William Saroyan Analysis

Discussion Topics

In what ways does William Saroyan take advantage of his California roots in his writings?

How does Saroyan avoid sentimentality in The Human Comedy?

What techniques does Saroyan employ to unify his play The Time of Your Life?

Saroyan’s period of success coincided with the Great Depression. What qualities of temperament and what literary virtues of Saroyan’s might account for this fact?

Is Saroyan’s lack of success in his post-World War II writing better explained by changes in the reading and play-going public or by changes in Saroyan himself?

Other Literary Forms

William Saroyan published almost fifty books, including novels, plays, and several autobiographical memoirs. Among his most famous plays are My Heart’s in the Highlands (pr., pb. 1939) and The Time of Your Life (pr., pb. 1939). The latter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, but Saroyan rejected it because he “did not believe in official patronage of art.” His screenplay, The Human Comedy (1943), was one of the most popular wartime films and was later revised into a successful novel. Saroyan’s talents also extended to songwriting, his most famous song being “Come Ona My House.” His last work, My Name Is Saroyan, a potpourri of stories, verse, play fragments, and memoirs, was published posthumously in 1983.


William Saroyan’s reputation rests mainly on his pre-World War II plays and fictional sketches that embraced an upbeat, optimistic, and happy view of people during a period of deep economic depression and increasing political upheaval. His immense popularity and critical acclaim in the United States declined after the war, though in Europe, notably France and Italy, his reputation has remained high. His plays and fiction have been translated into several languages.

Although highly diversified in technique, Saroyan’s best works all bear an irrepressible faith in the goodness of the human spirit. His unique, multifaceted style has been emulated by other writers who lack his sanguine outlook and control of craft. Occasional flashes of brilliance partially restored Saroyan’s reputation after World War II, and his memoir, Obituaries (1979), was nominated for the American Book Award. Saroyan’s greatest and most influential works, however, belong to his early, experimental period.

Other literary forms

Despite his many novels, William Saroyan (suh-ROY-ehn) is more famous for his work in the short story, the drama, and autobiography. Each of these areas received emphasis at different stages in his career. In the 1930’s, he made a spectacular literary debut with an avalanche of brilliant, exuberant, and unorthodox short stories. Major early collections were The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories (1934), Inhale and Exhale (1936), Three Times Three (1936), and Love, Here Is My Hat, and Other Short Romances (1938). My Name Is Aram, a group of stories detailing the experiences of Aram Garoghlanian growing up in a small California town, marks the culmination of his short-story artistry.

Most of Saroyan’s plays and his productions on Broadway were concentrated in the years between 1939 and 1942. My Heart’s in the Highlands was produced by the Group Theatre in April, 1939. His second major production, The Time of Your Life (pr., pb. 1939), was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and is still considered Saroyan’s best play. Hello Out There (pr. 1941), a one-act play, is also regarded as a fine drama.

In 1951, Saroyan and Ross Bagdasarian published a popular song, “Come On-a My House.” Saroyan also wrote several television plays, including an adaptation of The Time of Your Life. Starting with The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills (1952), Saroyan composed extensive memoirs, including Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who (1961), Not Dying (1963), Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon (1970), Places Where I’ve Done Time (1972), Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever (1976), Chance Meetings (1978), and Obituaries (1979).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

By the age of twenty, William Saroyan had already decided his role in life was to be that of a professional writer, and throughout his remaining fifty years he dedicated himself to that vocation, publishing voluminously in all literary forms, with the exception of poetry. The sheer bulk of his work and his admission that much of it was done merely to earn money have worked against him. Further, his frequent arguments with his critics and his increasingly difficult personality left him with few strong critical advocates.

Saroyan’s lasting literary achievement is in the area of the short story, where he expanded the genre by linkingnarrative form to the essay and infusing his work with a highly individual vision of poetic intensity. Many of his stories feature a character modeled on Saroyan, a writer-persona who, though often obsessed with his own ideas and feelings, is vitally alive to the world of his immediate experience. Several of the most successful stories concern childhood experiences in an ethnic, small-town environment modeled on Saroyan’s Fresno. Saroyan impressed his early readers with his rediscovery of the wondrous in the texture of ordinary American life. The Saroyan Special: Selected Stories (1948) is a collection of his best stories. My Name Is Aram delineates with some beautiful character portraits Saroyan’s sense of the poetic interplay of values in the ethnic community.

Saroyan’s plays oppose the vitality of personality and individual dreams to the force of social institutions and the threats of war. In their sense of improvised movement, his plays were a deliberate...

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Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

William Saroyan is perhaps even better known as the author of short stories, novels, and autobiographical prose than as a playwright. Early short-story collections include: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories (1934), Inhale and Exhale (1936), Three Times Three (1936), and Love, Here Is My Hat and Other Short Romances (1938). His best-known novel is The Human Comedy (1943).

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

William Saroyan’s plays are vehicles for his vision of what one of his characters calls “the miracle of life.” Like his prose, Saroyan’s drama is predicated on a largely optimistic perception of life as a joyous festival whose bounty is spiritual rather than materialistic. His critical and commercial success in the theater reached a zenith with the production of The Time of Your Life, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (he declined to accept). In this and many of his other plays, Saroyan drew heavily on his own and his family’s experience to dramatize the rhythms, opportunities, and joy of life, particularly in the United States. In the course of his playwriting career, Saroyan experimented with dramatic...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Balakian, Nona. The World of William Saroyan. Lewisburg, Ohio: Bucknell University Press, 1998. Balakian, formerly a staff writer for The New York Times Book Review, knew Saroyan personally in his last years, and her observations of him color her assessment of his later works. She viewed it as her mission to resurrect his reputation and restore him to his place among the finest of twentieth century American writers. Traces his evolution from ethnic writer to master of the short story, to playwright, and finally to existentialist.

Dyer, Brenda. “Stories About Stories: Teaching Narrative Using William Saroyan’s ‘My Grandmother...

(The entire section is 610 words.)