories leave the reader confused and rather resentful at having it suggested to him that there is something of significance here, without the author having supplied sufficient information. One example, the concluding paragraph from the story “Axis,” may stand as characteristic of all too many of Saroyan’s stories:The old bartender looked at the young man while he drank beer and swam out into the big sea, zigzagging to avoid submarines and things like that. The old bartender smiled, because he was pretty sure it meant something, even if he didn’t know what, exactly.
Unfortunately, the reader never knows either. While the understated or low-key ending can often serve to underline the insight, it can just as often alienate the reader with its spurious profundity. One comes to expect this sort of ending from Saroyan almost as much as one comes to expect the trick or surprise ending from O. Henry. Saroyan is essentially a romantic, and like all romantics he frequently has great problems conveying to the reader the significance of a vision or insight so personal as not to be really expressible in words, for words are common property, and a vision is intensely personal.
There is much in these stories of the Armenian heritage, but it is not nearly so dominant as one might expect, nor is it nearly so important as the editor of the collection would have the reader believe. While Armenians predominate, there are plenty of Jews, Germans, and Italians—to name only a few. What Saroyan offers, and what tends to make the stories seem a bit dated, is the immigrant experience. He concentrates on the Armenians, to be sure, but their experience of adapting to the United States was not theirs alone, and much of what he says or represents is equally true of Jews or Italians or Irish. Indeed, Saroyan himself suggests in the meditation—one can hardly call it a story—entitled “The Long Way to Tipperary,” the universality of the immigrant experience. As is generally true of Saroyan’s collections of the 1930’s, the best stories here are those most closely tied to his family experience and the early days of his growing up.
Other patterns emerge from these stories. Many deal with children, especially brothers, and childhood experiences, those moments when youthful minds are just beginning to awaken to the realization of worlds and events outside the narrow confines of the family. Music, too, plays a large part in many stories, often acquiring symbolic value, as in the excellent story “Piano.” Despite Saroyan’s sympathy for the common man and for the underdog, there is little here of political commitment (Saroyan was notably apolitical), yet there are a number of stories the theme of which can only be described as the wonderfulness of America, an appreciation of the American dream and opportunity. The story “Raisins” is at once a touching vignette of the growth of the town of Fresno, California, and a commentary on economic cycles. Saroyan was only three years old when his father died, and a good many of the stories here are clearly a search for a father or, to be more precise, a search for a father image. Running through most of the stories is clear evidence of Saroyan’s ability to render sense experience, to suggest, neatly and economically, the sense of a place—the Europa Club, the O. K. Lunch, the Chop Suey Joint on Larkin Street, Fresno. Many of these places came to be, in Saroyan’s fiction, almost as much continuing characters as his brother, his uncle, his aunt, his grandmother.
Final mention should be made of one form found here in which Saroyan excels: the fable, in which are combined old world adages and newer sensitivities. These are among the best things in the book, often brief and often wry. The very demands of the form, in which Saroyan’s accomplishment can often be compared favorably with that of James Thurber, serve to restrain Saroyan’s tendency to overwrite.
The reader should be warned that the editor of this volume regards Saroyan as a great genius. More dangerous, however, than this inflated valuation of his subject is Tashjian’s assumption that the key to Saroyan’s career is his Armenianness and that these stories from Armenian publications are of the first importance. Indeed, Tashjian is mainly interested in Saroyan as a phenomenon of Armenian-American culture, and many of his extensive notes to the stories have less to do with Saroyan than with the trumpeting of glorious aspects of Armenian life and culture. Tashjian also has several other irritating habits. He seems to think that palpably means clearly, that unitarian source means single source, that virginal story means a new story, and that maiden print means first publication. His language tends to be pompous and inflated and therefore not quite accurate. He is also addicted to what he probably regards as the editorial we—but it often comes across as the royal we. The factual information supplied in the notes is useful and welcome, but such critical and literary judgments as they advance are jejune.
This volume, then, will not change current estimates of Saroyan; it will merely add to the material upon which such judgments are made. It represents both the best and worst of Saroyan. It will provide useful material for the scholars of Saroyan (who are few), but the general reader would be advised to make his first acquaintance with Saroyan in one or another of his published collections of short stories.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32
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.