William Saroyan Saroyan, William (Vol. 1) - Essay

Saroyan, William (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Saroyan, William 1908–

Armenian-American novelist, short story writer, and playwright. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Saroyan do doubt recognized his kinship with [Sherwood] Anderson. Much of his fiction constitutes a sort of "Story-Teller's Story" and is similar to Anderson in many ways: its indifference to plot; its underplaying of technique and overplaying of spontaneity and sincerity; its tendency to indulge in homely philosophy; its preference for eccentrics and outcasts; its delicacy in handling sex, relating it more to loneliness than to passion; its scorn for what Anderson called "dreary commercial success"; its contempt for formal education; its distrust of churches and religious creeds combined with a strong religiosity and an almost mystical reverence and humility before the possibilities of life….

But Saroyan is an unlikely subject for the exploration of literary influences. Always defiantly unliterary, he has repeatedly expressed contempt for rules and stylistic traditions. Although he spent much time in the public libraries of Fresno and San Francisco, his reading was fragmentary and cursory. "Big Valley Vineyard" expresses his desire as a writer to augment and clarify his direct personal experience with knowledge drawn from literature. But his attempts to draw upon his reading—or upon reading as an activity—for either subject or theme were not successful. (p. 31)

Saroyan need not have troubled himself about charges that he was forever re-creating his own personality. For some time criticism had recognized that the "I" of a poem, even of the most personal lyric, should never be construed as the poet himself in any faithful autobiographical sense, for to do so was to undercut the literary purpose and betray the artist whose primary aim was to illuminate the human situation. Somehow this conclusion was slow to be applied to fiction. In none of the reviews of Saroyan's work can one find a sense of this fundamental distinction. The general tendency was to assume that Saroyan forever wrote about himself. (p. 73)

Saroyan's style steadily improved throughout the sequence of books which began with The Daring Young Man (1934) and concluded with My Name is Aram (1940). During this period of prolific effort—by his own estimate he wrote more than five hundred tales in these years—he learned to get into his story immediately; to fit character, setting, and mood to the action; to express with colloquial vigor what his people were capable of saying, and to imply much about what they were able to feel. His style grew lean, partly because of his own reaction to the criticism that he tended to talk too much. In establishing setting, he began to dispense with description altogether and to rely on simple statement: a bar on Third Avenue, a lunch counter on Kearney Street, or a frame house in Fresno. Ignoring appearances and backgrounds of his characters, he began to do little more than assign names to his people and to start them talking. Because of his mastery of colloquial speech, these sketches often appeared vital and significant when they were at times no more than incomplete exercises in dramatic composition. But, at their best, they achieved moments of genuine recognition; and at such times the economy of drama became an important virtue of his story form. (p. 90)

There is no better indication of the limiting effects of [Saroyan's] growing solipsism than his … recent novel, One Day in the Afternoon of the World. In style it is as good as anything he has written: it is swift and lean, well-visualized, well-unified, and freer of reflective digressions than any other novel since The Laughing Matter. Yet it fails to reflect anything more representative than Saroyan's own weariness and disenchantment: "There comes a day in the afternoon of the world when a man simply wants to lie down and close his eyes." Here the Saroyan protagonist is a tired, memory-haunted man who at the close of the book slips into a melancholy that is no broader than a nostalgia for his own particular past. It is an involvement with self that spoils his chances of deriving solace or lasting pleasure from the young lives he briefly touches in the story. Because the author gives us no indication that his vision is larger than that of his protagonist, the final effect of the novel is restricting and oppressive…. What often defeats Saroyan in his novels is lack of interest in character for its own sake. (pp. 148-50)

His proper métier is the short story. His is an art of situation rather than action, of characters seen instantaneously, as it were, with their full quota of characteristics present from the beginning. They must be called "flat" in E. M. Forster's sense of this word, for they rarely surprise one. Yet they spring from an imagination so confident of their reality that we unconsciously assume their completeness; we are sure that Saroyan knows much more about them than he is obliged to tell. It is not surprising, therefore, that his best post-war book, despite its gauche title, The Whole Voyald, is a collection of short stories…. The technique is masterful, especially in the selection of detail and the blending of setting, character, and idea. The passing years have given Saroyan a greater concern for the idea, and thus these stories have a more pronounced heightening of effect than we find in his pre-war fiction. But they are also less spontaneous and sometimes too apparent in their symbolic intention. (p. 151)

Saroyan is willing to admit the charge of carelessness, as he is the charge of sentimentality. In respect to the latter, he once commented that it is a very sentimental thing to be a human being. To the many criticisms of his underlying optimism, he has replied: "Out of ignorance and desperation, poverty and pain,… emerges intelligence and grace, humor and resignation, decency and integrity…. I don't know why or how, precisely, this sort of thing happens, but I do know that it does happen and that I feel it is right for it to happen…." (p. 153)

[A] fundamental problem for Saroyan is that his inherited attitudes and tastes have placed him outside the mainstream of American culture. Because of his emphasis on the "good guy," or at least on the "happy guys," he has seemingly sinned against the high seriousness and pessimism of our literature. Instead of a literature of denial or of anger, his is one of affirmation: "In the time of your life, live." He has steadfastly refused to accept the prevailing ideals of composition and the predominant pessimism of Naturalism. Because his treatment of serious themes has often appeared casual, deeper implications have sometimes been overlooked. (p. 155)

Howard R. Floan, in his William Saroyan, Twayne, 1966.

Saroyan is a writer in whom little development has occurred, except perhaps in skill in setting forth the same basic attitudes and ideas and experiences—enough development after all for any artist. Right from the start he was a likeable smart aleck, what Edmund Wilson called "a good drunk."…

Saroyan was authentically from The People in the special leftist sense of the thirties and, as it has turned out, in any other sense that can be named. One can put his early stories beside the self-conscious proletarian works of that time and marvel at the fad-dazzled eyes of yesteryear; and find him fresh as ever. At times he has written so charmingly about his immigrant forebears that we are not only glad ours are Americans (Mark Twain did that for us) but wish they too had been Armenian….

Of course, Saroyan is sentimental, nobody ever doubted that, least of all himself; but with age the charm he always had at the drop of a word, and for which we always wanted to forgive him the rest, is now less sweet than bittersweet. Occasionally, he leaves out the sugar…. And there was always a darker view, unmistakable in The Laughing Matter, in which evil is neither accountable nor avoidable but simply is….

The first problem with Saroyan is what to name him. Early, his reputation took shape as bright funny boy, the Armenian wise guy from Fresno with the warm sentimental heart. The result is that people still do not take him seriously.

Edward Krickel, "Cozzens and Saroyan: A Look at Two Reputations," in Georgia Review, Fall, 1970, pp. 281-96.