Saroyan, William 1908-1981
(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Archie Crashcup and Sirak Goryan) American short story writer, dramatist, novelist, autobiographer, essayist, screenwriter, and songwriter.
Saroyan is known for his short fiction that is considered sentimental, nostalgic, and optimistic in its 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 was born in Fresno, California, to Armenian immigrants. His father died when he was three years old, and he and his three siblings were placed in an orphanage in Oakland, California. In 1915 they were reunited with their mother in Fresno. While a teenager he dropped out of school and moved to San Francisco, where he worked at various jobs and eventually became a telegraph operator. In 1928 he published his first short story in Overland Monthly and Outwest Magazine. Determined to become a full-time writer, he published his first collection of short stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories, in 1934. This work was very successful, and he produced several subsequent collections of short fiction. In 1939 he began a prolific career as a playwright. Saroyan wrote in various genres, including juvenile fiction and autobiography, as well as gaining notoriety as a public figure. He died of cancer in Fresno in 1981.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Saroyan's first collection, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, is his most critically and commercially popular book of short fiction. The title story concerns a young writer struggling with his role in a materialistic world. The protagonist makes an attempt to carry on in a hostile environment but eventually welcomes death. Saroyan introduces one of his notable themes in this story—the importance and magnificence of life in the face of death—a theme he would use over and over in his work. In "A Cold Day" Saroyan uses an epistolary form to describe his harsh working condition to Martha Foley, the editor of Story magazine. The narrator of "Seventy Thousand Assyrians," a young man of Armenian heritage, discovers his barber, Badal is an Assyrian, whose people, like the Armenians, have been driven from their land and are in danger of extinction altogether. He acknowledges his bond with Badal and contrasts the endurance of their two lives against the ominous fate of their respective homelands and people.
Saroyan's work has been widely reviewed but until recently has not received serious critical analysis. In structure and in philosophy commentators find his writing simplistic, an attribute for which he has been both praised and scorned. 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. Moreover, commentators maintain that many of his stories are formulaic and overly sentimental. He has also been derided for the discursive, self-indulgent nature of his short fiction. Despite these opinions, Saroyan remains a well-respected writer and his works are widely read. Critics assert that his special talent lay in his ability to create poetic, humorous characters and situations and in his appreciation of the simple pleasures in life.