Richard Rodriguez on the Writing of William Saroyan

May 26, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service considers the work of a distinguished American writer.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: His name was William Saroyan. He was the first writer I fell in love with, boyishly in love. I was held by his unaffected voice, his sentimentality, his defiant individualism. I found myself in the stories he told. Saroyan was the son of Armenian parents who settled in Fresno, in California’s Central Valley.

He was born in 1908, almost my own father’s age. Growing up in Sacramento a few hundred miles North a generation later I learned from Saroyan that you do not have to live in some great city–in New York or Paris–in order to write. Life in Fresno can be rendered as literature. Late this spring and for most of the summer Stanford University is celebrating its acquisition of the literary archives of William Saroyan. Odd that the letters and the manuscripts of Saroyan would end up here.

When I was a student at Stanford, a generation ago, the name of William Saroyan was never mentioned by any professor in the English Department. William Saroyan apparently was not considered a major American talent. Instead, we undergraduates set about the business of psychoanalyzing Hamlet and deconstructing Lolita. In my mind Saroyan belongs with John Steinbeck, a fellow small town Californian and of the same generation. He belongs with Thornton Wilder, with those writers whose aching love of America was formed by the Depression and the shadow of war.

Saroyan’s prose is as plain as it is strong. He talks about the pleasure of drinking water from a hose on a summer afternoon in California’s Central Valley, and he holds you with the pure line. My favorite is his novel The Human Comedy. It tells a story of Homer Macaulay, a boy who grows up in the Central Valley of Central America, and who works as Saroyan worked as a telegraph messenger. The boy is thus poised between a small town California and the great world beyond. It is his job to bring news of the war front to America’s doorsteps.

In 1943, The Human Comedy became an MGM movie starring Mickey Rooney, but I always imagined Homer Macaulay as a darker, more soulful boy, someone who looked very much like a young William Saroyan in these pictures. He won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Time of Your Life.” His 1939 play is set on the San Francisco waterfront. In the years after, Saroyan moved slowly out into the great world from San Francisco to New York, to London, to Hollywood, to Paris. His friendships extend from Charlie Chaplain to T.S. Elliot. There survived photographs of him in dinner jacket with glamorous women. Little of the early greatness survives in those later years. There are rumors of a dark, difficult William Saroyan–rages, gambling, solitude.

In the last decade he divides his time between Paris and Fresno, that sweet, flat town of Israeli boyhood, that cloudless California to which his parents moved into the terrible Armenian diaspora. It is–Fresno is Saroyan’s old country were his deepest secrets lie buried. After his death in 1981, a portion of his ashes were sent to Armenia. The rest remain in Fresno.

The best advice I ever got as a writer I got from Saroyan in the preface to his wonderful 1931 collection, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” I pass it along to you, to any young writer, whatever the age, who might need the reminder.

Saroyan wrote “The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. 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.”

I’m Richard Rodriguez.