William Saroyan

The skill of William Saroyan (1908-1981), American short-story writer, dramatist, and novelist, in evoking mood and atmosphere was noteworthy, and his imaginary world, peopled with common men, was warm and compelling.

William Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, on August 31, 1908, the son of Armenian immigrants. After his father's death in 1911, William spent four years in an orphanage. Selling newspapers at the age of eight, he attended public schools in Fresno until, as he said, "I had been kicked out of school so many times that I finally left for good when I was fifteen."

In 1928 Saroyan decided to become a writer, but it was 1934 before his short stories began appearing consistently in major magazines. His first book was The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories (1934). At this time he concentrated on short stories. Seven collections appeared, from Inhale and Exhale (1936) to My Name Is Aram (1940). The works centered on memories of San Francisco and Fresno and show his joy in living. My Name Is Aram was particularly lyrical.

From 1939 through 1943 Saroyan was among America's most active playwrights. In My Heart's in the Highlands (1939) he departed from the current dramatic practice, for he believed that "it is folly for emotionality to be prolonged as a means by which to achieve drama." Completely episodic, bonded by a tenuous mood deriving from free spirits, the play was distinctive. He created a similar piece in The Time of Your Life (1939). Awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics' Circle Award for this play, Saroyan rejected the former. Love's Old Sweet Song (1940) was less effective, but his firm grip was evident again in The Beautiful People (1941). Hello Out There (1942), atypical of Saroyan, was an effective realistic one-act play of human isolation. Another dark play, Get Away Old Man (1943), failed, but his film The Human Comedy (1943) won an Academy Award.

During World War II Saroyan served in the Army. In 1943 he married Carol Marcus. Divorced in 1949, they remarried in 1951 and were again divorced in 1952. Although he continued to write plays, his work was mainly novels, autobiographies, film and television scripts, short stories, and even songs. His most praised novels are The Human Comedy (1943), The Assyrian (1950), Tracy's Tiger (1951), The Laughing Matter (1953), and Mama I Love You (1956). He also wrote I Used To Believe I Had Forever, Now I'm Not So Sure (1968); Escape to the Moon (1970); and The Tooth and My Father (1974). He died on May 18, 1981 in Fresno, California.

Further Reading on William Saroyan

Saroyan's autobiographies were The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills (1952), Here Comes: There Goes: You Know Who (1961), Not Dying (1963), and a more extensive one, Places Where I've Done Time (1972), in which he recalled 68 key places in his life. Carol Matthau, former spouse of Saroyan, wrote about him in her memoir, Among the Porcupines (Publishing Mills, 1992). See, also, Saroyan, Aram, William Saroyan (Harcourt, 1983). A major critical work on him was Howard R. Floan, William Saroyan (1966). A major bibliographical work was David Kherdian, A Bibliography of William Saroyan, 1934-1964 (1965). Useful insights were in John Mason Brown, Broadway in Review (1940); Brooks Atkinson, Broadway Scrapbook (1947); and George Jean Nathan, The Magic Mirror: Selected Writings on the Theatre (1960).