William Saroyan

William Saroyan (August 31, 1908 - May 18, 1981) was an American author who wrote many plays and short stories about growing up impoverished as the son of Armenian immigrants. These stories were popular during the Great Depression.







William Saroyan's stories celebrated optimism in the middle of trials and difficulties of the Depression. Several of Saroyan's works were drawn from his own experiences, although his approach to autobiographical facts can be called poetic.

His advice to a young writer was: "Try to learn to breathe deeply; really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell." Saroyan worked tirelessly to perfect a prose style, that was full of zest of for life and was seemingly impressionistic. The style became known as Saroyanesque.

Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, the son of an Armenian immigrant. His father moved to New Jersey in 1905 - he was a small vineyard owner, who had been educated as a Presbyterian minister. In the new country he was forced to take farm-labouring work. He died in 1911 from peritonitis, after drinking a forbidden glass of water given by his wife, Takoohi. Saroyan was put in an orphanage in Alameda with his brothers. Six years later the family reunited in Fresno, where Takoohi had obtained work in a cannery. Fresno is a major center of Armenian population in the United States.

In 1921 Saroyan attended technical school to learn to type. At the age of fifteen, Saroyan left the school. His mother had showed him some of his father's writings, and he decided to become a writer. Saroyan continued his education by reading and writing on his own, and supporting himself by odd jobs. At the San Francisco Telegraph Company he worked as an office manager. A few of his early short articles were published in The Overland Monthly. His first stories appeared in the 1930s. Among these was "The Broken Wheel", written under the name Sirak Goryan and published in the Armenian journal Hairenik in 1933.

Many of Saroyan's stories were based on his childhood, experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley, or dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name is Aram (1940), an international bestseller, was about a young boy, Aram Garoghlanian, and the colorful characters of his immigrant family. It has been translated into many languages.

As a writer Saroyan made his breakthrough in Story magazine with "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" (1934). The protagonist is a young, starving writer who tries to survive in a Depression-ridden society.

"Through the air on the flying trapeze, his mind hummed. Amusing it was, astoundingly funny. A trapeze to God, or to nothing, a flying trapeze to some sort of eternity; he prayed objectively for strength to make the flight with grace."

Saroyan's character has some connections to Knut Hamsun's penniless writer in his novel Hunger (1890), but without the anger and nihilism of Hamsun's narrator. The story was republished in Saroyan's bestselling collection, and with its royalties Saroyan financed his trip to Europe and Armenia, where he learned to love the taste of Russian cigarettes. He also developed a theory that "you may tend to get cancer from the thing that makes you want to smoke so much, not from the smoking itself." (from Not Dying, 1963)

As a playwright Saroyan's work was drawn from deeply personal sources. He disregarded the conventional idea of conflict as essential to drama. My Heart's in the Highlands (1939), his first play, was a comedy about a young boy and his Armenian family. It was produced at the Guild Theatre in New York.

Among Saroyan's best known plays is The Time of Your Life (1939), set in a waterfront saloon in San Francisco. It won a Pulitzer Prize. Saroyan refused the honor, on the grounds that commerce should not judge the arts, but accepted the New York Drama Critics Circle award. In 1948 the play was adapted into a film starring James Cagney.

The Human Comedy (1943) is set in Ithaca in California's San Joaquin Valley, where the young Homer, a telegraph messenger, becomes a witness of sorrows and joys of small town people during World War II.

"Mrs. Sandoval," Homer said swiftly, "your son is dead. Maybe it's a mistake. Maybe it wasn't your son. Maybe it was somebody else. The telegram says it was Juan Domingo. But maybe the telegram is wrong." (Quotation from The Human Comedy)

The story was bought by MGM and made Saroyan's shaky financial situation more secure. Louis B. Mayer had purchased the story for $60,000 and gave Saroyan $1,500 a week for his work as producer-director. After seeing Saroyan's short film, Mayer gave the direction to Clarence Brown. The sentimental final sequence of the Oscar-winning film, starring Mickey Rooney and Frank Morgan, was called "the most embarrassing moment in the whole history of movies" by David Shipman in The Story of Cinema (vol. 2, 1984).

Before the war Saroyan had worked on the screenplay of Golden Boy (1939), based on Clifford Odet's play, but he never gained much success in Hollywood.

Saroyan also published essays and memoirs, in which he depicted the people he had met on travels in the Soviet Union and Europe, such as the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and Charlie Chaplin. During World War 2 Saroyan joined the US army. He was stationed in Astoria, Queens, but he spent much of his time at the Lombardy Hotel in Manhattan, far from the Army personnel. In 1942 he was posted to London in as a part of a film unit and narrowly avoided a court martial, when his novel, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson (1946) turned out to be pacifist.

In 1943 Saroyan married the seventeen-years-old Carol Marcus; they had two children, Aram and Lucy. By the late forties Saroyan's increasing problems with drinking and gambling had taken a toll on his mariage, and he filed for divorce upon his return from an extended European trip. They remarried again and divorced. Lucy became an actress. Aram became a poet, who published a book about his father. Carol Marcus was married to the actor Walter Matthau.

Saroyan's financial situation did not improve after the war, when interest in his novels declined and he was criticized for sentimentalism. Saroyan praised freedom; brotherly love and universal benevolence were for him basic values, but with his idealism Saroyan was considered out of date. However, he still wrote prolifically. "How could you you write so much good stuff and still write such bad stuff?" asked one of his readers.

In 1952 Saroyan published the first of several book-length memoirs, The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills.

In the title novella of The Assyrian and other stories (1950) and in The Laughing Matter (1953) Saroyan mixed allegorical elements within a realistic novel. The plays Sam Ego's House (1949) and The Slaughter of the Innocents (1958) examined moral questions, but they did not gain the success of his prewar works. When Saroyan made jokes about Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway responded: "We've seen them come and go. Good ones too. Better ones than you, Mr. Saroyan."

Many of Saroyan's later plays, such as The Paris Comedy (1960), The London Comedy(1960), and Settled Out of Court (1969), premiered in Europe. Manuscripts of a number of his unperformed plays are now at Stanford University with his other papers.

Saroyan worked rapidly, hardly editing his text. Much of his earnings he spent in drinking and gambling. From 1958 the author lived mainly in Paris, where he had an apartment.

"I am an estranged man, said the liar: estranged from myself, from my family, my fellow man, my country, my world, my time, and my culture. I am not estranged from God, although I am a disbeliever in everything about God excepting God indefinable, inside all and careless of all." (from Here Comes There Goes You Know Who, 1961)

In the late 1960s and the 1970s Saroyan managed to write himself out of debt and create substantial income. Saroyan died from cancer on May 18, 1981, in Fresno. "Everybody has got to die," he had said, "but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case." Half of his ashes were buried in California, and the rest in Armenia.


  • "The writer is a spiritual anarchist, as in the depth of his soul every man is. He is discontented with everything and everybody. The writer is everybody's best friend and only true enemy - the good and great enemy. He neither walks with the multitude nor cheers with them. The writer who is a writer is a rebel who never stops." From The William Saroyan Reader, 1958

Further Reading

For further reading:

  • William Saroyan by H.R. Floan (1966)
  • William Saroyan by A. Saroyan (1983)
  • William Saroyan by E.H. Foster (1984)
  • Saroyan by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee (1984)
  • Willie & Varaz: Memories of My Friend William Saroyan by Varaz Samuelian (1985)
  • William Saroyan, edited by Leo Harmalian (1987)
  • William Saroyan: A Study in the Shorter Fiction by E.H. Foster (1991)
  • Critical Esays in William Saroyan, edited by H. Keyishan (1995)
  • William Saroyan by Jon Whimore (1995)
  • Saroyan: A Biography by Lawrence Lee, Barry Gifford (1998, paperback)
  • The World of William Saroyan by N. Balakian (1998)
  • A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan by John Leggett (2002)de:William Saroyan

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