William Saroyan 1908–1981
American dramatist, short story writer, novelist, and autobiographer.
Saroyan is best known for his plays The Time of Your Life (1939) and My Heart's in the Highlands (1939). Like his popular short fiction, Saroyan's plays are sentimental, nostalgic, and optimistic in their 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.
Saroyan's writing first became widely known in 1934, when Story magazine published "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." By the late 1930s Saroyan had a national reputation as a writer of short fiction. In 1937, magazine editor William Kozlenko persuaded him to turn his story "The Man with the Heart in the Highlands" into a play. My Heart's in the Highlands received mixed reviews when it opened in 1939, and Saroyan attributed many of the problems that critics noted in the production to his not having personally directed and produced the play. He was thereafter reluctant to allow others to produce his works. With the exception of The Cave Dwellers (1957), Saroyan's plays were not staged on Broadway after 1943 because he could no longer afford to produce them.
The Time of Your Life is one of the plays that established Saroyan's reputation. It is set on the waterfront in a San Francisco honky-tonk bar peopled with a variety of lonely characters. The central character is Joe, a financially secure but spiritually empty man who has been corrupted by society's warped values. Despite the dismal setting of this play, the message is ultimately optimistic, as the characters learn the satisfaction of trying to make life better for themselves and others. When the play was first produced, Saroyan had its moral printed on the program: "In the time of your life, live so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches." He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1940 for The Time of Your Life, but refused it because he did not believe in critical or commercial sanctions for art. In My Heart's in the Highlands, Saroyan also wrote of the triumph of the human spirit in adversity. In this play, a penniless Armenian-American family is evicted from its home, but they and their neighbors find comfort and enjoyment in the pleasures of music and poetry that they offer one another. Through the father of the family, a struggling poet who collects rejection slips, Saroyan demonstrates how institutions interfere with what should be a joyful sharing between artist and audience.
Saroyan's early success had faded by the time he reached middle age. 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. During the Depression, Saroyan's fiction, with its nostalgia for an earlier, better time, was welcomed with 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 more cynical readers made Saroyan's stories of the goodness of human beings seem simplistic and superficial. Biographers also attribute Saroyan's change in fortune to his excessive drinking and gambling. In his memoirs Saroyan wrote: "Three years in the Army and a stupid marriage had all but knocked me out of the picture and, if the truth is told, out of life itself." In recent years, there has been renewed appreciation of Saroyan's early plays and stories.
Saroyan's work has been widely reviewed, but has rarely received serious critical analysis. In structure and in philosophy, his writing is simple, an attribute for which he has been both praised and scorned. Many critics contend that Saroyan did not grow as an artist after the 1940s, that his subject matter and outlook were stuck in the Depression-World War II era, and that he did not challenge himself to vary from his proven formulae. Especially in the later years, critics were almost unanimous in calling Saroyan's work overly sentimental. Although many have claimed that his loosely structured, anecdotal stories and memoirs overflow with sentiment and description and lack structure and form, Saroyan's works are still widely read. His special talent lay in his ability to create poetic, humorous characters and situations, and, as one critic said, "to write from joy, which is … sparse as a tradition in our literature."
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 8, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vol. 103 [obituary]; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981.)