Daring Young Men - Saroyan vs. Hemingway by Dori Myer
The tumultuous relationship between William Saroyan and Ernest Hemingway is no secret. They were peers, sometimes rivals, occasionally friendly, and always dramatic. Piecing together incidents between the men reveals the history between American literary giants and the ways that the press, readers, and the writers themselves handled fame and the cult of personality.
The first interaction between Saroyan and Hemingway was instigated in 1934 by Saroyan’s short story “Seventy Thousand Assyrians,” which appeared in his first book, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories. In it he wrote,
"I have a faint idea what it is like to be alive. This is the only thing that interests me greatly. This and tennis. I hope some day to write a great philosophical work on tennis, something on the order of Death in the Afternoon, but I am aware that I am not yet ready to undertake such a work. I feel that the cultivation of tennis on a large scale among the peoples of the earth will do much to annihilate racial differences, prejudices, hatred, etc. Just as soon as I have perfected my drive and my lob, I hope to begin my outline of this great work. (It may seem to some sophisticated people that I am trying to make fun of Hemingway. I am not. Death in the Afternoon is a pretty sound piece of prose. I could never object to it as prose. I cannot even object to it as philosophy. I think it is finer philosophy than that of Will Durant and Walter Pitkin. Even when Hemingway is a fool, he is at least an accurate fool. He tells you what actually takes place and he doesn’t allow the speed of an occurrence to make his exposition of it hasty. This is a lot. It is some sort of advancement for literature. To relate leisurely the nature and meaning of that which is very brief in duration.)"(1)
Hemingway caught wind of this reference (as well as references to his peers Faulkner and Dos Passos in the story “Myself Upon the Earth”) and characteristically lost his temper. He responded in a very public 1935 Esquire article. Among his rebuttals were some hard-hitting insults that were the equivalent of slapping his gauntlets against his opponent’s face and calling for a duel:
"Now a lot of us weren’t as bright as you, Mr. Saroyan, see I’m giving you a break. You’re bright. So don’t get sore. But you’re not that bright. You don’t know what you’re up against. You’ve only got one new trick and that is that you’re an Armenian. Now you see us, the people you can write like and better than, have some of us been shot, and some of us been cut, and all of us been married, and we’ve been around a long time and we’ve been a lot of places and seen a lot of things that you haven’t seen, Mr. Saroyan, and that you won’t ever see because the things are over and lots of the places aren’t there any more. And we’ve seen them come and go. Good ones too. Better ones than you, Mr. Saroyan. We’ve seen them go a long way and we’ve seen them not come back and nobody even ever asked where they was gone. They forget quick, Mr. Saroyan…You want to watch yourself, Mr. S., that you don’t get so bright that you don’t learn. And you don’t want to forget the old fellow countryman, Mr. Arlen. He was as bright as you and brighter and look what happened. Also your ear isn’t so good. And a good ear in a writer is like a good left hand in a fighter. Do I make myself clear? Or would you like me to push your puss in. (I’m drunk again now you see. It’s a wonderful advantage when you’re arguing.)" (2)
This was mildly surprising to Saroyan, who was only 26 years old to Hemingway’s 35. And Hemingway had been famous for eight years, since his breakthrough in 1926 with The Sun Also Rises. Here was this young upstart Saroyan, displaying more pomp than he actually felt, but finding this to be the way to enter the American literary community with a splash. Immediately upon the release of Saroyan’s first book, critics began making style comparisons to Hemingway, and they never stopped. Editor and critic Edmund Wilson, in 1941, claimed,
"You have to begin by saying that Saroyan, too, derives from Hemingway…But what distinguishes Saroyan from his fellow disciples is the fact that he is not what is called hard-boiled. What was surprising and refreshing about him when he first appeared was that, though he told the familiar story about the wise-guy who went into the bar, and I said and the bartender said and I said, this story with Saroyan was not cruel, but represented an agreeable mixture of San Francisco bonhomie and Armenian Christianity. The fiction school of Hemingway had been full of bad drunks; Saroyan was a novelty: a good drunk." (3)
Saroyan biographer Howard Floan responded to Wilson 25 years later with, “There are times when The Daring Young Man sounds like Hemingway, but they are not many…Hemingway’s influence was of course real, but even in this first book it was beneath the surface and consisted primarily of the ideals of sparseness and of trust in the uses of concrete details” (4). While many 19th century American writers and poets were known for their use of flowery language reminiscent of European predecessors, there was a group that favored simplicity and colloquial naturalness, including Sherwood Anderson, Mark Twain, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and others. Hemingway perfected the spare style, though he didn’t invent it. Saroyan denied that Hemingway influenced him, arguing instead that what critics and readers were noticing was the influence of Sherwood Anderson on both him and Hemingway, and further the influence of George Bernard Shaw on himself. He believed people mistook that for Hemingway’s influence. Anderson was an early modernist, exploring themes of loneliness and complexity within mundane life experiences in simple, plain prose. In 1966’s Short Drive Sweet Chariot, Saroyan shares his resentment that his son felt Hemingway influenced him and explains that when he wrote in a spare style reminiscent of Hemingway it was because he was tired, not because he was emulating (5).
However, memory and frustration about the topic might have distorted some of the reality of Saroyan’s early writing days. In a 1931 journal entry, Saroyan wrote, “A Hemingway prelude to a story” in which he imitates Hemingway stylistically as he was working on a never completed novel called The Subway:
"There seemed to be that night something about the train, the people in it, the world itself, that gave me a strange, very strange sensation; a feeling, I shall say, that we, the people in the subway, were the last of mankind, and that we were quite tired, at that and didn’t mind in the least if we let go like all the others. I began, as the train banged on, to examine every person and to imagine things about them; what sort of lives they had lived, what happines (sic) they had know (sic), what pain, and so on." (6)
Even if it was mockery, Hemingway was already taking up real estate in Saroyan’s brain early on. In 1930, Saroyan wrote in his diary that he had read Margaret Anderson’s autobiography My Thirty Years War, which included photographs. He mentions the one of Hemingway “looking soft, weak, and as he is compared in the book somewhat like a big, pink-eyed rabbit” (7). And in 1936, Saroyan wrote a story that was never published, entitled “Hemingway.” In it he describes the protagonist: “There is a fellow in this block, six doors down from ray place, who looks just like Hemingway. He has the same kindly physical bulkiness, the same round head with the same amiable expression, the same chubby hands with blunt nails, and he is a sportsman” (8). Hemingway’s machismo was in direct opposition to Saroyan’s brotherhood of mankind in the 1930s, and there are several references in Saroyan’s private and public writings that mock Hemingway’s desire to be admired as a masculine achiever. In 1962 Saroyan wrote, “Hemingway was a very sensitive man who nevertheless was unable to take it easy about needing to be papa or the law or the best or the most, and so on” (9). Virginia Woolf called Hemingway too “self-consciously virile” (10) and writer Max Eastman was slapped by Hemingway for saying, “Come out from behind that false hair on your chest, Ernest. We all know you” (11). Certainly, Hemingway’s ego irked many of his peers and critics, and the similar writing style of Saroyan in 1934 (as well as some passages in which Saroyan puffs himself up) might have led critics to conflate their egos. But Saroyan wasn’t having any of it and felt that Hemingway treated others poorly. In Short Drive Sweet Chariot, he writes,
"I mean, Hemingway could get a little personal and mean about writers who weren’t his equal, some of whom, including Michael Arlen, were not by any means otherwise his inferior. Let me put it this way: I didn’t know Hemingway at all, actually, and I knew Michael Arlen enough to know Hemingway had known Michael Arlen a lot less than I had come to know Hemingway. And I think, when I finally met Hemingway, I resented his having attacked Michael Arlen in rebuking me for having kidded Hemingway about his preoccupation with bull-fighting. I didn’t feel there was any need to drag Michael Arlen into it." (12)
One of the foundational conflicts between the two men was the very way they experienced the world. Hemingway had been raised in an affluent suburb near Chicago, his parents well-educated and well-respected in Society. They took family vacations to lakes where they recreationally hunted, fished, and camped. He attempted to join the Army, though he was rejected and found alternative ways to participate. Saroyan, on the other hand, grew up in a poor immigrant family that was discriminated against by Society and had no disposable income for vacations. The Saroyan kids all worked from a young age to help support the family, who often lived in ramshackle houses in the hot rural community of Fresno, hours from any major city. When Saroyan was drafted by the Army, he was thrown into a depression and certainly had no interest in war, its mechanisms, or the outcome of it. In short, he was no adventurer, being grounded by the survival requirements of the moment, not having the luxury of boyhood fantasies. Though he and Hemingway shared some personality traits, they were cut from very different cloth.
The conversation about Saroyan and Hemingway wasn’t always about one influencing the other, though. Comparisons were made simply because it was easy within a much smaller pool of American writers than we know today. Journalist Michael March wrote in 1934 just after the release of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, “There is no straining after effect in his writing, none of the conscious whittling down of non-essentials into the clipped sparseness of a Hemingway. Yet he meets Hemingway on his own ground in ‘Among the Lost,’ ‘Sleep in Unheavenly Peace,’ and ‘The Man with the French Post Cards,’ and surpasses him. Saroyan achieves subjective realism as I have not seen it done. Here are the lost people. The people in the darkness, horse players, hangers-on, prostitutes as faithfully and crisply portrayed as Hemingway at his best with that added value, universality, which springs from his faith in the essential dignity of man.” (13)
In 1938, the famous editor and critic Frank Crowinshield attributed wider access to literature to Saroyan and his contemporaries: “Since the war years, the great mass has come into its own. Steinbeck, Saroyan, Hemingway, Farrell have put the common background into literature; transients, fruit pickers, fisherman, prize fighters, shanty folk are their heroes…The vast populace has become reading minded” (14).
While The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze certainly drew comparisons to existing authors, it was the freshman effort of a man who would write hundreds of stories. Floan explains that his writing became more finely tuned with the collections Inhale and Exhale and Three Times Three, up until My Name is Aram in 1940. He writes,
"He learned to get into his story immediately; to fit character, setting, and mood to the action; to express with colloquial vigor what his people were capable of saying, and to imply much about what they were able to feel. His style grew lean, partly because of the influence of Hemingway and partly because of his own reaction to the criticism that he tended to talk too much. In establishing setting, he began to dispense with description altogether and to rely on simple statement: a bar on Third Avenue, a lunch counter on Kearney Street, or a frame house in Fresno. Ignoring appearances and backgrounds of his characters, he began to do little more than assign names to his people and to start them talking." (15)
It is little wonder that Saroyan quickly took to playwriting as a medium that inherently suited his spare style, deviating from Hemingway entirely as he began to couple surrealism with simplicity in his playwriting.
In his writings and letters, Saroyan did express respect for Hemingway, though often in a backhanded way. He admitted that no one could write like Hemingway, for better or worse. In a letter to Hemingway, Saroyan wrote that even though Esquire had encouraged him to continue the written duel in their magazine, he wouldn’t put on that show: “I’m not going to send any clever note to Gingrich [creator and editor of Esquire]…I’ll let the readers of Gingrich’s magazine fight it out” (16). He and Hemingway corresponded privately on and off for about a year, from 1935 to 1936. To the public, their feud had just begun in 1935. Privately, they exchanged respectful words with each other. Saroyan did indirectly respond to Hemingway’s article publicly in June of 1936, in the magazine Inland Topic. Here he finally addressed Hemingway’s public humiliation (in third person) and the frustrating comparisons the critics were making:
"The hardest thing in the world for an American who wants to write honestly and simply –without literary decorations of any sort, which is the way for an American to write or want to write –is not to write the way Ernest Hemingway writes—completely American, the way most of the small towns of this continent are completely American – but to write simply and honestly just the same. It is very hard to do that. To write simply and honestly and not write the way he does…
Of course Saroyan had it coming and probably will all his life, but it was a bad one just the same because it sounded sorrowful, and when you read it you couldn’t tell who was no good, the older writer or the younger. When Saroyan read it he thought it was very bad Hemingway and he thought the younger writer must be pretty good." (17)
Critics were in love with this game of cat and mouse. In 1938, gossip columnist Louis Sobol wrote,
"Referring to the recent assertion here that there had been a mild feud between him and Ernest Hemingway, William Saroyan writes in from San Francisco: 'I’ve never met Hemingway; we exchanged some letters after his essay in Esquire; they were friendly letters; his remarks about my writing flattered me, irritated my friends and some of his; everybody knows he is one of the most natural of all the naturals of American letters; like myself, he can’t write badly; anything he writes is good even when it’s terrible; I have written some of the worst stories ever to appear in print, but they’ve been good, too; over a hundred of my stories are now in books; I wouldn’t apologize for any one of them; a writer writes one book; all his books together are one book; if he is a natural they are himself, and we all know there is no man who is not simultaneously all opposites, good, bad; great, small, and so forth and so on. A natural doesn’t bluff; an artist has to. A natural makes form; an artist accepts it. I never did learn the first thing about writing and never will; all I know is how to do it the way I do it. Hemingway is one of the few living writers I admire and enjoy reading. Most of them gripe me; I’d rather read a newspaper any day. Art got phony and never should have; a man like Hemingway comes along and starts a crusade to stop the nonsense.' I am now convinced Mr. Saroyan prefers Mr. Hemingway – and also semi-colons.” (18)
But the mutual respect wouldn’t last.
They met again in London during World War II. Hemingway was a pugilist, while Saroyan was a pacificist. They encountered each other a number of times in London, and these were described in harsh terms in Saroyan’s Places Where I’ve Done Time (19) and elsewhere. In an interview between author Garig Basmadjian and Saroyan in 1975, Saroyan made contentious statements about Hemingway:
"I saw him in the army, when he was a foreign correspondent and I was a private, we had some times in London (pause), it was getting sad, he equated reality with a continuation of his posey writing, and by posey I mean that hero character he invented, which the whole world would love and be influenced by it, couldn’t be continued. I don’t want to call Hem a dishonest writer, but essentially this is a fantasy writer." (20)
For forty years, Saroyan had been questioned about his relationship to Hemingway, and by the 1970s it seems his responses were getting more and more ornery. Before television, the pop culture-consuming public loved a good gossip column, and this is where many Saroyan-Hemingway rumors found footing. Even in 1995, these rumors found publication; Andy Rooney, the 60 Minutes host and war correspondent in Paris during World War II, claimed to have witnessed a clash in Paris. In his book, My War, he wrote of Saroyan and Hemingway meeting at the Hotel Scribe in 1945:
William Saroyan, who was already famous for having refused the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for The Time of Your Life, was one of the Army’s best-known sergeants, attached to a film unit. Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist, was walking into the Scribe one day with Saroyan when they passed Hemingway going out. Hemingway nodded at Caen but gave no indication he knew Saroyan.
“Don’t you fellows know each other?” Herb said. “Ernie Hemingway, Bill Saroyan.” Hemingway gave Saroyan a perfunctory hand-shake and kept going.
“Hadn’t you ever met?” Caen asked Saroyan.
“Yes,” Saroyan said, “but it was several years ago and he had a beard then so he didn’t recognize me today.” (21)
One of the most popular accounts was that Saroyan and Hemingway had come to fisticuffs in Paris just after the war ended, though these are still unsubstantiated and Saroyan refused to confirm them to Hemingway’s biographer, Carlos Baker. However, Baker wrote of the incident, anyway:
"Group Captain Peter Wykeham Barnes of the RAF was on temporary leave in Paris, and happened to meet Ernest at the Scribe. "After taking in quite a quantity of grog," he wrote, "we adjourned to the George V for dinner. We went down to a lower floor to eat, and everything was ringing like bells when Ernest espied William Saroyan sitting two tables away... This worked on him like a powerful injection... He started by stating, ‘Well, for God’s sake, what’s that lousy Armenian son of a bitch doing here?’ The more ... I tried to hush him, the worse it got…Finally, Saroyan’s companions … began to come back at Ernest. I’m not too sure how it developed, but shortly afterwards I was in a full-scale brawl, rolling about under the tables and banging the heads of total strangers on the wooden floors. I got the impression that someone bit my ankle… The management arrived, reinforced I think by gendarmes, and the whole lot of us were thrown out up the stairs and into the Paris black-out. The two factions separated ... Ernest was laughing like a hyena.” (22)
After the war, it appears they didn’t have much interaction again. Hemingway again struggled with critics until releasing The Old Man and the Sea, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, and in 1954 received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Saroyan was busy trying to reboot his career and facing a contentious divorce in the 1950s.
Hemingway committed suicide in 1961 and this affected Saroyan greatly. He wrote of it in Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever (1976):
"I was shocked. I was sorry, not only because Ernest Hemingway was dead, but because I myself was in a fight that could suddenly become deadly. I was broke. I was in debt. My career as a writer was shot. I was fighting the world. I hated publishers, editors, agents, critics, book reviewers, newspapers, magazines, publicity agents, lawyers, dentists, and taxi drivers. I owed the Tax Collector so much money there just didn’t seem to be any way I could possibly pay him off and keep myself alive –and now Ernest Hemingway was dead. It had to be an accident, pure and simple. And I hated that kind of accident.” (23)
Hemingway had once said of American writers, “We make them into something very strange, we destroy them.” (24)
On the surface, the two men had behaviors in common: they were both drinkers and gamblers; they had combative relationships with their critics; they struggled to maintain healthy personal relationships. Of course, this could be said of many famous artists throughout history, and these similarities might be the same ones that attract the type of artist who experiences a meteoric rise in fame. They were by no means the only feud in town, though; Hemingway had many rivalries and published insulting comments about great writers and former friends, including William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was known to get upset when compared to what he considered “inferior” writers and made much of it every time, as we see in his 1935 Esquire article. Both he and Saroyan bristled at being compared to anyone else, Hemingway being possibly one of the most sensitive authors ever in that regard.
Older literary feuds still rattled in critics’ brains when this fresh one appeared. Sinclair Lewis once admired his colleague Theodore Dreiser and then accused him of plagiarizing his wife, Dorothy Thompson; Dreiser responded by slapping Lewis for the insult. Mark Twain and Bret Harte were collaborators before Twain turned to publicly insulting Harte for decades (and ironically there is a town in California called Twain-Harte in honor of their joint legacies). Gore Vidal fought with many, sometimes physically, including Truman Capote and Norman Mailer (25). New York Magazine book reviewer Water Kirn wrote in 2001, “The voices were louder once, and writers were duelists, spraying one another with verbal grapeshot, stirring things up, breaking windows, wrecking furniture…This was what language, what eloquence, was for -- to prod, to rebuff, to declare, to wound, to criticize!” (26).
However, Hemingway and Saroyan practiced their trade following different routes. While Hemingway began his career as a journalist, he shifted to novels and occasionally short stories. Apart from success with The Human Comedy, Saroyan didn’t receive rave reviews for his own novels. In a 1935 letter to Hemingway, Saroyan admitted that he had started and abandoned seven novels already that year (27). Hemingway responded in 1936, “You’ve got to write a novel eventually and naturally you are spooked about it but don’t be. Stick around and work and write a novel that will knock them all for a row of abyssinian nut clippers” (28). Short stories published in popular magazines were a way for authors to make a consistent living in the early and mid-20th century. While Hemingway did write short stories (less than 100 were published), his fame drew from his novels, which had more visibility on bestseller lists. Short stories were always more ephemeral, as were plays, and these two formats happened to be where Saroyan thrived. Saroyan wrote in 1962, “I considered [stories] the most natural of all literary forms, the most American, the most useful, and of course at that time the short story was the only I could write” (29).
The literary generation that gained fame in the 1960s often attributed their skills to early reading of both authors. Jack Kerouac was particularly influenced by both men, and wrote of them, “At 18 I read Hemingway and Saroyan and began writing little terse short stories in that general style” (30).
Despite Saroyan’s protestations, comparisons between him and Hemingway continue, even among his most fervent fans and scholars. David Calonne, a noted Saroyan expert, wrote of Saroyan’s characters in 1953’s The Laughing Matter, “Their dialogue leaves much unsaid; as in Hemingway, we are left to read between the lines the tension that underlies their relationship. Words have become metaphorical weapons in the war of marriage…A last link to Hemingway is the aura of emotional and physical violence, decay, and death which pervades the novel… A family outing in the country is described in the clear, terse, visionary language of Hemingway, with the emphasis placed on sensation – on taste, smell, touch, sight – on the physical realities of the phenomenal world” (31).
Hemingway made it into school curriculum for decades and was prominently placed in the American literary canon. Saroyan has been dropped from most American schools. Early access in K-12 education is where many readers come to feel strongly about authors, and it’s where writers are kept alive. A look down the list of Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners shows that most of them are no longer in the broader cultural conversation, and it’s entirely possible that maybe you haven’t heard of many of them. Of the others, most have been taught in high school and university programs. As writers slip off the syllabus, readers may not encounter them until they are adults or maybe never. Changing social norms also affect what people want to read and what they will tolerate. Hemingway may leave the curriculum altogether as teachers who were born in the 1980s and 90s reject his sexism and homophobia, both unwelcome themes in modern classrooms. Instead, they may increasingly turn to diverse literature representing the voices of non-European and women authors. This certainly provides an opening for Saroyan, who, though he never wanted to be considered an “ethnic” writer, fits into the present interest in multicultural conversations. Trends cycle, but history undeniably couples Hemingway and Saroyan in a tenuous cultural duet.
“Editor Crowninshield Believes U.S. in Position to Become the Center of Modern World Art.” The Lincoln Star, 26 November 1938
Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1969
Basmadjian, Garig. “Candid Conversation with Garig Basmadjian, 25 May 1975 Paris.” William Saroyan: The Man and the Writer Remembered, edited by Leo Hamalian, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987.
Calonne, David. William Saroyan, My Real Work Is Being. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1983.
Floan, Howard. William Saroyan. New Haven, Conn., College & Univ. Press, 1966
Hemingway, Ernest. “Notes on Life and Letters, Or a Manuscript Found in a Bottle.” Esquire, January 1935
Hemingway, Ernest. Letter to William Saroyan. 8 January 1936. William Saroyan William Saroyan Papers, 1926-1981, Stanford University Libraries Special Collections, Stanford, CA. Manuscript.
March, Michael. “In William Saroyan American Produces a Brilliant New Writers.” Brooklyn Citizen, 17 October 1934
Kerouac, Jack. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, Vol. 1, 1940-1956, edited by Ann Charters, Penguin Books, 1994
Rooney, Andrew. My War. New York, Random House, 1995.
Saroyan, William. “The Adventures of American writers in Paris in 1929.” The New Republic, 1962
Saroyan, William. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories. New York, Random House, 1934.
Saroyan, William. Diary. 11 February 1931. Forever Saroyan, LLC.
Saroyan, William. Diary. 23 December 1930. Forever Saroyan, LLC.
Saroyan, William. Hemingway manuscript. 1936. Forever Saroyan, LLC.
Saroyan, William. Short Drive, Sweet Chariot. New York, Phaedra, 1966.
Saroyan, William. Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever. New York, McGraw-Hill Book, 1976.
Saroyan, William. “Truth and the Arena.” Inland Topic, June 1936, pgs 18, 48
Saroyan William. Letter to Ernest Hemingway. 16 December 1934. Ernest Hemingway Collection Personal Papers, The John F. Kennedy Library, Boston. Manuscript
Sobol, Louis. “New York Cavalcade.” Pittsburg Sun-Telegraph, 14 July 1938