William Saroyan Saroyan, William (Vol. 8) - Essay

Saroyan, William (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Saroyan, William 1908–

An American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, Saroyan is often characterized as an overly sentimental writer. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Saroyan refused the award in 1940. He has written under the pseudonym Sirak Goryan. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The story of William Saroyan's amazing success and rapid decline is, in microcosm, a history of American optimism. Saroyan rose in mid-Depression as a bard of the beautiful life, a restorer of faith in man's boundless capacities; he has declined as a troubled pseudo-philosopher, forced to acknowledge man's limitations, yet uncomfortable in the climate of Evil. Indeed, he has come to dwell on Evil in order to deny its reality, reasserting, blatantly and defensively now, the American Dream of Unlimited Possibilities and Inevitable Progress. As a self-styled prophet of a native resurgence—believing in the virtue of self-reliant individualism, in the innate goodness of man and the rightness of his impulses—he has followed the tradition of American transcendentalism. (One critic has quite seriously called Saroyan the creator of "the new transcendentalism.") But it need hardly be said that Saroyan is no Emerson, either by temperament or by talent. The extent to which his later work has failed reflects, in one sense, the inadequacy of his equipment for the task he set himself. Yet it is also true that Saroyan is the representative American of the mid-twentieth-century, a man baffled at the failure of the Dream but unwilling to give it up; incapable of facing his dilemma frankly or of articulating it meaningfully.

When Saroyan's stories began appearing in the early 1930's, the literature of the day was somber with gloom or protest. And though Saroyan's fiction was also born of the Depression, often telling of desperate men, of writers dying in poverty, it nevertheless managed a dreamy affirmation. Politically and economically blind, Saroyan declared himself bent on a one-man crusade in behalf of the "lost imagination in America." In an era of group-consciousness, he was "trying to restore man to his natural dignity and gentleness." "I want to restore man to himself," he said. "I want to send him from the mob to his own body and mind. I want to lift him from the nightmare of history to the calm dream of his own soul."

This concept of restored individuality governed Saroyan's principal attitudes, his impulsive iconoclasm as well as his lyrical optimism. While Saroyan joined the protestants in damning the traditional villains—war, money, the success cult, standardization—he was really attacking the depersonalization which such forces had effected. He was just as much opposed to regimentation in protest literature as in everyday life. ("Everybody in America is organized except E. E. Cummings," he complained.) Writing about foreigners and exiles, the meek and isolated, "the despised and rejected," he celebrated the "kingdom within" each man. The artists in his stories preserved a crucial part of themselves; there was spiritual survival and triumph, let economics fall where it might. And in the glowing stories about men close to the earth of their vineyards, about glad children and fertile, generous women, Saroyan was affirming what he called the "poetry of life" and exalted with capital-letter stress: Love, Humor, Art, Imagination, Hope, Integrity.

In effect, Saroyan was restoring the perspective without which the writers of the thirties had often (for obvious reasons) reduced the individual potential to a materialism of physical survival. When a character in one of his plays insisted that food, lodging, and clothes were the only realities, another responded, "What you say is true. The things you've named are all precious—if you haven't got them. But if you have, or if you can get them, they aren't." However limiting Saroyan's simplifications might prove, they none the less contained important truths which had been lost sight of amidst the earnestness of agitation-propaganda. If Saroyan is given any place in future literary histories, he should be credited with helping to relax ideologically calcified attitudes. (pp. 336-37)

Saroyan [became], for the moment, an important force in the American theatre—a symbol and an inspiration to playwrights, actors, and audiences. He had come to stand not only for personal freedom after the years of economic and emotional austerity, but also for freedom in style and form.

Whereas Saroyan's stories were often reminiscent of Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, or John Steinbeck, there was no recognizable literary tradition behind his playwriting. Rather, it was the showmanship and theatricality of the popular entertainers, made euphonious and articulate, that went into these early plays…. He had developed a decided preference for vaudeville over Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, and the other "serious dramatists" because it was "easygoing, natural, and American."

Thus, his best works for the stage gave the impression of a jamboree which was springing to life spontaneously, right before one's eyes. The inhibitions of both stage people and audience were lifted by a mood of gentle intoxication (sometimes alcoholic, sometimes not). The impulse to play and sing and dance was given free rein without concern for plot or didactic point. (pp. 337-38)

Saroyan's element, indeed, was the flexible time of childhood; he was at his best when writing about dreams fulfilled and faith justified. He was a teller of joyful tales and tales of high sentiment, making a revel of life and lyricizing death, hardship, and villainy.

But not long after the peak of his success at the beginning of the forties, Saroyan's writing began to change. Concerned about the onesidedness of his outlook, he set out to justify his unadulterated hopefulness. Instead of the airy, uncontested supremacy of beauty and happiness, there were now, as Saroyan began to see things, misery and ugliness to contend with, imperfection to account for. At the same time that he took cognizance of the dark side of life, he began trying to prove all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, with the result that his novels and plays became strange battlegrounds where belief struggled with skepticism. To retain his perfectionist version of man's life on earth, yet to get rid of the unpleasant realities he had come to acknowledge—this was Saroyan's new burden. (p. 338)

Among the earliest works to demonstrate that Saroyan was no longer able to dismiss "evil" casually or to proclaim "belief" summarily was his first novel, The Human Comedy (which Saroyan wrote originally as a motion picture in 1943). The protagonist was Saroyan's favorite character type—a young dreamer with untainted senses, a rich imagination, and warm sympathies. Instead of following the old blithe Saroyanesque line, however, the book became a study in doubt and faith, tracing prophetically the pattern of Saroyan's own career. The young hero … is nearing the age of disenchantment and is especially vulnerable because he has been nourished on inflated ideals and has never been allowed to know adversity. His trust in the benevolence of the universe is consequently threatened when his personal idol, an older brother, goes off to war and faces death.

The outcome is abrupt and arbitrary, as Saroyan contrived to dissolve the conflict with a happy ending. The brother is killed in the war, and the boy is about to plunge into despair when, before mourning can get under way, a wounded buddy of the dead soldier—fortuitously an orphan without ties—appears on the scene and quite literally takes the brother's place in the household as if nothing had happened. Saroyan explained this miracle by inflating his idea of brotherliness into a concept of universal oneness which permits live men to be substituted for dead ones. Since "none of us is separate from any other," according to the logic of the novel, and since "each man is the whole world, to make over as he will," the stranger is able to become at once the son, brother, and lover that his friend had been. It is as simple as this because Saroyan is running the show. Death and disaster are ruled out of order, and the boy's illusions are protected.

But Saroyan was paying a high price for the preservation of unlimited possibilities. This novel had lost all but a modicum of the Saroyanesque buoyancy. In the course of thwarting misfortune, the author had to let the boy abandon his pranks and dramas to face the prospect of sorrow. Meanwhile, there was a moral point that had to be reinforced by sermons on virtue. Large doses of speculative talk adulterated the dreamy atmosphere. Always inclined toward sentimentality, Saroyan now landed with both feet deep in mush. By dwelling on the love and goodness he had previously taken with a skip and a holler, Saroyan was suffocating spontaneity. (pp. 338-39)

The fact that [the] concept of the mutual exclusiveness of good and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly has become an underlying assumption in Saroyan's struggle against disbelief is evidence of his "Americanism." (p. 339)

[The Adventures of William Saroyan and a novel (The Adventures of Wesley Jackson)] were weighted down with aimless vitriol about the indignities of war and the Army; and in attempting to write seriously about statesmanship, propaganda, and international affairs, Saroyan exposed to full view his lack of intellectual discipline and integrative capacity.

Saroyan has perennially boasted an aesthetics of no-effort, denouncing "intellectualism" and contending that a man should write as a hen lays eggs—instinctively, without thought or planning. Confusing laziness with casualness and spontaneity, he has continued to oversimplify. Part of Saroyan's charm had been the way he had often, in his enthusiasm about everyday things and people, blurred but intensified the lines of his picture with superlatives: "The loveliest looking mess the girl had ever seen"; "nature at its proudest, dryest, loneliest, and loveliest"; "the crazy, absurd, magnificent agreement." But when, in his later work, he applied this indiscriminate approach to questions of morality and metaphysics, the effect became one of pretentiousness. With sweeping generalizations, he now implied that he was solving man's weightiest problems, yet without evidence of any careful or systematic consideration…. The allegorical scheme he concocted for Jim Dandy was more ambitious than Thornton Wilder's in The Skin of Our Teeth. The assumption of Saroyan's play, as of Wilder's, was that "everybody in it had survived pestilence, famine, ignorance, injustice, inhumanity, torture, crime, and madness." But instead of a cohesive drama about man's survival through history by the skin of his teeth, Saroyan wrote an incoherent hodge-podge in which everything turns out just jim dandy, as if there has never been a serious threat at all. (pp. 339-40)

Saroyan's efforts to provide clarification have often had [a] tendency to eliminate all distinctions, reducing meaning to some amorphous unit—if not to a cipher. In his yearning for a harmony, for an eradication of conflicts and contradictions, Saroyan is the heir of a tradition which, among Americans of a more reflective or mystical temperament, has included Jefferson's ideal of human perfectibility, Emerson's Oversoul, Whitman's multitudinous Self, Henry Adams' Lady of Chartres, and Waldo Franks's "Sense of the Whole."

In 1949, there appeared a volume of three full-length plays by William Saroyan, his major works for the theatre since the war. None of these plays—Don't Go Away Mad; Sam Ego's House; A Decent Birth, a Happy Funeral—has been given a Broadway production. Indeed so vaguely speculative are they that their author found it necessary to explain them in lengthy prefaces summarizing the plots and offering suggestions for deciphering the allegories. The pseudo-philosophical elements of Saroyan's writing had come more than ever to overshadow the vivid and the colorful.

Moreover, the preoccupation with death virtually excludes every other consideration, especially in A Decent Birth, a Happy Funeral and in Don't Go Away Mad. The action of the latter is set in a city hospital ward for cancer victims, and the characters are all "incurables," tortured by pain and by thoughts of their impending doom. While they clutch at prospects of the slightest delay, they brood over the crises and deaths of fellow inmates and talk endlessly about death, life, time, and the details of their physiological decadence. Yet even here, in these plays about death, Saroyan has conjured up endings of joy…. (p. 340)

To negate death has thus become for Saroyan the crucial test of man's free will and unlimited powers. Sometimes, instead of whisking it away by plot manipulations, he had tried to exorcise death by comic ritual, to be as airy about morbidity as he had been about little boys turning somersaults. (Many social analysts have noted the uneasy effort in America to euphemize death, glamorize it, sentimentalize it, and generally make it keep its distance.) He changed the title of his most dismal play from "The Incurables" to "Don't Go Away Mad." He tried to lighten an act-long funeral ceremony by having burlesque comedians conduct the service while they played with yo-yos and rubber balls and blew tin horns. And some years ago he hailed George Bernard Shaw as the first man "to make a complete monkey out of death and of the theory [sic!] of dying in general." But one of Saroyan's own characters declares that "Death begins with helplessness, and it's impossible to joke about." Perhaps Saroyan has begun to suspect that for him, "Death is a lousy idea from which there is no escape."

The latest novel by Saroyan is called The Laughing Matter (1953). Set in the California vineyards and dealing with a family of Armenian heritage, the book has on its opening pages an atmosphere of love and warmth which recalls the earliest and best Saroyan. When the boy and girl of the family are the book's concern, their enjoyment of life and their sensitivity to the world around them—the way they savor figs and grapes, drink in the warmth of the sun, wonder about the universe—are a delight. But before long, Saroyan is trying to handle adult problems and the tale bogs down…. The boy, confronted by the tragic situation which is rocking the security of his beautiful family, cries to the skies, "What was the matter? What was it, always? Why couldn't anything be the way it ought to be? Why was everything always strange, mysterious, dangerous, delicate, likely to break to pieces suddenly?" For although his father has taught him the Armenian words, "It is right," and although everybody chants them over and over (one wise member of the family insists, meaning it, "Whatever you do is right. If you hate, it is. If you kill, it is."), nevertheless, everything goes wrong and there is death and disaster, and there is futility in the face of imperfection. And after it all, at the end of the book, still crying like an echo in the wilderness, is the repeated refrain, "It is right!" (pp. 340, 385)

William J. Fisher, "What Ever Happened to Saroyan?" in College English (copyright © 1955 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), March, 1955, pp. 336-40, 385.

[When "The Time of Your Life"] opened, exactly thirty years ago last month, Wolcott Gibbs summed up the occasion—and the author—in this magazine by saying, "An evening in the theatre with William Saroyan is rather like spending an evening with a drunkard—a talented, sentimental, and witty man, but tight as a mink. There are times when he is very funny, with a wild, rich invention that no sober man can equal, and there are times when he is eloquent. Unfortunately, there are also times when he gets to talking about his girl, and this is when you wish he would just put his head down on the table and go to sleep. Mr. Saroyan's girl is the human race. Speaking with the assorted voices of bartenders, bums, policemen, hoofers, and prostitutes, Mr. Saroyan interrupts his play again and again to explain that he and Life are sweethearts."

That opinion was sound, and it remains sound. "The Time of Your Life" is a ramshackle affair, mildly amusing when it is content to be a vaudeville; as a play, it has no center, and its surface is fatally smeared over with a sticky sweetness that the young Saroyan had what amounted to a patent on. He was a man who, without a blush, could speak of "little" people, meaning not leprechauns but human beings. Now, pace Mr. Lahr, even in the thirties there were any number of young people who, stalking their innocence like pathfinders—or maybe finding the path of their innocence like stalkers—had their doubts about Dr. Saroyan's magic cure-all; they might have been able to swallow the syrup, but they couldn't keep it down. (p. 163)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1969 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 15, 1969.

[The] best of Saroyan's radically different writing keeps the real world out and thus maintains the fabulous integrity of the Saroyan world. It is the world of a child: vibrant, powerfully simple, with everything larger than life.

William Saroyan is a kind of Armenian Buffalo Bill. As wild and woolly as the marvelous character in "The Time of Your Life" who really and truly herds cattle on a bicycle and falls in love with a midget weighing 39 pounds. His feats and misadventures have been no less mythic—whether it's been a matter of losing tens of thousands of hardearned dollars on the turn of a card, stubbornly marrying the same girl twice, or writing a Pulitzer Prize play in six days on a bet.

Admittedly Saroyan can be sentimental and silly; boastful and repetitive too. And at 64 he still astounds—discovers clichés, burnishes them, and presents them to us with a naiveté that can only be attractive in a 17-year-old virgin.

Yet books of his such as "My Name Is Aram," that glowing bit of radium extracted from the pitchblende of a rather grim Fresno childhood, will certainly be read a hundred years hence…. (pp. 13-14)

Peter Sourian, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 2, 1972.

Saroyan has been around so long and is so prolific that one forgets the importance of his contribution to the American short story; his first and best-known collection, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934), brought to the short story a freshness of vision, simplicity, gaiety, and sympathetic understanding of little people at a time when the genre was becoming enmired in an angry social consciousness or basically meaningless slice-of-life realism. In spite of whimsy, repetitiveness, and self-imitation, Saroyan's stories are part of the permanent literature of the American short story, and his "country"—particularly San Francisco, Fresno, and their environs—is as real in its way as Faulkner's Mississippi. Particularly effective is Saroyan's depiction of childhood and adolescence; stories like "The Fifty-Yard Dash," "The Parsley Garden," "The Home of the Human Race" and "Winter Vineyard Workers" are little classics, which have about them the warmth of an August afternoon with the scent of ripening fruit in the air. (pp. 164-65)

William Peden, in his The American Short Story: Continuity and Change 1940–1975 (copyright © 1964, 1975 by William Peden; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton, revised edition, 1975.

Having outlived most of the bastards and good guys of his salad time, [Saroyan] has held onto that essence of "sorrow with joy" (as he says of Chagall) that made him special in American writing….

Literarily, he is sometimes considered to have been a flash-in-the-pan, but who else of that vintage, writing in the nation's idioms, except perhaps Robert Penn Warren in poetry, is still doing so well at keeping up to the mark? ["Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever,"] Saroyan's sixth official memoir (not counting memoiristic fiction), is better, for instance, than the last one I read, which was his fourth. I don't wish to inflate its importance, but I think it's high time for a Saroyan revival. He ought again to be "discovered" briefly by each young writer coming along, because his contribution has been to write from joy, which is in short supply lately, and sparse as a tradition in our literature anyway, unless one looks back to some of the founding figures, such as Walt Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau. He predates the glut of black humor and rancorous ethnicity, the literary theater of cruelty and the absurd, though part of the point about Saroyan which is so interesting is that he has been a profoundly, innovatively "ethnic" writer—one of the very first in America, one who has been a conscious spokesman for a people who survived a genocidal holocaust—but that throughout his life he has chosen to write not of despair and dadaism and devastation, but joy….

The Saroyan working method—and it can seem repetitive—is to swing way out from the trapeze, do a somersault or two, and reach out flatly for our hands, trusting partly in us, and secure in the faith that if he misses there is a God somewhere to break his fall….

He has his tales of favorite cousins who burned themselves to death, as well as slower, humbler tragedies and personal regrets, yet finally, to him, almost everybody is 21 and free and white. And that is just as true a claim as we've been getting from the horde of writers who have been running about for the past 20 years discovering that everybody is in the process of dying. (p. 2)

Edward Hoagland, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 15, 1976.