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Saroyan is best known for his plays The Time of Your Life, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and My Heart’s in the Highlands. The son of Armenian immigrants, Saroyan wrote about the lighter side of the immigrant experience in America, with special emphasis on humor and family life, both of 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.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Difficult Early Life
Saroyan was born in 1908 in Fresno, California, to Armenian immigrant parents. The instability of his early life is crucial to understanding his autobiographical short fiction. His father died in 1911, and Saroyan spent the next four years in an Oakland orphanage, while his mother worked in San Francisco and visited her children on weekends. In 1915 the children returned to Fresno, where they joined their mother, Takoohi Saroyan, then working as a domestic servant. Saroyan began selling newspapers at the age of eight and worked at various jobs while still in school. He began writing at the age of thirteen. Eventually he landed a job as a messenger boy for a telegraph company, a job that later became one of the major sources for his fiction and drama.
Saroyan left school at the age of fifteen and never graduated, but he did not shirk either his work or his decision to become a writer. His jobs included those in his uncle’s law office, the vineyards around Fresno, grocery stores, and a post office. He made good use of the public library. He boasts that at nineteen he had become the San Francisco Postal Telegraph Company’s youngest branch manager. Within a year, he had published his first short story in a San Francisco literary magazine, Overland Monthly and Outwest Magazine.
Despite a prolific career, Saroyan’s reputation as short-story writer still rests largely on his first collection, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories (1934). When the title piece was published in Story magazine in February 1934, the public response was so favorable that in less than a year Random House had compiled the collection. As in many of his stories, Saroyan’s narrator in ”The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” is a young writer, a thinly veiled representation of the author himself. The young man tries to find work, gets disgusted with the bureaucracy, stops eating, falls back on literature to sustain him, and finally finds fulfillment only in death. ”A Cold Day” takes the form of a letter from Saroyan to an editor of Story magazine in which he tells of the hardships of writing in an unheated apartment. Though the idea of this story may seem overly simple, it, perhaps more than any other story in the collection, links Saroyan personally to the concept of the daring young man. These stories establish one of the main themes that permeates almost all of his subsequent writings—the brilliance and importance of life in the face of death.
Saroyan subsequently published seven more volumes of short stories. These early collections project a wide variety of thematic concerns, yet they are united in their portrayal of America between the two world wars. Saroyan’s first books reflect the painful realities of the Depression of the 1930s. The young writer without a job in his first famous story ”The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” goes to be interviewed for a position and finds that ”already there were two dozen young men in the place.” The story ”International Harvester” from the 1936 collection Inhale and Exhale also gives a bleak vision of complete economic collapse: ”Shamefully to the depths fallen: America. In Wall Street they talk as if the end of this country is within sight.” Readers clearly saw their troubled lives vividly portrayed in Saroyan’s stories; though they depicted the agony of the times, the stories also conveyed great hope and vigorously defiant good spirits.
Between 1939 and 1943, Saroyan published and produced his most famous plays. Such works as My Heart’s in the Highlands (1939), The Beautiful People (1941), and Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning (1942) were well received by some critics and audiences; The Time of Your Life (1939) won the Pulitzer Prize as the best play of the 1939-1940 season. Saroyan refused the award on the grounds that businessmen should not judge art. Although championed by critics like George Jean Nathan, Saroyan had a strained relationship with the theatrical world. From the time his first play appeared on Broadway, critics called his work surrealistic, sentimental, or difficult to understand. His creation of a fragile, fluid, dramatic universe full of strange, lonely, confused, and gentle people startled theatergoers accustomed to conventional plots and characterization. His instinctive and highly innovative sense of dramatic form was lost on many audiences. These plays were a wonderful amalgam of vaudeville, absurdism, sentiment, spontaneity, reverie, humor, despair, philosophical speculation, and whimsy. They introduced a kind of rambunctious energy into staid American drama. His “absurdity” was directly related to his sorrow at observing the waste of the true, vital impulses of life in the contemporary world.
In 1941, after two active years on Broadway, Saroyan traveled to Hollywood to work on the film version of The Human Comedy (1943) for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. When the scenario was completed, it was made into a successful motion picture. From the beginning of his career, Saroyan had committed himself to celebrating the brotherhood of man, and in The Human Comedy he preached a familiar sermon: love one another, or you shall perish. This portrayal of love’s power in small-town America offered consolation to millions ravaged by the suffering and death brought on by World War II.
Nevertheless, before 1942 was over, yet another Saroyan one-act play that had premiered a year earlier in California came to the New York stage. It was Hello Out There (1949), a script for two performers. The play, which opened on September 29, 1942, at the Belasco, was a story of a romance between a drifter, brought to jail for his own protection after being falsely accused of rape, and the young girl who cleaned the prison. The story ends tragically when a lynch mob kills the prisoner.
Meanwhile, on January 9, 1943, Saroyan had been elected to the department of art and literature at the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He had reached the peak of his recognition as an American writer. In February 1943 he married Carol Marcus, beginning a period of several tumultuous years. While his fame spread, his personal life seemed to suffer. As his later memoirs illustrated, he was obsessed with gambling and alcohol, even to the extent that he would complete works specifically to pay off gambling debts.
Past His Peak, with Personal Problems
Saroyan went on to publish several novels between 1951 and 1964, including: Rock Wagram (1951), The Laughing Matter (1953), Boys and Girls Together (1963), and One Day in the Afternoon of the World (1964). Each novel explores in fictional form the troubled years of Saroyan’s marriage to Carol Marcus and that marriage’s aftermath. These thinly disguised transcriptions of Saroyan’s own life might be termed the ”fatherhood novels,” for they are linked thematically through the author’s concern with founding a family. Each Armenian-American protagonist in these novels is searching for (or has already found) a wife and children, his emblems of human community. In the novels, as in the plays and short stories, the family symbolizes humanity in microcosm and localizes the desire for universal brotherhood that had always marked Saroyan’s vision.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Saroyan had reached the peak of his fame; by the time he reached middle age in the 1950s, Saroyan’s early success had faded. 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. Biographers also attribute Saroyan’s change in fortune to his excessive drinking and gambling.
Nevertheless, hardly a year goes by in which professional actors somewhere in America do not revive The Time of Your Life. My Heart’s in the Highlands has been made into an opera and televised, and other Saroyan plays are occasionally featured on television. My Heart’s in the Highlands and The Time of Your Life are collected in popular and school anthologies of American drama, and on the basis of those plays, the place of William Saroyan in the history of the American theater still seems as secure as he always told us it would be. Indeed, on November 18, 1979, Saroyan became one of the initial inductees to the Theater Hall of Fame at the Uris Theater in New York City. He died of prostate cancer in Fresno, California, in 1981.
Works in Literary Context
Saroyan acknowledged the influence of British playwright George Bernard Shaw, who enjoyed both popular and critical success with plays such as Androcles and the Lion (1923) and Saint Joan (1923).
Saroyan’s work can be characterized as existentialist. Existentialism had its roots in the work of philosophers S0ren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century. These philosophers celebrated the living, thinking, feeling individual and regarded traditional philosophy as too removed from human experience. Existentialism was expressed in the work of writers such as Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose characters grapple with a feeling of hopelessness and the absurdity of life. However, as critic Maxwell Geismar remarked, ”the depression of the 1930s, apparently so destructive and so despairing,” was actually a time of ”regeneration” for the major writers of the period. Furthermore, ”the American writer had gained moral stature, a sense of his own cultural connection, a series of new meanings and new values for his work.” The crisis writers were experiencing was, of course, more than merely economic. A deep cultural schism had rocked Europe since Nietzsche’s work and affected such American writers as Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer (1934) appeared in the same year as Saroyan’s first collection of short fiction.
Saroyan also often expressed romantic themes. Romanticism places a stress on a character’s emotion and experience. Saroyan’s early, romantic themes included man’s innate goodness, men’s dreams as they are changed by the passage of time, and personal isolation as the ultimate tragedy. Death, for him, is as natural as life; in fact, its closeness should lead to an intensified view of the preciousness of life. He followed in the footsteps of American romantic writers such as poet Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick (1851).
Works in Critical Context
Saroyan’s work has been widely reviewed, but it 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 and World War II eras, and that he did not challenge himself to vary 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.”
The Time of Your Life
Critics wondered at the success of The Time of Your Life, as it departed from the ordinary rules of playwriting and paid little attention to action and plot. They believed it overly sentimental and romantic. One reviewer wrote, ”Saroyan certainly made too little effort to think things through and work things out.” One critic wrote, ”The bulk of his writing, although vivid, is careless and formless.” Reviewers saw some good things in the play, but argued that Saroyan’s work was often ”shoddy and his idealism fuzzy.” However, some critics lauded the play for its social awareness, its humor, and its emphasis on individualism. Wrote one reviewer, ”Both the common and the uncommon people of the play were, in one respect or another, marvelously vital, imaginative, or sensitive.” The fact that the work did arouse such enthusiasm as well as hostility suggested to some critics that Saroyan ”has something important to say.”
- Floan, Howard R. William Saroyan: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1966.
- Leggett, John. A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan. New York: Knopf, 2002.
- Carpenter, Frederic I. ”The Time of William Saroyan’s Life.” The Pacific Spectator (Winter 1947).
- Fisher, William J. ”What Ever Happened to Saroyan?” College English vol. 16 (March 1955).
- Mills, John A. ”What. What Not: Absurdity in Saroyan’s ‘The Time of Your Life’.” The Midwest Quarterly vol. XXVI (Winter 1985).
- William Saroyan Literary Foundation. Retrieved December 7, 2008, from http://www.william saroyan.org.
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