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Will Saroyan's literary legacy be lost?
[June 01, 2008]

Will Saroyan's literary legacy be lost?

(Fresno Bee (CA) (KRT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jun. 1--William Saroyan was a comet in the literary sky from 1934 through the mid-1940s. Before his light began to fade, he was compared to the brightest stars.

At the height of his fame, Saroyan was depicted in a cartoon, sitting on a teeter-totter with George Bernard Shaw and vying for the title of "World's Greatest Writer." As a short-story writer, beginning with "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" in 1934, and playwright, with works such as his 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Time of Your Life," he was as well-known as Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.

"In 1942, he was No. 1 in readership and name recognition," said Dickran Kouymjian, a friend of Saroyan and retired chairman of the Armenian studies program at California State University, Fresno.

But things changed for Saroyan after World War II. His light dimmed, leaving future generations to ponder what happened and to wonder whether that light might ever return.

Experts see no simple reason for Saroyan's flagging popularity. He didn't retire, nor did he flame out. He remained a writer to the end, which makes his long fade-out as fascinating as his rapid rise.

Saroyan rose to prominence by being ahead of his time, said David Calonne, a lecturer in the English department at Eastern Michigan University and the author of "William Saroyan: My Real Work Is Being." His stories were kettles of ethnic stew long before multiculturalism was popular. Not only did he write about Armenians, he also worked Mexicans, Filipinos, Italians and members of other ethnic groups into his tales.

"He also was way ahead of his time in terms of style," Calonne added. "His work was very lyrical and poetic, with a Walt Whitmanlike line that was new in American prose."

Saroyan's creative energy helped fuel his rapid rise. After breaking into print in 1934, he wrote, by his own account, 100 short stories a year for five years. His work appeared before television took over American homes and short stories fell out of fashion.

Saroyan came on the national scene during the Great Depression, and readers often saw themselves in his stories, which gave them hope that the human spirit could survive.

Another trait that set Saroyan apart was his ability to cross genres as a writer, said Michael Kovacs, who teaches English and creative writing at Gavilan College in Gilroy. He began as a master of the short story, saw his plays produced on Broadway, wrote song lyrics and novels and, toward the end of his life, reflected on the past through memoirs.

Saroyan's personality also helped keep him in the public eye. When he refused the $1,000 Pulitzer Prize money for "The Time of Your Life," he cast himself, intentionally or not, as anti-establishment.

"He didn't come out of Harvard or Yale," Kovacs said. "He taught him- self to write."

Jack Kerouac and the other Beat Generation writers were influenced by Saroyan.

"The beats were reading Saroyan for his message and his experiments with writing," he said.

In his book, Calonne calls Saroyan a "literary godfather" to the Beat Generation:

"In his early prose, Saroyan was a true innovator, spawning a fresh new style -- a fusion of jazz, Whitman, the quick tempi of American life, popular songs and the oral tradition of Armenian literature. It is precisely this oral, musical dimension of Saroyan's prose-poetry, along with its emphasis on immediate, passionate experience, which appealed so powerfully to the Beats: his words are meant to be heard."

Paul Marion, in his introduction to "Atop an Underwood," a collection of 60 unpublished works by Kerouac, tells of a poem Kerouac wrote at age 18 in which he said he would "nibble at some sweet Saroyan" for dessert when he fed his head with books.

But Saroyan's legacy suffers because he has no great novels to his credit, said Fresno journalist and writer Mark Arax, who knew Saroyan.

"He was spontaneous," Arax said. "He wrote in these incredible bursts of energy and creativity. That kind of talent served him best in short stories. I think he found the writing of the great American novel, and all the character development you have to do, a little tedious."

With no serious novels they could celebrate, critics could easily write Saroyan off as simply a Depression-era writer of lovely short stories, Arax said.

Several other explanations have been offered for Saroyan's declining popularity after World War II.

"Some people say he was too senti- mental," Calonne observed. "They saw him as this sweet Santa Claus figure from the 1930s who was speaking to a different mood in the post-nuclear age."

A new generation of critics trashed Saroyan's writing style and faulted him for not addressing social issues in his work, said Saroyan scholar Micah Jendian, a Fresno native who teaches English at Grossmont College in El Cajon.

The literary establishment believed stories should have structure, but Saroyan was a native storyteller who didn't always use conventional plot techniques.

Kouymjian, who addressed this conflict in an essay entitled "Who Reads Saroyan Today?" believes critics found Saroyan's unorthodox style difficult to categorize and failed to understand that he was using imagination as the form for his plays.

Saroyan's ego, which manifested itself in a stubborn refusal to revise his work or to take criticism lightly, also contributed to his ebbing status.

Rather than accept editorial changes, Saroyan found it easier to change publishers.

Random House published Saroyan's first collection of short stories but refused to include everything he submitted for his second anthology, "Inhale and Exhale." The disagreement caused Saroyan to cut his ties with Random House after the second book came out.

"Saroyan didn't want to work on revisions, so he went to a different publisher," Kouymjian said, noting that learning to work with editors might have extended his period of popularity.

Saroyan's voice as a writer also got in the way.

"He had such an incredible voice," Arax said. "The problem was it became his gift and curse. He never moved beyond his voice. It was so booming and so Godlike, from the sky, he was constrained by it. He never developed characters that had other voices. All his characters were Saroyan. I think that explains why he made a mark in literature, but it also explains why critics today see him as one-dimensional."

Saroyan's ultimate place in American literature is open to question. Some doubt he will ever regain the stature he once enjoyed. Others be- lieve he may be rediscovered some-day.

"Right now, there isn't much of a place for him in American literature," Kovacs said. "Saroyan is not studied in school, and unless he is taught, he won't be in the literary canon."

Saroyan's works are not required reading in the Fresno and Clovis school districts, although teachers are free to incorporate them into literature classes.

The Armenian Studies Program at Fresno State offers a course on Saroyan, but the English Department does not, even though department Chairman James Walton admires the writer.

Walton said professors tend to teach what they studied in graduate school, which may be one reason why interest in Saroyan is lagging.

"I don't recall ever seeing a presentation on Saroyan at a meeting of the Modern Language Association of America," he said, referring to the nation's foremost association of language and literary scholars.

Saroyan short stories have started to reappear in anthologies, Calonne said. That exposure could gain Saroyan a new generation of fans, he added, but it may not be enough to generate the kind of critical reappraisal needed to elevate his stature.

"What is needed is for some well- known critics to take up the cause," Calonne said.

Jendian believes critics will rediscover Saroyan.

"I see it coming," he said. "In Saroyan, you have a writer who was dedicated to artistic integrity. A closer examination of his work will yield that kind of relevance."

Forgotten writers have been rediscovered before, he said, citing Zora Neale Hurston as an example. Hurston was a folklorist and writer who died in obscurity in 1960. Interest in her work was renewed in 1975 when African-American novelist Alice Walker wrote an article "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" for Ms. magazine.

The 20 years when Saroyan was at the top of his game are worth looking at, Kovacs said. That productive period, plus Saroyan's influence on writers such as Kerouac, could revive critical interest, he said.

"The literary stock market goes up and down," said Aram Saroyan, son of William Saroyan. "It's capricious. My father's standing right now is unclear. He once said to me that a writer is remembered for his best stuff, not his worst stuff. The highest level of my father's work stands with anyone in his literary generation."

The reporter can be reached at [email protected] or (559) 441-6383.

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