“I can’t hate for long. It isn’t worth it.”
“The role of art is to make a world which can be tolerated.”
“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
William was the youngest son of Armenian immigrant parents. His father died when he was 3 years old. William and his siblings went to the Fred Finch Orphanage in Oakland while their mother, Tahooki, found what work she could in San Francisco. Six years later the family reunited as Tahooki got permanent work at a cannery in Fresno. He didn’t like school. The work was boring and he was picked on because he was the son of an immigrant. But he liked to learn, he liked to read and he like to write. He took advantage of the Fresno public library’s book collection and he took a course on typing at the Technical School. He sold newspapers to help with family finances, and worked his way up to messenger boy with a telegram company.
He travelled around the country hoping to become the next big American writer, but luck wasn’t with him (one time his suitcase, with most of his money and clothes inside, wound up in New Orleans instead of with him in New York.) So Saroyan returned to California and took a string of uninspiring jobs from working in a funeral parlor to selling vegetables at a farmers market. All the time he was writing on the side.
In 1933 he started to get published. His earned $15 when his short story The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze appeared in the national magazine Story. Encouraged by the publication he decided to send the magazine one story a day for the entire month of January.
This he proceeded systematically to do, still full of the usual doubts that harass the unestablished writer, but determined to carry through the ambitious work program in as positive frame of mind as possible. He began with no firm ideas as to what the stories would be about… Midway through the month a telegram… arrived from the editors with the message he needed: yes, the stories were being received with great interest — keep them coming! This was the decisive moment of acceptance, marking the end of his long apprenticeship…. [Brian Darwent, William Saroyan Society, Biographical Sketch]
Other, higher paying, magazines began to take an interest. His stories appeared in The American Mercury, Harper’s, Scribner’s and others. A collection of his short stories was published by Random House in 1934 and became a best seller.
He traveled overseas, making a pilgrimage to his father’s homeland of Armenia. (He couldn’t make it as far his father home town, which was now a part of Turkey, but he did get to Erivan, Soviet Armenia.) Along the way he met Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
He added playwriting to his skill list in 1939 with My Heart’s in the Highlands. The play centers around a struggling Arminian American poet and his son Johnny. His second play The Time of Your Life won a Pulitzer Prize (which Saroyan refused) and The New York Drama Critic’s Circle Best Play award (which he accepted.) It takes place in Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon and centers around a wealthy young man named Joe and a bar full of colorful characters. The play has been revived several times on Broadway and in LA, and has been made into a big screen movie, with James Cagney and a Playhouse 90 television movie with Jackie Gleason.
The Human Comedy was produced by MGM Studios. Saroyan was under contract with Louis B. Mayer and he wrote and directed a short film called The Good Job as well as the 4.5 hour screen play for The Human Comedy (which Mayer turned over to another writer to edit down.) Saroyan also wrote a novel on the same material that came out the same week as the film. The sentimental story was based on his life growing up as an immigrant in Fresno and it won an Oscar for the writer.
After WWII his writing career cooled. He was considered to sentimental and sugary for the harder edged, post-war critics.
Saroyan praised freedom; brotherly love and universal benevolence were for him basic values, but with his idealism Saroyan was considered more or less out of date. [Books and Writers]
But he continued to write prolifically. In 1952 he published his memoir The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills.
Just before he died of cancer in 1981 he called the Associated Press quipping “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”
Stanford University has a large collection of his works and the author is celebrated by the William Saroyan Society.