William Saroyan is one of the great conundrums of 20th century literature. He was among the most famous American writers of the '30s and '40s, a versatile prose stylist who was conversant in many genres, and yet Saroyan hasn't been widely read in this country for decades. At one time, the Armenian American writer was mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway and Steinbeck. Now it's hard to find his books in stores.
Fresno has not forgotten, however. Saroyan's hometown wants the world to reconsider the accomplishments of its most prominent cultural export. To mark the 100th birthday of Saroyan, who died in 1981 in Fresno at age 72, the city is hosting a yearlong celebration of the writer's life and work.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Arts & Music index: The story index on today's Arts & Music cover lists incorrect page numbers. The William Saroyan story is on F12, and the June Wayne story is on F13. The Contents on F6 also includes incorrect page numbers.
The centennial features readings, screenings, lectures from Saroyan experts, exhibitions of photographs and paintings created by Saroyan as well as productions of his plays. A collaboration among 40 local and state organizations, it will continue until November.
Larry Balakian, the chairman of the Saroyan Centennial Committee, said he was not sure why Saroyan had fallen out of favor. "Perhaps it's because he's not modern enough," Balakian said. "I certainly don't think his style has become outdated. That's why we're trying to revive his reputation, to show readers that his work remains as fresh and relevant as it's always been."
Saroyan was born in Fresno in 1908, the son of an Armenian vineyard owner. His father died from peritonitis when Saroyan was only 3, and the future author and his brothers were shunted into an Alameda orphanage until his mother could find work to support the family. Saroyan relocated to San Francisco in 1929 with his family, and began furiously producing stories while supporting himself with odd jobs.
His breakthrough came with the publication of "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," a quietly devastating portrait of a struggling writer's privations in Depression-era America that was published by Story magazine in 1934. "In the gutter he saw a coin which proved to be a penny dated 1923," Saroyan wrote, "and placing it in the palm of his hand he examined it closely, remembering that year and thinking of Lincoln, whose profile was stamped upon the coin. There was almost nothing a man could do with a penny."
Saroyan's greatest triumphs came early in his career. His 1939 play, "The Time of Your Life," is set in a waterfront saloon in San Francisco and limns the troubles of disparate characters -- a cop, a prostitute, a longshoreman -- who find solace in one another's misery. The play won a Pulitzer Prize, though Saroyan refused the award on the grounds that art should not be a competitive sport. (Later in life, however, Saroyan lobbied hard for the Nobel Prize for literature.)
Still, there's the widespread perception that Saroyan was a literary lightweight, a sentimentalist whose work is too old-fashioned to resonate now. Perhaps Saroyan was too prolific for his own good. Even after the early triumphs, including "The Time of Your Life" and "My Name is Aram," he continued to churn out an astonishing amount of material -- novels, journalism, plays, stories. Some good, some less so. But the best, according to Saroyan's champions, is sublime.
"Jack Kerouac was greatly influenced by Saroyan," said novelist Barry Gifford, who co-wrote a biography of Saroyan with Lawrence Lee in 1984. "There's a kind of gentle truth that he conveys in his work. It has a beautiful innocence about it." Gifford points to the 1979 book "Obituaries," a free-associative memoir that Gifford edited, as an example of Saroyan's mature artistry. "He's a writer that made it look very simple, but it's very difficult to do what he did. He was protean as a person and an artist."
Still, the early work seems frozen in time. "The Time of Your Life" feels a bit musty now, a sepia-toned example of socially conscious prewar entertainment. The same goes for "The Human Comedy," Saroyan's 1943 novel about a Fresno farming family that clings to hope despite the horrors of World War II and the scars it leaves on the community.
Maintaining a presence
Saroyan's far superior work is to be found in the stories that make up collections such as "My Name Is Aram" and "Fresno Stories." (Saroyan's son, Aram, grew up to be a well-known poet and novelist.) " 'My Name Is Aram' was drilled into me practically as soon as I could read," said Katherine Taylor, an Armenian American native of Fresno and the author of the novel "Rules for Saying Goodbye." "I'm sure his cadences are apparent in my work. I started reading him too early, and too often, for his voice not to have helped shape my own. I can't underestimate his influence on my development. Also, there's the obvious point of a little Armenian boy from Fresno managing to become a writer. His legacy made it possible for me to be an artist."