William Saroyan Saroyan, William (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Saroyan, William 1908–

Saroyan is an Armenian-American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor, and writer of children's books. During the Depression, Saroyan's sentimental fiction, with its nostalgia for a former, better time, was received with welcome relief by an American public who sought escape from the bleak reality of their lives. With the advent of World War II, however, the changing values and tastes of a more sophisticated readership rejected Saroyan's simplistic stories of optimism and the triumph of the American Dream. His refusal to adapt his fiction to the growth and change of a more complex society has prompted critics to dismiss his work as superficial and limited. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1940 for The Time of Your Life, but refused it saying that this play was "no more great or good" than the rest of his work. He has written under the pseudonym of Sirak Goryan. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Thelma J. Shinn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Saroyan's philosophy is not a resolution of but a recognition and acceptance of the contradictions of life. He tells us that life is both funny and sad, both violent and tender, and that generally the contradictions are present in the same scene, the same person, at the same time. Consequently, critics could not define Saroyan's plays—to give one interpretation would conceal the other interpretations simultaneously maintained by the symbolism. This led many critics to reject Saroyan's works because they felt that the plays, in appealing to the irrational and to the emotional in the audience rather than to the intellectual and rational, could be dismissed as mere Romanticism. The more perceptive critics, however, suspected that there was more to Saroyan than sentimentality. (p. 185)

The nonplot symbolic dramas of Pinter, of Beckett, of Ionesco with their usually unrelieved pessimism are remarkably similar to the "romantic fantasies" of Saroyan. Saroyan displays the same disregard for spelling out meanings to the audience, the same freedom with scenery and plot, the same concentration on the individual. Much of modern drama is considered existential because the individual is trying to find for himself some meaning in this absurd universe—and the meaning, if any, appears to be within himself. In this sense, at least, the existential theme is precisely what most concerns Saroyan.

Saroyan's departure from modern theater, as well as from the theater of the 30's and 40's, is his remarkable—his critics say unrealistic—ability to find a note of affirmation, to testify finally to the rejected ideal of human dignity. (pp. 185-86)

The multiplicity of [critical interpretations of My Heart's in the Highlands] reflects the symbolic import of the play, a symbolism … exclusively American. Saroyan explores the themes of economic inequality, the plight of the artist, individual integrity, the search for beauty and the growth of awareness in a seemingly haphazard way in the simple international American stock of a small neighborhood. The Scotch bugler, the Armenian-speaking grandmother, the Polish grocer are all beautifully American. The setting is representative rather than realistic; the simple dialogue is intuitive rather than logical.

The economic inequality is implicit in the poverty of the family…. Saroyan's interest lies not so much in the inequality indiscriminately arising from the indifference of the external world as it does in the individual's ability to turn even this into a vehicle for the expression of human dignity…. Saroyan's play emphasizes the brotherhood of man and the dignity of the individual, the human relationships rather than the social "realities."

The plight of the artist theme is also treated in a universal manner by Saroyan. Though Johnny's father represents the artist, he is not alone. Saroyan recognizes the artist—the sensitive awareness to living—in each of the characters…. Saroyan identifies the artist as the man sensitive to the beauty which can be found in the world. His plight is in the rejection by the world of his attempts to express this beauty, and that rejection is equally wrong—or at least equally possible—whether the man is a first-rate or a tenth-rate poet. (pp. 186-87)

This search for beauty within the individual which Saroyan recognizes comes close to being the element of the divine in humanity. Mac Gregor, who achieves recognizable expression of beauty in his music, has his "heart in the high-lands," and goes there at the end of the play. The towns-people implicitly recognize the divine origin of this gift when they bring the food as sacrifices to it. The father has created his successful poem in the person of Johnny and in himself—thus they are in this sense identical and thus MacGregor wants to come to their home to die because that is the closest he can come to the divine perception in this world.

It is Johnny's father who gains the most complete awareness of the value of the individual and of the search for beauty in this play…. Johnny himself, as he ends the play with "I'm not mentioning any names, Pa, but something's wrong somewhere," has only grasped half the truth—the easiest half according to Saroyan. His recognition of the injustice of a world that prevents good people from dwelling together peacefully in the goodness of the universe is the stopping point of most modern views of the world. Saroyan goes on to assert that man's search for beauty can carry him beyond the ugliness of the world to the divine within himself and within his fellow men. If this attitude must be romantic and sentimental, then Saroyan is both—and so is Emerson, Thoreau, Hart Crane, any artist who believes that man can transcend the injustice of the external world by looking within himself and that man can find a beauty within himself that is within each man. Saroyan tries to reach this inner beauty, and if he does not appeal to it with logical arguments, it may be because beauty is beyond logic. If he couches his appeal in what seems sentimental and romantic, it is because inner beauty is the source of whatever sentiment and romance man can know. Even this first play shows that Saroyan is not simply saying that life is beautiful and all men love each other. He says rather that in each man with any sensitivity there is a desire for beauty and that this desire should be followed and nurtured if there is to be any positive reality of beauty in this absurd world.

Saroyan's greatest success, The Time of Your Life, carries the same message as My Heart's in the Highlands, or messages rather, since the simple statement above can scarcely represent the levels of meaning presented in Saroyan's symbolic dramas…. The central set is a run-down bar where the central character sits drinking champagne and watching people. Every person (with the exception of Blick, the depersonalized symbol of the authority of the external world reminiscent of Kafka's bureaucrats) is seeking for beauty. However, it is not at all easy to dismiss this as romanticism either, even the most "apparently" romantic situation of the prostitute with the heart of gold who gets a new life through the sincere love of a man. The ingredients are romantic—because they deal with that desire for beauty within the individual which is the source of all romance—but Saroyan's treatment of the material reveals more perception than is usually attributed to him. The prostitute remembers the beauty of her childhood—when her childhood...

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Edward Hoagland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Saroyan's] 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 is an all-around believer; and of course there are, for example, the two ways to lay one's hand against one's face: either feeling the cheek, or feeling the skull—death—underneath the cheek. One can look at one's hand and see a mechanized, strange set of bending pincers, terrifying to contemplate, or see the hand as an elixir of the spirit. Because we can admire artists who lean toward either view, it's not a matter of shutting anybody out: only of insisting that both be heard.

Edward Hoagland, "A Master and a Master's Master," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 15, 1976, p. 2.

Kenneth W. Rhoads

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A careful reading [of The Time of Your Life] shows that Joe [the play's central character] may be seen as a valid Christ-figure—not a literal Christ, for The Time of Your Life is no Second Coming, nor even an allegorical Christ, but a type of Christ, essentially realistic and certainly very human—whose nature and behavior are completely consonant and who takes on stature as heroic protagonist within such a mode. Whether Saroyan consciously created Joe as Christ-figure is immaterial; this is the character which emerges and which the script projects—by allusion, by indirect revelation, by implicit scriptural parallel in Joe's motivations and the shape of his life, and by specific episodes whose...

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Joel Oppenheimer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Chance Meetings" is another of the familiar, loosely tied remembrances that [Saroyan] has done before but, as always, there are new and marvelously alive passages, and his wonderful, unconditioned people…. Years ago Mr. Saroyan postulated that there are two kinds of writers: those who run to meet death, and those who fight to keep it off. It's always been clear which side he's on, and so every person he's met, everything he's done, becomes cause for celebration…. (p. 11)

There is a particular theory about friendship in this book: "Brief friendships have such definite starting and stopping points that they take on a quality of art, of a whole thing, which cannot be broken or spoiled." Mr....

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D. Keith Mano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

So much for the omniscient observer. And the first-person narration. What you've got [in Chance Meetings: A Memoir] is the Ethnic Naïve. An Ethnic Naïve book will be less than two hundred pages long, with deep margins (for deep marginalia) and fat, blank chapter breaks. Also simple, sentence-length paragraphs that reveal simple-but-profound truth because, well, they're simple. (p. 599)

William Saroyan is our Great Wise Old Armenian (Black, Pole, Jew) Who Deigns to Favor You with Reminiscences of a Rich Long Ethnic Life. The reader had better show respect: in deference to age and Armenia. Being Saroyan, Saroyan can supply his own book-jacket propaganda. "Chance Meetings is as large as...

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Nicholas J. Loprete

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chance meetings, William Saroyan tells us, are sometimes memorable because they have a definite starting and stopping point and take on a quality of art, something concluded and whole, which cannot be improved upon. In [Chance Meetings] Mr. Saroyan proceeds to prove his thesis…. Chance Meetings is a sketchbook, a homily, a philosophy of the self written from a unique perspective about "the stragglers everywhere and all the time, from the very beginning of one's memory."… (p. 121)

It is obvious that he is still having "the time of his life," and the undeniable charm of Saroyan the writer still exists, along with a sentimentality which threatens to sink the book. In less certain hands the danger would become reality, but Mr. Saroyan's warmth and irreverence save the day. "Human memory works its own wheel, and stops where it will, entirely without reference to the last stop, and with no connection with the next." (p. 122)

Nicholas J. Loprete, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), July, 1978.