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William Saroyan (1908-1981)
by Janice Albert

Just how “forgotten” is William Saroyan?
It would seem that, to answer this question, one must distinguish between his life and his work.

Since his death in 1981, his life story has become the subject of more than one biography: His son Aram gave us William Saroyan in 1983. This is an insider’s view, told by a young man who had been recently cut out of his father’s will and who is laboring to keep his father’s bitterness and alienation from poisoning his own life. Aram Saroyan analyses his father’s personality, based on the facts of William Saroyan’s early life—the death of his father when he was three years old, and the subsequent disappearance of his mother when she placed her four children in an Oakland orphanage in order to work across the bay in San Francisco. This was in 1911. In 1916 when she reclaimed the family and took them back to Fresno, her son William had undergone a major personality transformation, which Aram spells out at length.

William Saroyan Festival, Fresno

Saroyan is also a major subject of his former wife Carol’s autobiography Among the Porcupines, published in 1992. Gossipy and studded with celebrity names, this is a tell-all tale of a girl raised in opulence by her mother and an adopted father in New York City, who met Saroyan when she was 15 years old and married him at 17, divorced then remarried him a few years later. “I married Saroyan the second time because I couldn’t believe how terrible it was the first time,” Carol Matthau told the New York Times.

In addition, two biographies have been published by scholars: Saroyan by Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford (1984) and most recently a dismal effort entitled A Daring Young Man by John Leggett (2003). The facts of Saroyan’s life can make for interesting reading, combining so many modern elements in one person. For example, he began life as the victim of the twentieth century’s first genocide: the slaughter of Armenians by the Turks. His family fled from Bitlis, Armenia, to New Jersey, then to Fresno, California, where William was born. Although his father was an ordained minister, he was working as a field hand on the night of William’s birth.

William’s childhood was torn between Armenian culture and the influence of the Methodist, English-speaking orphanage in which he lived for five years. He returned to Fresno with no understanding of his mother’s language. Even though he learned to speak Armenian, he never learned to read it, and was consequently cut off from an important birthright— his father’s poetry.

He sold newspapers in Fresno and delivered messages for the telegraph service— wholesome activities immortalized in his short stories and in The Human Comedy. But he was also expelled from school, his one achievement being a typing course he completed in order to become a writer.

Saroyan’s literary ambition seems to have come from the depths of his own personality rather than from any outside influences. No parent, teacher or friend can take credit for his ambition, and—for better or for worse—he did not turn to anyone for help in the early days. In this way he is rather like the young Jack London, with his spotty education and lack of role models. He moved to San Francisco, where he lived in a second floor apartment at 348 Carl Street. Roaming the city night and day, he acquired the raw materials for his break-through story “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” (1932) as well as his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Time of Your Life” (1939). Having conquered the worlds of fiction and theater, his next goal was Hollywood, and indeed, his film script of The Human Comedy was taken up by M-G-M in 1941. He published it as a novel in 1943. These successes, coming on each other’s heels, were making Saroyan a rich man and a celebrity as well.

But his successes pale beside the heart-breaking chronicle of his self-destructive gambling, his inability to cultivate and keep business associates, his failure to acknowledge ways in which he was indebted to others for his good fortune.

In 1942 he was drafted into the Army and, although he was treated extremely well, he felt he did not deserve to be called up. As he chafed against life in uniform, he decided to marry Carol Marcus, who was now pregnant at his request.

Following his release from service, his wife reports that “He was, at the time, one of the richest writers in the world, receiving almost $75,000 a year in book and play royalties world-wide.” Since he had let his father-in-law pay their household expenses —rent, nanny, cook and housekeeper—during the war, his money rapidly accumulated.

As a family of three, the Saroyans settled in San Francisco where, Carol reports, her husband began to feel that financial security was inhibiting his ability to write. He took up daily wagering, “losing $30,000 most days, on top of $10,000 or $20,000, or, one night, $65,000.” In less than a month, it was all gone. When the magic of poverty did not restore his creative ability, he sold their house with all its contents and they returned to New York. Unable to work, spending most of his days in bed, Saroyan sulked. His wife writes of these days, “Bill had the mentality of a matinee idol,” but “the world had become far more complex than he’d ever dreamed.”

Some writers achieve much within a short life span—Jack London, 40 years; Robert Louis Stevenson, 44 years. One notes that by Saroyan’s fortieth birthday, his chief literary legacy was already in print. Yet he kept writing. Indeed, he is one of our most prolific writers. The Saroyan archives, now held by Stanford University, include many unpublished manuscripts.

At the age of 44, Saroyan succeeded at yet another genre, memoir, and his book The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills may be, for those of us living in the twenty-first century, one of his best. A rambling account, combining philosophy and personal history, this is the book in which Saroyan revealed for the first time the story of his early years in the Fred Finch orphanage and their effect on him. He hints that his hearing began to go around the age of 17. He writes of what Fresno meant to the early Armenian immigrants and why they chose to live there. Reading this book is like listening to one’s manic-depressive father on one of his better days. You just wish it were all true and that it could always be like this.

Saroyan is well-remembered in Fresno, where he spent the last years of his life. His Academy Award is on display in the Metropolitan Museum, rescued from a San Francisco pawn shop. A black marble headstone in Ararat Cemetery marks his gravesite.

In San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park, the Carl Street residence still stands beside the street car tracks. A charming literary site remains in the house that Saroyan built for his mother in Golden Gate Heights. In recent years, this home has been purchased and restored by Jackie Kazarian, his niece. Visitors who call her at 451/664-4418 can make an appointment for a house tour and hear the most current plans for keeping his work before the public. A revival of “The Time of Your Life” by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater will play in San Francisco in the spring of 2004.

House that Saroyan built for his mother in Golden Gate Heights

Saroyan’s legacy lives on, as well, through another California writer: Richard Rodriguez. In a PBS interview, Rodriguez affirms, “He was the first writer I fell in love with, boyishly in love…. I learned from Saroyan that you do not have to live in some great city—in New York or Paris—in order to write. Life in Fresno can be rendered as literature.”

Rodriguez commends these words from Saroyan’s preface to “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”: “The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: 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. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

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