My heart is in the highlands... Today is William Saroyan's birthday
William Saroyan was born in Fresno on the last day of August 1908. Following their father’s death, William, his brother Henry, and his sisters Zabel and Cosette spent several years at the Fred Finch Orphanage in Oakland, while young widow Takoohi took up menial work in nearby San Francisco. The family was eventually reunited back in Fresno, in the San Joaquin Valley, and William Saroyan’s formidable maternal grandmother Lucy (also widowed), who was to be a strong influence on him, joined the household. As he grew up there, an American boy also becoming part of the exiled Armenian tribe, he assimilated the raw material for many of his later stories.
It is not surprising that young William Saroyan, who was destined to be a writer strongly in the American unschooled tradition, had an undistinguished academic career. He was urged to go to college, but college was not in his plans. When he was twelve years old, little Saroyan read, by chance, the Guy de Maupassant story “The Bell,” and the secret ambition to be a writer started to form. He became, then, a frequent visitor to Fresno’s public library and he learned to touch-type at the Technical School. While still at school he had sold newspapers in his spare time to earn money badly needed by his family, who were living in what he describes, in My Name is Aram, as “the most amazing and comical poverty in the world.”
With the coming of the Great Depression he was more committed to writing than ever, and gave up all pretense of following seriously another career. Occasional winnings from gambling supplemented the scant living he earned at this time by working on Saturday market stalls selling vegetables. Although the prospect for an unknown young writer specializing in his own unorthodox brand of short stories was bleak indeed, during this difficult period he refused to compromise his literary integrity. He continued instead to work in defiance of what was commercially acceptable—a hard and lonely path but the only choice for a writer of true originality.
Late in 1933 he sent to Story, a national magazine, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” a story, part experimental, about a young writer who starves to death, with dignity. It was accepted and he was paid fifteen dollars. This was the decisive moment of acceptance, marking the end of his long apprenticeship. Many years afterwards he was to write that the only success that means anything to a writer happens when he becomes accepted as a writer at all. The rest is beside the point. More pieces were printed in Story in later months, and as word spread of this new and exciting literary find, stories were soon appearing in such magazines as The American Mercury, Harper’s, The Yale Review, Scribner’s, and The Atlantic Monthly. By October 1934 Random House was ready to publish The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories. Surprisingly, for a collection of short stories, the book was a best-seller. William Saroyan—or Saroyan, as he now became known—had arrived on the literary scene with a bang.
More collections of short stories (Inhale and Exhale; Three Times Three; Little Children; Love, Here is My Hat; The Trouble with Tigers; Peace, It’s Wonderful) followed against the continuing background of the Depression. Written in a variety of styles and moods, though with the Saroyan voice always clearly in evidence, these early stories established his reputation as a writer with staying power and provided the foundation for the rest of his career. His most successful early collection was My Name is Aram (1940), a book presenting in a poetical light the Armenians of his hometown in the days on his boyhood. Having known such conditions himself from an early age he did not see the situation as greatly abnormal, and this, in combination with youthful exuberance and a strong poetic streak always present in his work, helped lift his stories of the Depression well above the level of mere realism or mere criticism of wealth and privilege.
Saroyan’s career as a playwright began in earnest with My Heart’s in the Highlands in 1939, a play adapted from one of his best short stories “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands.” The play was well received, most importantly by George Jean Nathan, and was swiftly followed by his great theatrical success, The Time of Your Life. This American classic earned for the new playwright the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize (it was the first play to win both), though the latter he declined because of his strong feelings about commerce patronizing the arts.
Late in 1941 he took time off from his theatrical activities to write a film scenario in Hollywood, The Human Comedy. The film, starring Mickey Rooney, was a hit, but was hardly to Saroyan’s liking. He turned the script into a novel, which became his most successful book—and ironically the one he was, later on, least happy with because of the patriotic note he had introduced towards the end.
Marriage and World War II now intervened. In October 1942 he allowed himself to be drafted into the army, despite his pacifist opinions, and early in the following year he married Carol Marcus, a young society girl, and a friend of Oona O’Neill (who was to marry Charlie Chaplin). After the birth of their son Aram, Saroyan was posted to England. Discharged at last in September 1945, he later said that he had fought the army for three years—and won.
But the late nineteen forties were to be very difficult years for William Saroyan. He had lovingly dedicated a 1944 collection of short stories, Dear Baby, to his wife, but after the birth of daughter Lucy in 1946 the marriage began to fail. And at the same time his literary career went into steep decline. He was drinking and gambling heavily, and in these were no doubt contributory factors in the marriage breakdown. Saroyan probably never recovered fully from the twin psychic blows of his unhappy marriage and the three wasted years in the army. But at Malibu in the fifties he regained his soul sufficiently to arrest the alarming decline of his literary fortunes. In 1952 he published The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, the first of his several book-length experiments in autobiography. A warm-hearted novel followed this book on the theater (written for his daughter and serialized in The Saturday Evening Post), Mama, I Love You, a new collection of short stories, The Whole Voyald, and a book for his son, Papa, You’re Crazy.
He left Malibu in 1958 and headed for Europe with no clear plan, only the vague thought he would buy a vineyard and perhaps even forget about writing. His typewriter stayed in its case for a period. But gambling losses used up the vineyard money and at length he found himself in Paris, faced once more with the unwelcome prospect of trying to work himself out of debt. His book, Not Dying, is mainly concerned with this period. “I certainly didn’t gamble away every penny,” he wrote in a memoir, in a flippant mood. “I drank some of it away, and I bought a raincoat.”
His was an insatiable traveler, and as a matter of course would seek out the best and most expensive hotel in a new town or city. And in his day he had given away vast amounts. But gambling was the worst of it; and yet he needed to gamble. It was central, he claimed, to his approach to writing, and to life. He often justified it by saying that it helped his work, and many of his best stories and plays were apparently written in the aftermath of a bad gambling experience. He set up home and working base in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in a none too prosperous district in Paris, and the fight back to solvency began in a serious way, if not exactly in earnest. His plays were being taken up with enthusiasm in Eastern Europe, notably in Czechoslovakia.
Gradually he brought his gambling and drinking under reasonable control, though there were lapses. By 1967 he was able to declare “I’m free… I’ve paid all my debts, I’m earning a living.” He had acquired a second home in Fresno and it became his habit to spend part of the year in each location, when he wasn’t on the move. In the late sixties he finally got around to sifting through some of the mass of stuff he had written through the years. Indulging his fondness for long titles to the full, he called a collection I Used To Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure. He used the autobiographical device of writing a series of “letters” to various people, eminent and otherwise and most now dead, who had either influenced him or remained in his memory for some important reason. As a matter of principle, he had always tried to write about people with the “largest possible sympathy,” but now he was beginning to see them in a wholly realistic way. His work was still very much in demand in Europe, with stage and television productions of his plays in recent years in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Finland, Spain, Germany, and Poland. The Cave Dwellerscontinues to be a particular favorite.
With the gradual intrusion of a bitter tone in his memoirs went a growing preoccupation with death, as is indicated by some of the titles alone. This preoccupation reached its fullest expression in his published book, Obituaries (1979). Though scarcely a happy book, Obituaries must be counted as Saroyan in a totally free mood, pushing expression and meaning to the limits of language. Latterly the critics were finding much to admire in his work, and Obituaries was accorded generous attention in The New York Times Book Review.
William Saroyan once said that to write was for him simply to stay alive in an interesting way. In a career lasting nearly half a century he remained through the good times and the bad a writer in the purist sense, writing almost invariably out of himself (as he put it), in the manner of a poet, with only surface commitment to the orthodox literary forms. He sought in his fictional work to dispense with the device of emotionality, or spurious excitement. Nor was he much interested in creating strong memorable characters—another phony device. Speaking of a novel sent to him by a publisher, he said it wasn’t bad, but it was about specific people in that peculiarly specific way that makes a novel meaningless. He cultivated a simple style of writing that was nevertheless sophisticated in its poetic depth and complexity that was utterly devoid of clichés. He placed little value in what he termed safe writing, and was most pleased by the accidental element in his own work.
Having the peasant’s mistrust of doctors, Saroyan seldom consulted them. He saw the fight against illness and death as a personal struggle with God (the Witness), Fate, or Bad Luck. When he visited Europe for the last time in 1980, cancer had already been diagnosed. Five days before he died in May 1981, at the Veterans Hospital in Fresno, he telephoned a posthumous statement to the Associate Press: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”
In a generous tribute The New York Times, accounting for his genius, described him as “an orphan hurt by a sense of rejection, craving love, and bursting with talent.” The Times in London felt that his reputation might come to rest on his later experiments with autobiography. And Time magazine (an old enemy) said that “the ease and charm of many of his stories will continue to inspire young writers. It is a legacy beyond criticism.”
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