William Saroyan Saroyan, William (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Winifred L. Dusenbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Time of Your Life] is set in a San Francisco waterfront honky-tonk, through which twenty-six strongly individualized persons pass, each one of whom expresses one facet of the character of mankind. Every man at some time in his life might be like Dudley, who lives for love; or like Wesley, who considers life a battle between himself and the machine; or like Harry, sick at heart, but wanting to make people laugh; or like McCarthy, the muscular longshoreman who is a philosopher; or like his friend, Krupp, who likes people and hates his duties as a policeman; or like Joe, who is trying to find the answers to life's problems; or, unfortunately, like Blick, whose meanness makes him hated by all; or like the other characters who enter the scene…. Each character of the play, isolated in some degree from every other one, is trying in his own way to discover how to live in a way that life may seem filled with delight. (p. 157)

In The Time of Your Life the only momentary suggestion of family life is made by the two-minute entrance of Nick's little daughter, and later, the walk-on entrance of his mother. The pleasure and pride which each of these two female characters evince toward Nick increase the sense of loneliness which pervades the characters who make use of the honky-tonk. The breath of family joy which blows upon Nick makes the atmosphere of his Entertainment Palace seem cold by comparison. The difficulty of "smiling to the infinite delight and mystery of life" is that each character is separated from the other by a wall of misunderstanding; yet a feeling of optimism pervades Nick's establishment from time to time and makes all the characters seem to be of the human family to which all mankind belongs.

Although the air of freedom which the place emits is provided by the kindly proprietor, Nick, the leading character is Joe, who sometimes spends as much as twenty hours a day sitting and drinking champagne while he tries to live a "life that can't hurt any other life." Joe claims that if he doesn't drink all the time, he becomes fascinated by unimportant things but that while drinking he "lives all the time."… The pettiness of life wiped from his mind by champagne, Joe concentrates on eternal truths, and according to the playwright's admonition, "seeks goodness everywhere."

But basically Joe is lonesome. Explaining to Tom where he got all his money, Joe reveals that, hard as he may try to live according to the spirit, the nature of the world and of his past prevents his reaching a state of fulfillment…. Joe has befriended Tom when the boy was down-and-out, just as he helps Kitty to a belief in her own virtue, but he does not belong to either of them, and it is only in a state of semiconsciousness induced by alcohol that he can recognize goodness in the world. So he admits, "You can't enjoy living unless you work. Unless you do something. I don't do anything…. Because I can't do simple, good things."… Suspended in a kind of limbo, he would like to change the world, but fears to try…. By concentrating on trifles, Joe avoids the real battles of life; but he does not avoid loneliness, and one wonders when he sends Tom out for a revolver whether he plans to use it upon himself.

Around Joe in the friendly atmosphere of Nick's bar circulates a variety of characters, all of them striving toward some understanding of how to live with others while attaining a sense of personal identity. All except Blick are pleasant characters, but all have a self-recognition of separateness, of not being accepted or successful. Willie, the marble game maniac, sees the contest of life as himself versus the machine—Willie versus destiny…. Willie provides an element of humor, but he is deadly serious about himself, and when he finally beats the slot machine, he imparts his elation to all the occupants of the place…. Willie's triumph is that of spirit over matter. His inner self is now permeated with a sense of accomplishment. He is proud of being himself and of being one of his race. (pp. 158-60)

[Harry's] theory is that the world needs laughter, that he is funny, that therefore the world needs him. But his "philosophy" is a result of his desperate need to feel a sense of belonging. According to Saroyan, he is "out of place everywhere, sick at heart, but determined to fit in somewhere." As he goes into his...

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Richard R. Lingeman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Older and less brilliant in his new book, "Obituaries," William Saroyan is still defying the rules, still the daring young man on the flying trapeze. Characteristically, this latest performance has a bit of the stunt in it, like a pie-eating contest or a six-day bicycle race. It might even be described as a death-defying leap, for "Obituaries" is a book about death. Its pretext—and here is the stunt—is that Mr. Saroyan will write about each of the 200 or so names listed in the Necrology section of Variety's annual review of the year 1976. Reading through the names, Mr. Saroyan discovered that he had known 28 of them; the others are strangers….

Mr. Saroyan considers each name in turn, letting it...

(The entire section is 701 words.)

Margaret Bedrosian

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What we discover in the work of this most famous and prolific of Armenian-American writers [Saroyan] is a lifelong tension between the forces of good-humored acceptance and the more insistent voice of his own experience as the orphaned son of an Armenian immigrant…. Saroyan's relationship to his ethnic group [is] an affinity based less on the shared values of communal life than the common experience of "wounded homelessness," of belonging to a dying race, of having been abandoned by one's father into a world devoid of security and rest.

This was an attitude he had portrayed movingly in his 1934 short story, "Seventy Thousand Assyrians." Here Saroyan depicts the Assyrians as the one ethnic group...

(The entire section is 2077 words.)

Joel Oppenheimer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Saroyan's] strongest writing, and there is much that is strong indeed, has always been in the short story, and there are many of those wonderful early ones in ["My Name Is Saroyan"]. He was a master of this most difficult of the prose forms and, in particular, could run the reader through changes with the discursive, free-flowing, seemingly inadvertent. Here is the beginning of "The First Day of Summer":

The first day of summer was cold, foggy, damp, dark, and like a day of winter. He had had no idea it was the first day of summer until the neighbor boy, Jimmy Barcos, now thirteen, told him….

And of course the story is about the first day of...

(The entire section is 685 words.)