Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 845

William Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, on August 31, 1908, the son of Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, poor Armenian immigrants. In 1911, when his father died, Saroyan was put into an Oakland orphanage with his brother, Henry, and his two sisters, Cosette and Zabel, but in 1915 he returned...

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William Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, on August 31, 1908, the son of Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, poor Armenian immigrants. In 1911, when his father died, Saroyan was put into an Oakland orphanage with his brother, Henry, and his two sisters, Cosette and Zabel, but in 1915 he returned to Fresno with his family. Over the following decade, Saroyan attended school in Fresno and held various after-school jobs, including work as a telegraph messenger boy, an experience which he would later re-create in his fiction.

In 1926, after repeated expulsions from school for disciplinary reasons, Saroyan left Fresno without a high school diploma, first going to Los Angeles, where he served briefly in the California National Guard, then to San Francisco, where, after working as a telegraph operator, he eventually became manager at a branch office of the Postal Telegraph Company. By 1928, when he made his first trip to New York, Saroyan had made up his mind to make writing his career. Soon depressed, homesick, and discouraged, he returned to San Francisco, taking a series of brief jobs and spending most of his time learning his craft at the library and the typewriter.

Recognition and success first came to Saroyan in 1934, when Story magazine published two pieces that would also appear in his first collection of sketches, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories (1934). Once discovered, Saroyan quickly found markets for his backlog of pieces as well as his new works. In 1936, after travels abroad, Saroyan began work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. There he continued to write stories and sketches, published in several collections.

Three years later, in 1939, he made his first serious venture into dramatic form with My Heart’s in the Highlands, which opened in New York as a Group Theatre project. It was soon followed by his best-known play, The Time of Your Life (1939), for which, in 1940, Saroyan won both the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, which, with characteristic obstinacy, he refused to accept. In 1940, frustrated by conditions imposed by Broadway entrepreneurs, Saroyan directed and produced his own play, The Beautiful People, and he did the same for two of his one-acts, Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning (1941) and Talking to You (1942), establishing, as an impresario, a reputation for his unconventional methods of casting and directing. His best-known one-act play, Hello Out There, was staged on Broadway in 1942, the year that marked the end of his most vital development as a dramatist.

Success brought Saroyan his share of problems. In fact, soon after the enthusiastic reception of My Name Is Aram (1940), fictionalized sketches based on his boyhood, Saroyan began to experience serious financial reversals, in part because of his addiction to gambling. Needing money, he agreed to write a screenplay for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, turning out The Human Comedy, which he would later rewrite as a novel under the same title. Published in 1943, The Human Comedy remains Saroyan’s most reputable fictional work.

Drafted into the Army in 1942, Saroyan served to the end of World War II and, in the interval, married Carol Marcus, whom he would later divorce, remarry, and then divorce again. Upon his release from service, Saroyan attempted to reestablish himself as a premier playwright and writer of fiction, but with only partial success. His propaganda novel, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson (1946), was met with hostile reviews that even questioned his patriotism. The film version of The Time of Your Life, released in 1948, proved to be a financial disaster. Gambling losses continued to plague him and contributed to his marital difficulties. With the publication of The Assyrian, and Other Stories (1950), however, critics pronounced that he had returned to form. He also gained some popularity as a lyricist when his song “Come on-a My House,” coauthored with his cousin, topped the Hit Parade in 1951.

From 1952 to 1958, after his second divorce from Marcus, Saroyan lived in Malibu, California. During that period, in addition to other works, he wrote his first nonfictional autobiographical work, The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills (1952); a bitter novel based in part on his troubled marriage, The Laughing Matter (1953); and his first play to be staged in New York in fourteen years, The Cave Dwellers (1957).

In 1959, proclaiming himself a tax exile, Saroyan left the United States for Europe, producing plays in London before returning to teach at Purdue University in 1961. Thereafter, Saroyan met with little success as a playwright and turned almost exclusively to fiction and autobiography. He did author a teleplay, “The Unstoppable Gray Fox” (1962), which was broadcast on The General Electric Theater, but over the last twenty years of his life Saroyan concentrated on personal memoirs. The most important works of this period include an autobiography, Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who (1961); a novelized memoir, Boys and Girls Together (1963); an anthology of occasional pieces, I Used to Believe I Had Forever: Now I’m Not So Sure (1968); and several memoirs, including Obituaries (1979), for which, in 1980, he was nominated for the American Book Award. Another autobiographical work, My Name Is Saroyan, was published posthumously in 1983, two years after he died of cancer.

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