WHO READS SAROYAN TODAY? An Assessment of William Saroyan's Place in American Literature" By Dickran Kouymjian
(Originally presented at a conference "William Saroyan and Contemporary Scholarship," at Stanford University, May 9, 1997)
Perhaps the better question is who reads anything today? As we watch our libraries transformed into the convenience stores of the printed word with work stations, copying machines, electronic databases, and on-line catalogues, we must reflect on a time not too long ago when the library was primarily the storehouse of the imagination, where one came to read books or borrow them and not just to get the equivalent of a quick fix for a term paper assignment without having to read "a whole book," as some college students are apt to protest today.
William Saroyan saw reading as the great adventure of his life. So thrilled was he by the magic of books that at an early age he decided to become a writer. His father Armenak was a sometimes-Protestant preacher and a would-be writer, who died when Saroyan was only three. The discovery as a teenager of his own father's unpublished poems reinforced his single-minded resolution to write for a living.
Saroyan was born in Fresno in 1908 and died there in 1981. Though he lived more years of his life away from the San Joaquin Valley -- in San Francisco, New York, and Paris -- he is associated inextricably with Fresno. Fresno, with its ethnically diverse and economically modest citizens, helped shape his worldview. After five years in an orphanage in Oakland, Saroyan returned to Fresno at age eight and for the next decade was molded in the Armenian quarter at its heart. As the youngest child of a destitute widow, Saroyan was obliged to get out and work, first as a hawker of newspapers and then as a telegram delivery boy. Today, we would say he developed "street smarts," or that he just "hung out," essentially unrestrained, with a degree of independence hard for youth in our day to experience.
From the beginning Saroyan was an iconoclast, one who resisted what was trendy or the right thing to do. This does not mean he rejected tradition, for in certain ways, particularly his ideas about marriage and family, he was sometimes trapped by the conservative values he had inherited from both an Armenian and Protestant upbringing. Saroyan went to the Emerson school, torn down a few decades ago, like other Fresno landmarks, to make way for a freeway and lots of asphalt. He quit school at age thirteen and boasted often that he got out just before the educational system did him permanent damage. What could have Saroyan meant by that? In fact, in those seven or eight years of schooling, Saroyan learned to read and write quite well. He was a near perfect speller and had an instinctive sense for grammar and syntax. He also learned how to figure, absorbed a good deal of history, and acquired notions of literature. Surely his battle with teachers and administrators, in part retold in the stories of My Name Is Aram and The Human Comedy , was not about the content or the inadequacy of the curriculum, but something much more profound.
Saroyan abhorred the rigidity and conformity of school. He was shocked by the lack of imagination, by the failure of spirit, by the self-righteousness of teachers, many of whom he saw as dull, lifeless, opinionated, and even bigoted, teachers who used their authority over children to acquire power they could not win through respect. Saroyan believed at an early age that the writer's greatest tool was imagination and at school he saw imagination discouraged, and at times punished in that excessively formal and arid environment. So he escaped, bought a typewriter, and enrolled in a technical school to learn touch typing, because he did not want the mechanics of writing to get in the way of swift and effortless composition.
Since Saroyan refused the conventional academic path into the world of American letters, he shared, along with Walt Whitman, a life long suspicion for those institutions that guided literary fashions and dictated compositional norms. In addition to being controlled and disciplined, Saroyan was also passionate and free. He rejected conformity. He had little use for the niceties of polite society. He would not flatter to advance his career. He could not follow the accepted way of doing things if it was unprincipled or not to his liking. He was stubborn about his personal integrity. Even though, as he grew older, Saroyan achieved a certain personal wisdom, a sort of coming to terms with himself, which allowed him to diminish the bravado of his younger years, he never tempered his disdain toward the establishment and its institutions, Armenian as well as American.
The universities have dominated literary criticism in America. It was and is the college educated writer, or failed writer, the M.F.A. in English literature, and increasingly the Ph.D. who decided and decides what gets into the "canon," that is the accepted tradition. Critics and literary essayists are all college graduates, people who have invested many years learning grammar and form, style, and the evolutionary development of literary technique. What is amazing in the Saroyan story is not that he was not embraced by these critics in the same way that he was loved by the public, but that a young writer, famous at age 26 and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize at 30, who had hardly started high school before dropping out, was able to garner the praise of some of the New York critics all of the time, and all of the critics some of the time.
Currently, Saroyan is not much taught in American colleges and universities. The specialists of American literature have had little, usually no, chance to study Saroyan, because he has not been part of the curriculum. Even in Fresno, his hometown, Saroyan is not offered in the English Department of California State University, Fresno. He is relegated to the Armenian Studies Program in a class which has attracted few English majors. The same is true for Saroyan's theater, even though his plays had won him the Pulitzer prize and the Drama Critics award. In the past twenty years the Theater Arts Department at Fresno State has not staged a Saroyan play, except for "My Heart's in the Highlands," and that just after his death in a production of the Children's Drama Center. Since Saroyan is no longer fashionable and is neglected by the canon, he remains marginal for stage directors and professors of literature. The situation is much the same everywhere. At U.C. Berkeley, where the Saroyan archives had been deposited for 15 years after his death, and where a major endowment, inventively named the William Saroyan Chair of Armenian Studies, has been in place for some time, no Saroyan course was taught until the fall of 1996, and that by myself, a visiting professor.
Saroyan was a problem for most critics because his writing was so unorthodox, so difficult to categorize. It was only in the 1950s, when the likes of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Arthur Adamov made absurdist and surrealist drama popular that Saroyan's theater was recognized as equally inventive, a precursor of this movement, but it was too late. It is still difficult for some critics to understand that many of Saroyan's works criticized for being formless used imagination as form. Recent reevaluations of Saroyan now make clear he was a performer too, perhaps as much a performer as he was an impassioned author. Writing became for him a spontaneous act of creation, requiring daily rehearsal.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Saroyan liked to take on the critics, fearlessly and with conviction. When reviewers wrote a page or two on his new book or play (and remember in the first decade of his fame, until age 35, he averaged two books a year), he would write back twice or three times as much in rebuttal in personal letters to each of them or discuss the issue as prefaces and postfaces to his next book. For instance, the letter (published as a postface) to all fifteen critics who panned his 1960 London production, Sam, the Highest Jumper of Them All , underscores Saroyan's constant disappointment with those who failed to understand his plays. "I write plays and you write criticism.... There are fifteen of you and one of me. I say Sam is a good play. I am sorry you say it isn't. One of us is obviously mistaken. Knowing the paltry little I know, I cannot believe it is me."
No wonder the critics were unwilling to accept Saroyan, a writer who not only failed to finish school and refused to write story and play according to accepted form, but one who had the audacity to tell the critics that they did not know what they were doing and in fact lacked the intelligence and imagination to understand his creative adventure. In the long and caustic memoir, Obituaries , the last book published before his death, Saroyan addressed the critics bluntly: "Don't tell me I'm sentimental, you sons of bitches. You are contemptible, your dishonesty is contemptible, your careful plodding with words, to keep them safely captured inside your silly little theories are contemptible, but I don't hate you, because each of you is a sad little pompous son of a bitch, with a chair at a university, and you are fighting bravely to seem to be somebody."
The charge that Saroyan was a sentimental writer is still echoed today. Surely it is based mostly on the Human Comedy , especially the film version, and in part on My Heart's in the Highlands . But what is sentimental about Saroyan's first great story "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" or even My Name Is Aram? After the 1940s few of Saroyan's works were sentimental, and those which were like Tracy's Tiger, were meant to be. In the writing of his last 20 years, sentiment is hard to find, unless reminiscence be considered as such. Fortunately, critics are finally discovering the hard edge always present in his writing, the "dark side of Saroyan" as one put it.
From the beginning Saroyan and the critics were in disagreement. Someone had to give in and it was not going to be the proud Saroyan. In the end the fight was overshadowed by a real conflict, the Second World War, which in time engulfed America like it had Europe. Saroyan served his three years in the army, correctly, if unhappily, but after the war, now a married man with two children, in an environment radically different from the one which had embraced Saroyan's message, the critics finally won the Saroyan wars, mostly through neglect. Though Saroyan continued to write regularly, middle age, a failed marriage, major financial problems, gambling out of frustration, and new names and trends in literature, all contributed to marginalize him. People began to read Saroyan less and less. He started to reign-in his public persona and withdraw from center stage. By 1964 he was able to look back with self doubt as these reflections in The Daring Young Man: Thirty Years After reveal: "I wondered if it wouldn't have been better in the long run for me to have worked much slower and over a much longer period of time before having my writing accepted and published. ... I now and then felt, 'Hell, you've made a beginning, but have put forward a bragging character, and that may not be a good thing. It may be something you will have to live down.'"
The struggle with the critics took its toll on Saroyan; he was not as impervious to it as it seemed. In Obituaries he confessed: "Dear lady, ... dear gentleman, reader, [it's] not right ... to put down this writer on his writing ... And I'll tell you why, too: it hurts, that's why.... People try to understand why writers commit suicide by jumping off boats or by alcoholism or by being heroic continuously or by rope or gun or drug or knife or water, and ... I can tell you straight out, ... it is reading slurring remarks about their writing that drives writers to the grave. Dirty remarks passed by ... dirty but damned nicely educated and very highly-paid ladies and gentlemen have the effect of killing writers. Yes, that's right. Dirty words ... in slick paper magazines read by smart people do assassinate writers." But then Saroyan ironically adds, "and boy let me tell you I am all for it, even when by some ... misunderstanding the dirty words are directed to me rather than to the party really deserving them. Accidents happen, dear clever reviewer or critic, and let it not be said that William Saroyan is one not to see a situation from the point of view of the other party, ... and I shall be the first to defend your right to be critical and even sarcastic, knowing full well that it is not about me and my writing, although my name is by mistake taken in vain by you. ... But go on, go on, do your good clever writing, every one of you, I am home, your are home, and we are each of us not yet on Variety's Necrology list, so if we can't take it, who can?"
Remarkably, instead of stopping to write, as did for instance his compatriot, the novelist Michael Arlen, who spent the last years of his life in New York posturing in fancy hotel bars, Saroyan wrote more and more pouring out day after day as much as he had in his early years. These last decades, the Paris and Fresno years, are only slowly becoming known to the public. Those who read Saroyan today still turn to the famous early successes: My Name Is Aram , The Time of Your Life , The Human Comedy . There is a whole body of work waiting to be discovered and made available. It is much more inward and introspective writing, less gentle, often bitter, but always honest and fearless, telling it as it is rather than as it might be. Good examples are the plays in An Armenian Trilogy published in 1986 or in Warsaw Visitor written in 1979, 20 months before Saroyan died, but issued only in 1991.
I suppose the simple answer to the question "Who Reads Saroyan Today?" is: almost no one, except a nostalgic older generation that has never ceased to be charmed by his work; of course Armenians or at least some Armenians, because they feel at home in many of his environments; and finally a major portion of the world's non-English speaking readers: East Europeans, Russians, and the Japanese, who love Saroyan and regard him as one of the most humane representatives of American letters of our century.
But this is not enough. In order for the mini-revival which started after his death to continue, Saroyan has to get back into the canon, has to become once again a subject for MA and doctoral theses, and has to reappear in survey courses of 20th century American fiction.
Can this happen and will it happen? It certainly can happen. The Saroyan legacy is in one major way different from that of his currently more popular contemporaries -- Hemingway, Steinbeck, Algren, the older Wolfe or the younger Kerouac or even the recently deceased Allen Ginsberg, whose papers like Saroyan's are preserved at Stanford. Saroyan left behind a vast corpus of unpublished material -- some 200 plays, a number of novels, several long memoirs, scores of stories, carefully kept journals going back to the 1930s, and thousands of quite remarkable letters. These should serve as a nearly inexhaustible source for researchers and publishers looking for new and interesting literature.
The William Saroyan Collection, which includes a lifetime of incidental memorabilia that Saroyan compulsively saved, represents one of the most complete records of how a writer carried on his day to day work during a half century of ceaseless creativity. It rests among the most under-exploited literary archives of a major American author; its raw data will allow for the most detailed reconstruction of a mid-twentieth century literary life.
A second interesting prospect is the rehabilitation of Saroyan through currently more fashionable writers influenced by him. The reawakening of interest in the Beat Generation, especially Jack Kerouac, culminating in the large exhibits on the Beats held in New York and San Francisco in 1996 ought to have a salutary affect on Saroyan research. In November of that same year, during an international conference "Saroyan Plus Fifteen" I organized at Berkeley, one of the three panels was entitled "Saroyan and the Beats." Of the five papers, three were on the stylistic influences of Saroyan on Kerouac, another on Saroyan's general impact on the Beat Generation, and a fifth on Charles Bukowski's life-long admiration for the Fresno author. Three of the panelists were professors of English literature and specialists on the Beats, one of them from the Berkeley English Department, the other two were undergraduate English majors. They along with other young scholars will lead any future Saroyan renaissance. At the conference, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher of the Beat writers, said proudly that the first book he remembers reading in English was by William Saroyan and he has never forgotten it. Coincidentally, six months later an exhibit entitled "The Writer as Artist: Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William Saroyan" was held in New York City.
With the permanent installation of the Saroyan archives at Stanford and the attention accorded it, everything suggests that a revival is in the making. The agreement between the William Saroyan Foundation, guardian of Saroyan's literary estate, and its new keeper, the Stanford University Libraries, calls for open access to the material for anyone engaged in serious research.
Thus a combination of these factors: a well catalogued, high profile archive open to the public, interest among university specialists who help define the canon, and eager young scholars ready to explore the uncharted riches of a prolific writer, suggests that things may get better for Saroyan studies and that William Saroyan will regain his reputation as one of America's most talented writers. Perhaps in the coming century we will be able to answer the question "Who reads Saroyan?" in the same way it was answered in the nineteen thirties, forties, and fifties when everybody read Saroyan!