William Saroyan

From New World Encyclopedia

William Saroyan, 1940 by Al Aumuller, World-Telegram staff photographer

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 and reflected the immigrant experience and the struggles of that time. Saroyan grew up in Fresno, the center of Armenian-Americans in California, which served as the basis for many of his settings. Despite the difficulties of life during the Depression era, Saroyan's work nonetheless contained a ray of hope and optimism about life that expresses the indomitable spirit of those immigrants who helped to build America.


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. At a certain point his father was forced to take farm-laboring work, and he died in 1911. At the age of four, William was placed in the Fred Finch Orphanage in Oakland, California, together with his brothers—an experience he later described in his writing. Five years later, the family reunited in Fresno, where his mother, Takoohi, had obtained work in a cannery.

In 1921, Saroyan attended technical school to learn to type, but left at the age of fifteen; his mother had shown him some of his father's writings, and he decided to become a writer. Saroyan continued his education on his own, supporting himself by taking odd jobs. At the San Francisco Telegraph Company, for example, 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 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 title taken from the nineteenth century song of the same name. 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.

Following the United States involvement in World War II, Saroyan enlisted in the U.S. Army and in 1942, he was posted to London as part of a film unit. He narrowly avoided a court martial when his novel, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, was read as advocating pacifism.

In 1943, Saroyan married eighteen-year-old Carol Marcus (1924-2003); they had two children, Aram Saroyan and Lucy Saroyan. By the late 1940s, Saroyan's increasing problems with drinking and gambling had taken a toll on his marriage, and he filed for divorce upon his return from an extended European trip. They remarried again and divorced. Lucy later became an actress, and Aram became a writer who published a book about his father. Carol Marcus was subsequently 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 his idealism was considered out of step with the times. However, he still wrote prolifically.

The Armenian and the Armenian

While Saroyan's writing in general is particularly renowned among fellow Armenians, The Armenian and the Armenian is an especially stirring declaration of solidarity. The piece is set during the Armenian Genocide, in which over 1.5 million Armenians were killed and deported.[1] The destruction of the Armenian culture occurred during the government of the Young Turks from 1915 to 1917, in closing years of the Ottoman Empire.[2]

The words evoke notes of grief, rage, resilience, and rebirth, in relation to Armenian cultural and social life. Above all, it is a tribute to the resilience of the Armenian people.

I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread and water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.

Literary works

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 young Homer, a telegraph messenger, bears witness to the 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 Odets'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 famous filmmaker, Charlie Chaplin. During World War II Saroyan joined the U.S. 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 1952, Saroyan published the first of several book-length memoirs, The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills.

In the novellas, 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.


William Saroyan's stories celebrated optimism in the midst of the trials and tribulations of the Depression. Several of Saroyan's works were drawn from his own experiences. Saroyan worked tirelessly to perfect a prose style that was full of zest for life and was seemingly impressionistic. The style became known as "Saroyanesque."

Saroyan's work has some connections to Knut Hamsun's penniless writer in his novel, Hunger (1890), but without the anger and nihilism of Hamsun's narrator. 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 (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, aged 72, on May 18, 1981, in his hometown of 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).


  • The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze (1934)
  • The Trouble With Tigers (1938)
  • My Name Is Aram (1940)
  • The Human Comedy (1943)
  • Tracy's Tiger (1951)
  • The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse (1938)
  • Rock Wagram (1951)
  • Love (1955)
  • Gaston (1962)
  • one Day in the Afternoon (1964)
  • Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon (1970)
  • Obituaries (1979)
  • My name is Saroyan (1983)
  • An Armenian trilogy (1986)
  • Madness in the family (1988)


  • The Time of Your Life (1939)—winner of the New York Drama Critics' Award and the Pulitzer Prize
  • My Heart's in the Highlands (1939)
  • Elmer and Lily (1939)
  • The Agony of Little Nations (1940)
  • Hello-out there! (1941)
  • Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning (1941)
  • The Beautiful People (1941)
  • Bad Men in the West (1942)
  • Talking to You (1942)
  • Don't Go Away Mad (1947)
  • The Slaughter of the Innocents (1952)
  • The Stolen Secret (1954)
  • Hanging around the Wabash (1961)
  • The Dogs, or the Paris Comedy (1969)
  • Armenians (1971)
  • Assassinations (1974)
  • Tales from the Vienna Streets (1980)

Short Stories

  • "Third Day after Christmas" (1926)


  • "Come On-a My House" was a hit for Rosemary Clooney. Based on an Armenian folk song, it was written with his cousin, Ross Bagdasarian, later the impresario of Alvin and the Chipmunks.


  1. New York Times Dispatch, Lord Bryce's report on Armenian atrocities an appalling catalogue of outrage and massacre. Retrieved May 5, 2008.
  2. Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory (London: Reaction Books, 2006), p 25-60.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Balakian, N. The World of William Saroyan. Bucknell University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780838753682
  • Floan, H.R. William Saroyan. New College & University Press, 1966. ISBN 9780808403296
  • Foster, E.H. William Saroyan. Boise State University Press, 1984. ISBN 9780884300359
  • Foster, E.H. William Saroyan: A Study in the Shorter Fiction. Twayne Publishers, 1991. ISBN 9780805783353
  • Gifford, Barry and Lawrence Lee. Saroyan. Thunder's Mouth Press, 1984. ISBN 9781560257615
  • Harmalian, Leo, ed. William Saroyan. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 9780838633083
  • Keyishan, H., ed. Critical Esays in William Saroyan. Twayne Publishers, 1995. ISBN 9780783800189
  • Leggett, John. A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan. 2002. ISBN 9780375413018
  • Samuelian, Varaz. Willie & Varaz: Memories of My Friend William Saroyan. Ag Access Corporation, 1985. ISBN 9780914330738
  • Saroyan, A. William Saroyan. William Morrow, 1983. ISBN 9780688021467
  • Whimore, Jon. William Saroyan. Greenwood Press, 1995. ISBN 9780313292507

External links

All links retrieved May 12, 2023.


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