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KING PACK RAT : The Necropolis of William Saroyan

September 06, 1987|KEITH ABBOTT | Keith Abbott is a novelist living in Berkeley; his next book, "The First Thing Coming," will be published this October.

AN OBVIOUS STARTING PLACE for Saroyan's accumulation compulsion would seem to be the four years of his childhood spent at the Fred Finch Orphanage in Oakland. After his father died, his mother was unable to support the family and placed her children there. In "Saroyan: A Biography," Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford yielded to the temptation to find a single explanation for Saroyan's obsessiveness (he was also a compulsive, self-destructive gambler) and wrote, "If there is a 'Rosebud' in the life of William Saroyan, an emblematic object like the lost sled of Charles Foster Kane, it is the Coon Jigger." On his first day in the orphanage, Saroyan's mother gave him a windup dancing doll on a tin stage to distract him while she slipped away.

By his own account, Saroyan wrote about this incident "six or seven times." Of course, in grand Saroyan fashion, each version gave different interpretations of the event and its effect on him. In one account this toy symbolized the futility of replacing a mother's love; in a second it alerted him to the treachery of the world; in a third version, boredom with material things was the end result. But he kept this toy until his death. While the toy was significant to him, its racist nature was not; as an Armenian, Saroyan was quite sensitive to race discrimination.

Whether or not this toy was Saroyan's "Rosebud," the orphanage years certainly marked and scarred Saroyan. Howard notes that throughout his life Saroyan received annual reports from the orphanage, and he says that "Saroyan's bonding to his sister, Cosette, clearly can be traced back at least to that date."

As his older sister, Cosette functioned as a mother for him during the orphanage years. When Howard examined the things removed from Cosette's house, the prizes of Saroyan's youthful fame were there, and Howard "found more signs of an early life, a more openly revealed personal life." In addition to buying the house for his sister, Saroyan used it to store his working library and signed editions sent by other famous authors.

It could be that Saroyan dragged home the best trophies of his success to his revered older sister, and then the habit got out of hand. It seems likely that their value for Saroyan was reflected in his keeping them with Cosette, while the sheer volume of his Fresno holdings in their haphazard boxes made that accumulation seem rather impersonal and offhand.

But Howard believes that such distinctions are facile. Saroyan's personal life was also abundantly revealed in the Fresno houses, he says, and he is emphatic that there were "more beautiful letters to his children than any other author I had previously encountered writing to their children." Moreover, Saroyan's attachment to his sister goes only so far as an explanation, because as Howard points out, "it is a different matter to explain why he would also pick up stones on a walk and then keep them as well."

In Lee and Gifford's biography (which was written without access to the papers now at the Bancroft Library), the author's Broadway theater friends claimed that his years in the Army during World War II drastically altered his personality. Howard doesn't see any support for this belief in the archival material. "William Saroyan was more than a match for the Army," he says. "He didn't want to be in it, but in a sense I feel that he was probably able to use his creative talents under those special circumstances as well as anyone. He was involved in training films and in the service probably wrote several works that saw light. In 1944 alone, he wrote more than 300 of the most extraordinary love letters to his wife.

"He had enormous success in his early life," Howard continues. "He had abandoned money or caused it to go away in a variety of ways. I came across all the evidence ever required for the gambling that Saroyan indulged in. A freewheeling fellow in his early days, he led a modest life later on. By his own choice he was in and out of literary society. He was in Hollywood, and he opted out of it with a vengeance. A success on the stage, he insisted on total control; he had total control. He grew weary of fighting with the powers of public theater, I think. He was affected by personal events in his life to such an extraordinary degree that a full-fledged biography will be required to sort out these phases. But from 1950 on, he chose to turn his back on that public way of life and become a much more private person. He certainly had fewer financial rewards from his work, some of that by choice. I don't think he was overwhelmingly occupied with the notion of earning more and more money."

In this view, fame and a subsequent disenchantment with fame and money cannot explain Saroyan's pack-rat habits. Surely a strong bond to his older sister, or the retention of a toy, even one from so obviously a key emotional experience, can't explain a lifetime of accumulation any more than it can explain Saroyan's compulsive writing and gambling.

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