William Saroyan Saroyan, William (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories 1934

Inhale and Exhale 1936

Three Times Three 1936

*The Gay and Melancholy Flux: Short Stories 1937

Little Children 1937

Love, Here is my Hat and Other Short Romances 1938

The Trouble with Tigers 1938

Peace, It's Wonderful 1939

3 Fragments and a Story 1939

My Name is Aram 1940

The Insurance Salesman, and Other Stories 1941

Saroyan's Fables 1941

Best Stories 1942

48 Saroyan Stories 1942

Thirty-One Selected Stories 1943

Dear Baby 1944

The Saroyan Special: Selected Short Stories 1948

The Fiscal Hoboes 1949

The Assyrian, and Other Stories 1950

Love 1955

The Whole Voyald, and Other Stories 1956

After Thirty Years: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (short stories and essays) 1964

Best Stories of Saroyan 1964

An Act or Two of Foolish Kindness: Two Stories 1977

The Man with the Heart in the Highlands, and Other Early Stories 1989

Other Major Works

The Hungerers: A Short Play (drama) 1939

The Time of Your Life (drama) 1939

Three Plays: My Heart's in the Highlands, The Time of Your Life, Love's Old Sweet Song (dramas) 1940

The Human Comedy (novel) 1943

The Adventures of Wesley Jackson: A Novel (novel) 1946

A Decent Birth, a Happy Funeral (drama) 1949

The Twin Adventures: The Adventures of Saroyan: A Diary; The Adventures of Wesley Jackson: A Novel (novels) 1950

Rock Wagram (novel) 1951

The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills (autobiography) 1952

The Laughing Matter (novel) 1953

Mama I Love You (novel) 1956

Papa You're Crazy (novel) 1957

The Cave Dwellers (drama) 1958

The Slaughter of the Innocents (drama) 1958

Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who (autobiography) 1962

Boys and Girls Together (novel) 1963

Not Dying (autobiography) 1963

One Day in the Afternoon of the World (novel) 1964

Two Short Paris Summertime Plays of 1974: Assassinations and Jim, Sam and Anna (dramas) 1979

*Contains stories from Inhale and Exhale and Three Times Three.

Burton Rascoe (essay date 1934)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Saroyan on the Flying Trapeze," in New York Herald Tribune Books, October 21, 1934, p. 9.

[Rascoe was an American literary critic who contributed to such influential periodicals as the American Mercury, Bookman, Esquire, New York Herald Tribune Books, and Newsweek. In the following review of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories, he dedares Saroyan "an extraordinary talent" and lauds his promise as a writer.]

Our breath is bated while we await the progress and development of the extraordinary talent which produced the title story of [The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories]. Will young Mr. Saroyan, we ask, ever get outside himself for more than a sustained instant and cease to marvel at himself as at an animated forked radish, wistful, sentient and beset in a pumpkin and spinach universe? And will we like him then, quite as much as now, when he becomes aware that other people exist and begins to ask himself why it is that this one does that and why that one says thus and so? Will we like him quite as well when we are finally privileged to see some of those "short stones" we learn from this book that he is incessantly writing?

What we have here is not a collection of short stories but an adolescent diary of a young man whose freshness and originality has the smack of genius. But what we have also is some experimental work in prose orchestration by a young man unusually clever, who is definitely resolved to achieve emotional effects on paper whether they are of emotions he has felt or merely emotions he believes people are capable of feeling. He is, in fact, a technician, mastering his keyboard with conscientious practice, employing grace notes with self-satisfaction and not above faking a passage neatly if put to it.

The title story made something of a sensation when it first appeared in the magazine, Story. Its appeal, it must be admitted, was somewhat factitious. It is the interior monologue of a starving young writer. It is a record of the stream of ideas. Impressions, sensations of an articulate and mentally well-nourished youth from the moment he wakes up in a cheerless hall bedroom one morning, through his breakfastless day in search of employment, along with his fears of actual death by starvation until, after a hopeless search, he returns to his room.

Bewildered, he stood, beside his bed, thinking there is nothing to do but sleep. Already he felt himself making great strides through the fluid of the earth, swimming away to the beginning. He fell face down upon the bed, saying, I ought first at least to give the coin to some child (a penny he had found). A child could buy any number of things with a penny.

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city...

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Louis Kronenberger (essay date 1934)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Saroyan High Jinks," in The New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1934, p. 7.

[A drama critic for Time from 1938 to 1961, Kronenberger was a distinguished historian, literary critic, and author highly regarded for his expertise in eighteenth-century English history and literature. In the following review of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories, he acknowledges Saroyan's talent but maintains that he has yet to prove himself as a writer.]

Mr. Saroyan's first short stories aroused considerable attention when they appeared, some months ago, in magazines; and his first book The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and...

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Clifton Fadiman (essay date 1936)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "71 Varieties," in The New Yorker, Vol. XII, No. 1, February 22, 1936, pp. 67-9.

[Fadiman became one of the most prominent American literary critics during the 1930s with his insightful and often caustic book reviews for the Nation and the New Yorker magazines. In the following excerpt from a review of Inhale and Exhale, he expresses a preference for Saroyan's description of characters and incidents over pondering on a grand scale: "I must confess that when Saroyan is being most himself and telling us all about the World and Life and Time and Death, I don't understand him. "]

These 71 stories [in Inhale & Exhale]—no doubt Mr....

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Harold Strauss (essay date 1936)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mr. Saroyan Continues to Write Very Much as He Pleases," in The New York Times Book Review, February 23, 1936, pp. 4, 13.

[During his years with the publishing firm Alfred A. Knopf Strauss edited works by Kobo Abe, Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, and Yasunari Kawabata, thereby playing an important role in the introduction of modern Japanese literature to American readers. In the following review of Inhale and Exhale, he judges Saroyan "the most prolific and uneven of writers. "]

A storm of conflicting opinion is usually raised by any mention of William Saroyan, whose meteoric advent on the literary scene dates from the publication last year of The...

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Alfred Kazin (essay date 1937)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Art of Mr. Saroyan," in New York Herald Tribune Books, August 15, 1937, p. 4.

[A highly respected American literary critic, Kazin is best known for his essay collections The Inmost Leaf (1955), Contemporaries (1962), and On Native Grounds (1942), a study of American prose writing since the era of William Dean Howells. In the following enthusiastic review of Little Children, he commends Saroyan's evocation of childhood and notes that the book is appealing despite its shortcomings,]

Mr. Saroyan is one of these rare writers (not always the most gifted but usually the most delicate) who can write only of themselves, but mould and...

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C. John McCole (essay date 1937)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "That Daring Young Man, Mr. Saroyan," in Lucifer at Large, Longmans, Green and Co., 1937, pp. 257-73.

[In the following essay, McCole provides a highly critical assessment of Saroyan's originality as a writer.]

Mr. William Saroyan has not only evoked perdition upon all the short-story professors by telling them they can go take "a jump in the river," but he has also hurled all their baggage-load of techniques into the river after them. As a matter of fact, long before Mr. Saroyan ever thought of becoming a writer he had decided that the only thing for him to do, would be to make his own rules. For one thing, his own rules might be easier to follow.


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Harlan Hatcher (essay date 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Saroyan," in English Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, March, 1939, pp. 169-77.

[An American educator who served for over fifteen years as the president of The University of Michigan, Hatcher published works about the modern novel and modern drama as well as histories of the Great Lakes region. In the following excerpt, he contends that the strengths and weakness of Saroyan' s short fiction are directly related to his personality and outlook on life.]

Saroyan has kept himself in the spotlight almost continuously by his singular penchant for writing to the letter columns of the papers and magazines to protest criticisms of him by reviewers as his collections...

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Otis Ferguson (essay date 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "It Reads Like Fiction," in The New Republic, Vol. XLIX, No. 1277, May 24, 1939, pp. 78-9.

[In the following excerpt from a review of Peace, It's Wonderful, Ferguson comments on the fragmentary quality of the stories and on the progress Saroyan has made as a writer since publishing his earliest fiction.]

The twenty-seven new Saroyans in this seventh book [Peace, It's Wonderful] show the author's growth in discipline and ease in the form (for example, he doesn't have to write that he is a great writer until page 117, an almost final triumph over doubt). Saroyan's form isn't that of the plotted story, where things happen from a beginning through a...

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Edmund Wilson (essay date 1940)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Boys in the Back Room: William Saroyan," in The New Republic, Vol. 103, No. 21, November 18, 1940, pp. 697-98.

[Wilson, considered America's foremost man of letters in the twentieth century, wrote widely on cultural, historical, and literary matters. Perhaps his greatest contributions to American literature were his tireless promotion of writers of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and his essays introducing the best of modern literature to the general reader. In the following essay, Wilson perceives a decline in the quality of Saroyan's fiction after The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories: "[A] columnist is what William Saroyan seems sometimes in...

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Henry Seidel Canby (essay date 1940)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Armenian Picaresque," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 23, No. 10, December 28, 1940, p. 5.

[Canby was a professor of English at Yale University and one of the founders of the Saturday Review of Literature, where he served as editor in chief from 1924 to 1936. He was the author of many books, including The Short Story in English (1909), a history of that genre which was long considered the standard text for college students. In the following review of My Name Is Aram, Canby hails the artistry of Saroyan's accounts of a young Armenian boy in America who experiences are strongly colored by his heritage.]

I intend to be enthusiastic...

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Edwin Berry Burgum (essay date 1944)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Lonesome Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, Summer, 1944, pp. 392-403.

[In the following excerpt, Burgum perceives that Saroyan 's depiction of disillusioned, alienated Americans has evolved.]

William Saroyan has reached the top of the ladder scarcely ten years after his first steps in learning to please the public. His achievement has not been the triumph of a vulgar opportunism. One can be sure (from reading "Sweeney in the Trees") that money has meant little to him; and if he has been tempted by fame, as his frequent references to his genius suggest, it is only that fame has seemed the proof of his being...

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Joseph Remenyi (essay date 1944)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Saroyan: A Portrait," in College English, Vol. 6, No. 2, November, 1944, pp. 92-100.

[In the following essay, Remenyi offers a portrait of Saroyan, emphasizing the influence his character and predilections had on his writing.]

To create, stated Henrik Ibsen, means to set judgment upon one's self. This romantic definition of creativeness does not cripple the need of classical balance. By applying Ibsen's definition of creativeness, William Saroyan's works explain much of himself. They reveal an extrovert using writing as a means for his most intense expression; thus he can keep pace with a pragmatic and incongruous world which is rather indifferent to...

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Dan S. Norton (essay date 1944)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mr. Saroyan—Still His Own Hero," in The New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1944, pp. 3, 36.

[In the following review, Norton finds the stories in Dear Baby trite.]

William Saroyan has had another affair with his heart, and he calls the little one Dear Baby. It is somewhat underweight (117 pages) and not so lusty as the others have been, but it's a Saroyan, all right. It has the smile on its lips, the lump in its throat, the tear in its eye, and the bag full of tricks—the same old tricks.

The twenty pieces in Dear Baby have been written over a period of ten years. The earliest was published in 1935, the year...

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William Peden (essay date 1950)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Saroyan with Trumpet & Tremolo," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 33, No. 4, February 4, 1950, pp. 15-16.

[Peden is an American critic and educator who has written extensively on the American short story and on such American historical figures as Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. In the following review of The Assyrian, and Other Stories, he states that the title story is respectable, though the remaining pieces are such that "even [Saroyan's] most ardent admirers are likely to be quite unhappy. "]

William Saroyan's contribution to the American short story is a considerable one indeed. He brought to the American literary scene...

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William Peden (essay date 1956)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Saroyan Parade," in The New York Times Book Review, February 19, 1956, p. 26.

[In the following review, Peden judges the stories of Love highly uneven in quality.]

Love consists of some thirty short stories and narrative sketches originally issued in magazines ranging from Story and the Yale Review to the Pasadena Junior College Magazine. This collection again illustrates the fact that Saroyan still tends to be his own worst literary enemy. The best of these stories are very good, but others are quite the opposite.

At its best a Saroyan story is a delight—fresh, vigorous and perceptive. He has always been...

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Margaret Bedrosian (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Saroyan and the Family Matter," in MELUS, Vol. 9, No. 4, Winter II, 1982, pp. 13-24.

[In the following excerpt, Bedrosian examines the sense of waning community felt by ethnic individuals in Saroyan's fiction.]

In one of his numerous autobiographies, William Saroyan once wrote of his dead father's failure to express the emotional truth of his life through aborted literary attempts. Now, over a year after his own death, these words offer one of the aptest commentaries on Saroyan's writing as well:

He hadn't made it. But as if as a special favor to me he had kept a record of it, of the failure, the loss, and the...

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David Stephen Calonne (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "I Want to Live While I Am Alive," in William Saroyan: My Real Work Is Being, The University of North Carolina Press, 1983, pp. 28-46.

[Calonne is an American educator and critic. Assessing Saroyan's short story collections published in the second half of the 1930s, he determines that these works reflect an affirmation of life in an inhospitable, divisive modern world.]

For Saroyan, it is clear, living itself is the highest value; he violently opposes any system, belief, or authority which seeks to thwart the unfolding of the individual's inner self. He depicts a modern world which is mired in illusion, which has forgotten the spiritual dimension of experience....

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Jules Archer (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "More Letters from Bill," in Ararat, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 124-28.

[Archer is an American author known for his histories and biographies intended for a young adult audience. In these studies, he avoids glossing over unpleasant aspects of history and presents famous figures realistically, depicting not only their strengths but also their failings and weaknesses. In the following excerpt, Archer recounts correspondences in which Saroyan discussed writing and his career. ]

My friend Arnie Bennett and I were nineteen when we discovered Bill Saroyan. The year was 1934, when the Dionne quintuplets survived and Chancellor Dollfuss of Austria didn't....

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Foard, Elisabeth C. William Saroyan: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989, 207 p.

Extensive secondary bibliography about Saroyan and his work.


Floan, Howard R. William Saroyan. New York: Twayne, 1966, 176 p.

Critical biography. Floan attempts to "define the unique quality of [Saroyan's] imagination, to account for his enormous popular appeal and for the obvious staying power of this appeal."

Foster, Edward Halsey. William Saroyan. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1984, 51 p.

General biographical and critical monograph on...

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