William Saroyan 1908-1981
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Archie Crashcup and Sirak Goryan) American playwright, short story writer, novelist, and scriptwriter.
The following entry provides criticism on Saroyan's works from 1975 through 2000. See also William Saroyan Short Story Criticism, William Saroyan Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 8, 10, 29.
One of the most prolific writers in the United States, William Saroyan is best remembered for such works as The Time of Your Life and My Heart's in the Highlands (1939), plays that reflected Saroyan's vision of life in the United States, permeated with the perspective he had on America as an immigrant of Armenian heritage. Saroyan wrote over two hundred plays in his lifetime, in addition to numerous short stories, novels, and three autobiographies. Many of his plays were never published or produced during his lifetime, although he did achieve both critical and commercial success for his work during the 1930s and 1940s. Characterized by many scholars as a maverick, Saroyan is known for the free style and intensely autobiographical elements of his works. He drew heavily on his own life experiences for the subject matter of his plays and short fiction, and his tendency to present a uniquely personal vision of humanity in his writing has led many critics to disregard his work as sentimental and superficial. Regardless, at the height of his popularity, Saroyan's work met with great success, and he won both the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in playwriting for The Time of Your Life. More recent appraisals of Saroyan's works have been more receptive to the quality of his writing and the significance of his themes, especially in relation to his depiction of immigrant experiences in America.
Saroyan was born on August 31, 1908, in Fresno, California. His parents, Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, immigrated to the United States from Bitlis, Armenia, with his two brothers and sister a few years before William was born. His father died shortly after William turned three, and as a result, Saroyan and his siblings moved to an orphanage in Oakland, California. The breakup of his family affected Saroyan deeply, and for five years he and his siblings lived alone, until their mother found a job in a fruit-packing plant and reunited the family. Back in Fresno, Saroyan attended public school, and later the Fresno Technical School. Ostensibly studying for a career as a clerk, in fact Saroyan had already made up his mind that he wanted to be a writer. He was taking classes at the school in order to learn how to type and therefore improve his ability to write. In addition to attending school, Saroyan worked at various jobs through childhood. These experiences gave him the opportunity to work with and get to know working-class people, many of whom would later serve as inspiration for characters in his plays and stories. In addition, he also spent a great deal of time attending local and traveling theatrical performances. As an immigrant Armenian, Saroyan often had to deal with prejudicial attitudes because of his ethnicity. His family life, in contrast, was warm and supportive, and he was proud of his heritage ethnic pride. Later, Saroyan would use this juxtaposition of pride and prejudice, as well as the significance with which he regarded family and community, in his writing. Although he began writing seriously as early as 1921, it was several years before Saroyan was able to publish his work. In 1928, Saroyan was able to get a short story published in the Overland Monthly. More short stories followed in other publications, and in 1934, with the publication of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, Saroyan's career as a writer was established. A collection of short stories titled Inhale & Exhale followed in 1936 and was well-received by his readers. Critics, however, were less receptive to Saroyan's writing style, characterizing it as unstructured and unfocused. Regardless, his commercial success guaranteed that his work would continue to be published. Saroyan soon moved on to writing plays, and in the early 1930s and 1940s, his popularity continued unabated. In 1943, he married Carol Marcus. They divorced in 1949, however, only to remarry in 1951, followed by another divorce a year later. The couple had two children together, Aram and Lucy. The mid-1940s were also tumultuous years for Saroyan professionally. He had a difficult time working with theater producers; this, coupled with the breakdown of his marriage and being drafted into service during World War II, took a great emotional toll on Saroyan, and he withdrew from public life. Although he continued to write, he did not want his plays produced onstage. In the late 1950s, he moved to France and returned as playwright-in-residence at Purdue University several years later. He continued writing during these years, but for twenty years he refused to publish or produce his plays theatrically. In 1980, he finally agreed to a performance of Play Things. It would be his last production before his death due to cancer in 1981. A final collection of plays including Warsaw Visitor and Tales from the Vienna Streets was published posthumously in 1990.
Although Saroyan was a prolific writer of short stories and novels, he is best remembered for his contribution to the theater. His most successful works for the stage were My Heart's in the Highlands and The Time of Your Life. Adapted from a previously published short story by the same name, My Heart's in the Highlands was Saroyan's first foray into theater. Saroyan wrote with a natural, easygoing style that attracted a large audience among people who would ordinarily not read literature. Written during the years of the Great Depression, Saroyan's tales of middle- and lower-class American life appealed to his readers, who identified with his characters and their problems. Drawing deeply from his own experiences, Saroyan did little to disguise his own voice in his writing. In contrast to his readers, critics felt that his work was too personal and that his writing style had little structure. In Inhale & Exhale Saroyan did change his style somewhat, acknowledging in the introduction that his previous work may have been too focused on his own experience. This collection also contained “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands,” the short story that would inspire his theatrical debut, My Heart's in the Highlands. He continued to write and produce plays, as well as publishing several more short-story collections, including My Name Is Aram (1940). Often cited as some of Saroyan's best work, the stories in this collection are all narrated by Aram, a young boy living in California's San Joaquin Valley. The lyrical prose and interconnected stories are also considered precursors to Saroyan's first novel, The Human Comedy (1943). In 1941, Saroyan's The Time of Your Life opened on Broadway, catapulting him to success and acclaim. By the 1950s, however, personal difficulties and a sense of disillusionment following the end of the war and his own forced participation in it led Saroyan to leave for Europe. Although he continued to write plays, he refused to have them published or performed. He also worked on and published several autobiographical works during this period, including Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who (1961) and Not Dying (1963). Several short-story collections also followed, including Places Where I've Done Time (1972), and An Act or Two of Foolish Kindness (1976). In 1980, Saroyan returned to the stage with Play Things. His next two plays were published and performed after his death.
Critical acclaim did not come easily to Saroyan. Despite the commercial success of his work and the popularity he enjoyed with the American public, critics and scholars during his lifetime often criticized Saroyan for his unstructured style of writing, his deeply personal themes and narratives, and a perceived sentimentality about his optimistic approach to life. Recent appraisals of Saroyan's works, however, have remarked on the fact that contemporary critics disregarded for the most part the sense of despairing existentialism that pervades much of his writing. Despite the optimistic worldview he proclaimed, the characters in Saroyan's short stories and plays reflect his concern with and awareness of the isolation and loneliness felt by many of his immigrant characters. In fact, notes Margaret Bedrosian, Saroyan's resilient philosophy is deeply connected to his Armenian roots and an understanding of this relationship is pivotal to the comprehension of Saroyan's works. Bedrosian also points out that Saroyan's laughter and optimism are often shadowed by the sadness and isolation of the struggle of his people in America, and that this is a significant key to understanding Saroyan's work. Similarly, Walter Shear feels that Saroyan's writing contains a subtext, an “emotional record of what it means to be a member of the Armenian subculture,” and that this sentiment permeates the body of his work. In an interview with Garig Basmadjian, Saroyan himself remarked on his dual heritage, both Armenian and American, as being a central defining factor of his writing. The last two decades have seen the publication of several anthologies about Saroyan's work, including a collection of essays edited by Leo Hamalian. In this book, Hamalian points out that largely because Saroyan wrote works that were contrary to intellectual tastes of his time, his writing was denied serious critical attention for many decades. This was compounded by the attention Saroyan received for his personal life and problems, leading to a dismissal of his work as a serious creative writer. However, contends Hamalian, contributors to his book on Saroyan agree that his work has been hitherto undervalued, and that in the future, it is likely that he will be “hailed as a trailblazer for writers … of the immigrant experience in America.”