This Day In Literary History
On August 31st, 1908, the legendary American writer William Saroyan was born in Fresno, California. His parents were Armenian immigrants who had been living in Turkey. When Saroyan was three years old, his father died suddenly.
Unable to care for her children, Saroyan's mother placed him and his brother and sister in an orphanage. The family would be reunited five years later when Saroyan's mother found steady work at a cannery.
As a boy, William Saroyan developed a passion for reading and learning, educating himself when he wasn't at school. He went to a technical school intending to become a professional typist.
When he was fifteen, his mother showed him some of his late father's writings and Saroyan was impressed. He determined to become a writer himself. He would support himself by doing odd jobs while mastering the craft of writing.
In 1934, at the age of 26, William Saroyan burst onto the literary scene when his classic short story, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, was published by Story magazine. It would later be published in book form as the title story of a collection.
Its protagonist being a starving writer trying to improve his lot in life, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze established the main theme of Saroyan's works - optimism amidst troubled times. It also introduced readers to his style of dazzling, zesty, and impressionistic prose:
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 for strength to make the flight with grace.
In 1942, following the United States' entry into World War II, William Saroyan enlisted in the Army. He was first stationed in Astoria, Queens. Preferring to avoid the company of his fellow soldiers, Saroyan spent his free time at Manhattan's Lombardy Hotel.
He was later transferred to London as part of a film unit; when his novel The Adventures of Wesley Jackson caught the Army's attention, Saroyan narrowly avoided a court martial for advocating pacifism.
After the war ended, Saroyan continued his writing career. He wrote prolifically, worked fast, and rarely revised his manuscripts. Unfortunately, he drank and gambled away most of his earnings. His body of works included not only short stories and novels, but plays and non-fiction works as well.
As a playwright, William Saroyan was most famous for his classic play, The Time of Your Life (1939). Set in a seedy waterfront bar in San Francisco, its main character is Joe, a wealthy man who gave up working in order to hold court at his favorite bar.
There, he helps out his fellow bar patrons and encourages their eccentricities. The play won Saroyan the Pulitzer Prize, but he refused it in protest over what he saw as the crass commercialization of the award. He later accepted the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.
The Time of Your Life was adapted as a feature film in 1948, starring James Cagney as Joe. The film proved to be a critical and commercial failure, as the stifling Hollywood Production Code was still in effect.
Saroyan's play had to be sanitized as per Production Code requirements, and when preview audiences reacted negatively to the play's ending, producers filmed an alternate ending - common fates suffered by written works adapted for the screen during the Code era.
Believe it or not, Saroyan's classic novel The Human Comedy (1943) actually started out as an original screenplay for MGM, but studio head Louis B. Mayer balked at the length of Saroyan's script, which ran well over two hours.
The author refused to make significant cuts, so he was fired from the project, and another screenwriter was brought in to write the script. Meanwhile, Saroyan wrote a novelization of his original screenplay.
He wrote the novel, which was published before the film was released, to serve as a counterpoint to the drastically altered script for the movie, which he absolutely hated.
The Human Comedy was a morale boosting story centered on a then timely topic: the American home front during World War II. Its main character, Homer Macauley, is a fatherless 14-year-old boy whose older brother is away fighting in the war.
Feeling that he must now be the man of the family, Homer takes an evening job as a telegram delivery boy, which often requires him to deliver news to families that their sons have died in the war.
During the day, he tries to live as normal a life as possible. He goes to school, to the movies, and to church on Sundays. He gets by with the help of his close-knit family (which includes his little brother and their harpist mother) and his own instinctive sense of right and wrong.
Homer remains honest and hopeful as he comes of age amidst the ominous specter of war and the uncertainty and hardships of the home front. His name and experiences are allegorical references to the poet Homer and his legendary epic work, The Odyssey.
After the war ended, William Saroyan resumed his prolific writing career. He continued producing quality short stories, novels, and plays, but then the Cold War began and anticommunist hysteria swept across the American landscape.
Saroyan's works and their themes of universal brotherhood and benevolence fell out of favor in this new climate of distrust, paranoia, and persecution. By 1958, he had left the country and settled in France, taking an apartment in Paris.
In the 1960s, Saroyan finally beat his addictions to alcohol and gambling, which had cost him not only his marriage, but most of his money as well.
Freed from these addictions, he was able to get his writing career back on track. By the 1970s, he had earned more than enough money to get himself out of debt.
William Saroyan died of prostate cancer in 1981. He was 72 years old.
Quote Of The Day
"He neither walks with the multitude nor cheers with them. The writer who is a real writer is a rebel who never stops." - William Saroyan
Today's video features William Saroyan reading from his 1936 short story collection Inhale and Exhale. Saroyan based his classic poem The Armenian and the Armenian on this passage. Enjoy!