June 1 2008
Will Saroyan’s literary legacy be lost?
(Fresno Bee (CA) (KRT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jun. 1–William
Saroyan was a comet in the literary sky from 1934 through the
mid-1940s. Before his light began to fade, he was compared to the
At the height of his fame, Saroyan was depicted in a cartoon, sitting
on a teeter-totter with George Bernard Shaw and vying for the title of
"World’s Greatest Writer." As a short-story writer, beginning with
"The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" in 1934, and playwright,
with works such as his 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Time of
Your Life," he was as well-known as Ernest Hemingway and John
"In 1942, he was No. 1 in readership and name recognition," said
Dickran Kouymjian, a friend of Saroyan and retired chairman of the
Armenian studies program at California State University, Fresno.
But things changed for Saroyan after World War II. His light dimmed,
leaving future generations to ponder what happened and to wonder
whether that light might ever return.
Experts see no simple reason for Saroyan’s flagging popularity. He
didn’t retire, nor did he flame out. He remained a writer to the end,
which makes his long fade-out as fascinating as his rapid rise.
Saroyan rose to prominence by being ahead of his time, said David
Calonne, a lecturer in the English department at Eastern Michigan
University and the author of "William Saroyan: My Real Work Is Being."
His stories were kettles of ethnic stew long before multiculturalism
was popular. Not only did he write about Armenians, he also worked
Mexicans, Filipinos, Italians and members of other ethnic groups into
"He also was way ahead of his time in terms of style," Calonne
added. "His work was very lyrical and poetic, with a Walt Whitmanlike
line that was new in American prose."
Saroyan’s creative energy helped fuel his rapid rise. After breaking
into print in 1934, he wrote, by his own account, 100 short stories a
year for five years. His work appeared before television took over
American homes and short stories fell out of fashion.
Saroyan came on the national scene during the Great Depression, and
readers often saw themselves in his stories, which gave them hope that
the human spirit could survive.
Another trait that set Saroyan apart was his ability to cross genres
as a writer, said Michael Kovacs, who teaches English and creative
writing at Gavilan College in Gilroy. He began as a master of the
short story, saw his plays produced on Broadway, wrote song lyrics and
novels and, toward the end of his life, reflected on the past through
Saroyan’s personality also helped keep him in the public eye. When he
refused the $1,000 Pulitzer Prize money for "The Time of Your Life,"
he cast himself, intentionally or not, as anti-establishment.
"He didn’t come out of Harvard or Yale," Kovacs said. "He taught him-
self to write."
Jack Kerouac and the other Beat Generation writers were influenced by
"The beats were reading Saroyan for his message and his experiments
with writing," he said.
In his book, Calonne calls Saroyan a "literary godfather" to the Beat
"In his early prose, Saroyan was a true innovator, spawning a fresh
new style — a fusion of jazz, Whitman, the quick tempi of American
life, popular songs and the oral tradition of Armenian literature. It
is precisely this oral, musical dimension of Saroyan’s prose-poetry,
along with its emphasis on immediate, passionate experience, which
appealed so powerfully to the Beats: his words are meant to be heard."
Paul Marion, in his introduction to "Atop an Underwood," a collection
of 60 unpublished works by Kerouac, tells of a poem Kerouac wrote at
age 18 in which he said he would "nibble at some sweet Saroyan" for
dessert when he fed his head with books.
But Saroyan’s legacy suffers because he has no great novels to his
credit, said Fresno journalist and writer Mark Arax, who knew Saroyan.
"He was spontaneous," Arax said. "He wrote in these incredible bursts
of energy and creativity. That kind of talent served him best in short
stories. I think he found the writing of the great American novel, and
all the character development you have to do, a little tedious."
With no serious novels they could celebrate, critics could easily
write Saroyan off as simply a Depression-era writer of lovely short
stories, Arax said.
Several other explanations have been offered for Saroyan’s declining
popularity after World War II.
"Some people say he was too senti- mental," Calonne observed. "They
saw him as this sweet Santa Claus figure from the 1930s who was
speaking to a different mood in the post-nuclear age."
A new generation of critics trashed Saroyan’s writing style and
faulted him for not addressing social issues in his work, said Saroyan
scholar Micah Jendian, a Fresno native who teaches English at
Grossmont College in El Cajon.
The literary establishment believed stories should have structure, but
Saroyan was a native storyteller who didn’t always use conventional
Kouymjian, who addressed this conflict in an essay entitled "Who Reads
Saroyan Today?" believes critics found Saroyan’s unorthodox style
difficult to categorize and failed to understand that he was using
imagination as the form for his plays.
Saroyan’s ego, which manifested itself in a stubborn refusal to revise
his work or to take criticism lightly, also contributed to his ebbing
Rather than accept editorial changes, Saroyan found it easier to
Random House published Saroyan’s first collection of short stories but
refused to include everything he submitted for his second anthology,
"Inhale and Exhale." The disagreement caused Saroyan to cut his ties
with Random House after the second book came out.
"Saroyan didn’t want to work on revisions, so he went to a different
publisher," Kouymjian said, noting that learning to work with editors
might have extended his period of popularity.
Saroyan’s voice as a writer also got in the way.
"He had such an incredible voice," Arax said. "The problem was it
became his gift and curse. He never moved beyond his voice. It was so
booming and so Godlike, from the sky, he was constrained by it. He
never developed characters that had other voices. All his characters
were Saroyan. I think that explains why he made a mark in literature,
but it also explains why critics today see him as one-dimensional."
Saroyan’s ultimate place in American literature is open to
question. Some doubt he will ever regain the stature he once
enjoyed. Others be- lieve he may be rediscovered some-day.
"Right now, there isn’t much of a place for him in American
literature," Kovacs said. "Saroyan is not studied in school, and
unless he is taught, he won’t be in the literary canon."
Saroyan’s works are not required reading in the Fresno and Clovis
school districts, although teachers are free to incorporate them into
The Armenian Studies Program at Fresno State offers a course on
Saroyan, but the English Department does not, even though department
Chairman James Walton admires the writer.
Walton said professors tend to teach what they studied in graduate
school, which may be one reason why interest in Saroyan is lagging.
"I don’t recall ever seeing a presentation on Saroyan at a meeting of
the Modern Language Association of America," he said, referring to the
nation’s foremost association of language and literary scholars.
Saroyan short stories have started to reappear in anthologies, Calonne
said. That exposure could gain Saroyan a new generation of fans, he
added, but it may not be enough to generate the kind of critical
reappraisal needed to elevate his stature.
"What is needed is for some well- known critics to take up the cause,"
Jendian believes critics will rediscover Saroyan.
"I see it coming," he said. "In Saroyan, you have a writer who was
dedicated to artistic integrity. A closer examination of his work will
yield that kind of relevance."
Forgotten writers have been rediscovered before, he said, citing Zora
Neale Hurston as an example. Hurston was a folklorist and writer who
died in obscurity in 1960. Interest in her work was renewed in 1975
when African-American novelist Alice Walker wrote an article "In
Search of Zora Neale Hurston" for Ms. magazine.
The 20 years when Saroyan was at the top of his game are worth looking
at, Kovacs said. That productive period, plus Saroyan’s influence on
writers such as Kerouac, could revive critical interest, he said.
"The literary stock market goes up and down," said Aram Saroyan, son
of William Saroyan. "It’s capricious. My father’s standing right now
is unclear. He once said to me that a writer is remembered for his
best stuff, not his worst stuff. The highest level of my father’s work
stands with anyone in his literary generation."