“The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse” is the first story in the book My Name is Aram, originally published in 1940. The book is concerned with the Garoghlanian tribe, a family of Armenians living in the San Joaquin Valley of California. They are a poor people, but the tribe is widely known for its honesty. The book is regarded as one of Saroyan’s finest works and has won major acclaim since its first publication in 1940.
The stories in My Name is Aram reflected, sometimes directly, his experiences growing up in Fresno, California. Many of the characters and situations are based on actual people and events, though some are strictly fictitious. In many ways, Saroyan seems to have taken his personal experience and added a level of nostalgia and optimism to them. This style of writing is sometimes referred to as “saroyanesque.”
The story appeared as simply "The Beautiful White Horse" in June of 1938 in Esquire, before later showing up in My Name is Aram. At times, the story has been attributed to Aram Garoghlanian, the fictional title character of the book, instead of William Saroyan.
The story begins with nine-year-old Aram Garoghlanian being awoken by his thirteen-year-old cousin, Mourad, who is riding a white horse. Aram questions where Mourad acquired the horse and Mourad implies he had stolen it. Aram considers this in light of the Garoghlanian tribe’s reputation as being an exceptionally honest family. Mourad convinces Aram to come with him to ride the horse through the fertile orchards that surround their home in Fresno.
Aram asks for a chance to ride the horse alone, and eventually Mourad agrees. When he is alone on the horse, he is thrown off and the boys spend their time bringing the horse back.
Mourad tells Aram that he has a place to hide the horse during the day, a barn on an abandoned vineyard. Mourad has been hiding the horse there, and he keeps hiding the horse in the same barn, giving Aram time to learn to ride, though he continues to be thrown by the horse.
A farmer who lives ten miles away, John Byro, comes to visit the boys' uncle, Khosrove, who tells him to pay no attention to the problem. Byro later encounters the boys on the horse, believing that the horse looks exactly like his horse, even looking at its teeth. He lets the children ride off with the horse, but they return it to Byro’s farm the next day.
The story is set in the San Joaquin Valley of California, located between the coastal range and the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Garoghlanian tribe lives in the city of Fresno, a city where a large number of Armenian immigrants settled in the early 20th century. In Fresno, there is considerable strife between the Armenian community and their non-Armenian neighbors. This tension is a major theme of the work and is evident in the way that outsiders view the members of the Garoghlanian tribe.
The area is defined as highly agricultural with orchards and vineyards, both occupied and abandoned, dominating the landscape. This period saw the Central Valley of California as the most potent agricultural production center of the United States, with grape and raisin production, along with figs, oranges and other fruit, being the major crops. To this day, the largest raisin producing region in the world is Fresno county.
The timeframe of the story is the early 1920s, when Saroyan was roughly 12 years old.
The Garoghlanian Name
Garoghlanian is not a name seen among modern Armenian-Americans, but it does have a rooting in reality. Saroyan’s grandmother was born Lucine Karoghlanian, though Armenian speakers of the Western dialect pronounce it as “Garoghlanian” since the letter “k” is typically pronounced as “g” among Western Armenian speakers like Saroyan. Today, Karoghlanian is the more frequently seen of the two spellings in English, and in fact, was the spelling of the name in the version of the story that ran in Esquire in 1938. At times, Saroyan used the alias 'Aram Garoghlanian'.
In the introduction to My Name is Aram, William Saroyan provides the pronunciation and a glimpse into the name he chose for the tribe –
"The way to pronounce that name is to say Gar, pause, oghlan, slight pause, ian. The name is an Armenian name made of two Turkish words, gar, meaning dark or possibly black, and oghlan, meaning unmistakably and without qualification, son; ian, meaning, naturally, of that tribe. In short, Garoghlanian Aram, meaning Aram of the dark or black sons."
This abutting of fact and fiction is a major thread that runs through the entire book. It is not a true autobiographical work, as it is more hopeful than Saroyan’s own childhood had been, but it does take elements of his youth in Fresno and applies them to characters and scenarios that actually existed.
In “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse,” Aram Garoghlanian is nine years old. He is a generally happy boy of a poor Armenian family, or tribe. He is close to his cousin, Mourad, who everyone else thinks is crazy. He excitedly rides the horst that Mourad has stolen, but is thrown off.
Aram can be seen as an expression of the author, William Saroyan, with elements of other family members, such as his cousin Khatchik, better known as Archie. In fact, the first version of the story, which appeared in Esquire, was attributed to the author Aram Garoghlanian.
Mourad is the thirteen-year-old cousin of Aram. He is known as the crazy member of his generation. He has a way with animals, especially horses. He is a bold child and seems to be testing his boundaries with every new escapade. He and Aram have adventures, and he seems to be willing to create his own set of rules that bend those normally accepted by his tribe.
In the story, Mourad steals a white horse and rides it every night before hiding it in an abandoned barn. He is an excellent rider and begins to ride with his cousin every night as well. When Aram is thrown from the horse, Mourad spends time going after the horse, usually finding it just in time to put it back in his hiding place.
Uncle Khosrove is shown as a gruff, enormous man with “the largest mustache in the San Joaquin valley.” He is short-tempered and forceful. He often is described as “roaring” when he is annoyed with a conversation. He uses phrases like “it is no harm, pay no attention to it” as a way to end any conversation he sees as unpleasant or unnecessary.
Aspects of Uncle Khasrove’s personality are likely informed by two of Saroyan’s actual Uncles: Aram (his mother’s brother) and Mihran (his father’s brother).
Byro is a farmer, poor like the Garoghlanians, but he is an Assyrian and not Armenian. He is shown as a lonely figure who learned the Armenian language so he could connect with the other farmers of the area. He comes to visit the Garoghlanian family, who lives ten miles away, and talks with Uncle Khosrove about the loss of his horse. He eventually sees the boys Aram and Mourad with the white horse, but does not accuse them of theft because of the deeply-held belief that the Garoghlanian family is so honest. The horse is eventually returned to Byro, who remarks that the horse is now stronger and better tempered.
The Immigrant Experience
William Saroyan was a first-generation Armenian-American. Both his parents had come from Bitlis, Turkey, or ancestral Armenia, during the early years of the 20th century.
The Garoghlanian tribe lives in the Central Valley of California, where many Armenians settled starting in the late 1800s, with a major wave arriving following the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1897, and in much greater numbers during and following the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1917. This major influx of Armenians to Fresno led to some stern conflict with the largely white population of Fresno. “For all anybody knew, we were still in the old country where, at least according to some of our neighbors, we belonged,” noted Aram in the story.
One aspect of the immigrant experience that many authors work with is separation leading to difficulties in day-to-day life. Aram’s mother explains that his uncle Khosrove acts in such a gruff fashion because though he has a gentle heart, he is homesick. Though John Byro is not Armenian, he speaks Armenian. At the time, Armenian, Spanish, and English were all widely spoken in the more rural portions of Fresno, and though there were certainly other Assyrians in Fresno, there were far more Assyrians in the city of Turlock, a good distance away. Byro decided to learn Armenian as a way of fitting in with his new community; this was a natural friendship for both Armenians and Assyrians, who faced genocide in their home countries at roughly the same time in the second decade of the twentieth century.
Poverty among immigrant populations is frequent, but also often a new experience. Many families who were rich in the old country, such as the Garoghlanians, find themselves in varying levels of financial difficulty when they settle in a new land. This is one of the reasons that Fresno was so popular for Americans to settle in. The Central Valley of California had an abundance of affordable, highly fertile land, many agricultural jobs that typically did not require speaking English, and the ability to create ethnic enclaves where some of the traditions of the home country could be retained. These are all ways in which new arrivals to the United States can make the most of diminished finances, and still maintain a bit of connection to their former residences.
Freedom and the establishment of personal morality
In Mourad, we have a character who is coming into his own adulthood, and thus forming his own sense of personal morals. He has stolen John Byro’s horse, but he does not consider it stealing because other than being able to ride it, he has gained nothing tangible. Aram notes, “Well, it seemed to me that stealing a horse for a ride was not the same as stealing something else, like money. For all I knew, it wasn’t stealing at all.”
Mourad also sees it as not stealing if he intends to return it. He reckons more than a year of keeping it would be stealing, while he will certainly bring the horse back before that.
This butts up against the Garoghlanian tradition for honesty, which is a major and important trait for the family. Mourad may see his taking of the horse as a natural reaction to the love of horses shared by the cousins.
This idea, sometimes referred to as moral relativism, is an important aspect of growing up. Some people will justify bad behavior by attaching their specific circumstances to the action they perform. For example, if someone is hungry, they may well determine that stealing food is not theft at all. This is a frequent theme in coming of age stories.
Once the cousins directly interact with John Byro about the horse, Mourad returns it, which suggests that as long as he wasn’t facing direct consequences, it was fair game to keep the horse. It might be that unless he directly encountered the aggrieved party, there was no crime, which was a major part in how he justified it to himself. He seems to be testing the limits of what is and is not stealing, and to a larger extent his own morality in the context of his family’s reputation.
Trust & Reputation
The Garoghlanian family has been known for its honesty “for something like eleven centuries.” That statement sets up one of the central intellectual conflicts for the story – reputation vs. performance.
It’s hard to argue that Mourad’s taking of the horse wasn’t a form of theft, even as he and Aram justify it to the reader and themselves. The fact that Aram ruminates on the honesty of their tribe for so long, to the point where he doubts his own senses when seeing Mourad on a horse, shows how powerfully that notion has been embedded in his thoughts.
John Byro, whose interactions with the Garoghlanian family do not span generations, presumably, but have only lasted as long as they have been neighbors in Fresno, has also picked up on the fact that the family has a serious reputation for its honesty. And when he sees the boys riding a horse that is in every way similar to his own, he seems to trust the tribe’s legendary honesty over his own senses.
As a reader, there is a dramatic irony to this. On one hand, we know that the horse is the one that was stolen from John Byro, but he either chooses not to believe it, or he legitimately believes it is a different horse. We know that it is the same horse, and we are aware of the contradiction with the legendary level of honesty attributed to the Garoghlanians. This conflict allows us as readers to make up our own minds as to whether or not the reputation is deserved or not. The fact that Mourad returns the horse may be seen in two ways – either as evidence of the honesty of the tribe because he returns it though he obviously did not have to, or as dishonesty since he felt he had to return it to avoid potential trouble.
Style & Technique
William Saroyan is known for being a prose stylist, using many techniques that would make his writing distinctive among twentieth century authors. He often deploys a somewhat stripped-down style, called minimalist. His sentences tend to be short and well-formed, with less adornment than many authors would use. In My Name is Aram, he eschews the use of quotation marks, since the stories of the collection are being told by Aram directly to the reader. While he does use italics at times, they are fairly rare and well-timed for maximum impact in the storytelling.
In “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse,” Saroyan uses direct, evocative language with little in the way of extended metaphor. He also tends to limit physical description, as one might if they were telling the tale directly to another person.
Do you think John Byro knew that the horse was his? If he did know, why didn’t he confront their family with that information?
Why do you think Mourad kept letting Aram ride the horse, even if he was thrown from it every time?
How does the choice of Aram as the narrator change the way we view the story? What would the story have been like if Mourad was the narrator?
What did Aram mean in the quote, “We had been famous for our honesty for something like eleven centuries, even when we had been the wealthiest family in what we liked to think was the world”?
The Human Comedy is William Saroyan’s first published novel. It began as a screenplay written for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio head Louis B. Mayer, but when delivered, it was twice as long as a typical script, and Saroyan removed himself from the project. Saroyan took the scenario of the script and converted it into a novel, while the revised script, written by Howard Estabrook, made for a significantly different film produced by MGM. The film, starring Mickey Rooney, won an Academy Award for Best Story, while the novel became a best-seller.
The Human Comedy tells the story of Homer Macauley and his family during the early days of World War II in fictional Ithaca, California. Homer, 14 years old, works for Mr. Spangler as a telegraph boy. His mother has been widowed and is a source for both comfort and contemplation for the family. We get to see Homer’s interactions with his community, both at school with teachers and other students, as well as in the town of Ithaca at the town shop and telegraph office.
Homer’s brother Marcus is off at war, and one night the ghost of Mrs. Macauley’s husband comes and tells her that soon he will be joined by her son. We are given brief glimpses of Marcus heading off to war and his friendship with Tobey George, a fellow soldier.
The novel deals with issues of mortality, coming-of-age, community, and the impact of war on families. The structure of the novel, linear but more a series of connected vignettes than a traditional novel narrative, gives much room for the characters to become fully-formed, and explores dynamics of the community.
The book features numerous illustrations from Don Freeman, who would later go on to write and illustrate many children’s books.
The main character of The Human Comedy is Homer Macauley, a 14-year-old boy of Ithaca, California. He is a telegraph messenger, bringing messages sent to the telegraph office out to their intended receivers. Homer needs the job to help bring in money for the family, and he initially loves the job, striving to be the best messenger boy they have. He delivers messages, some of which are from the War Department announcing the death of local loved ones.
He is a happy young man, and a dedicated son and brother, and wants nothing more than to travel the world.
Homer attends Ithaca High School. He has a crush on Helen Elliot, who he considers the most beautiful girl in the world. She is the girlfriend of Hubert Ackley III, who is Homer’s least favorite person. He is inspired by Mr. Spangler to run the 220-yard hurdles.
His brother Marcus, in his final letter, refers to Homer as “the best of the Macauleys.”
Mr. Spangler is the manager of the telegraph office. He is a kind man and hires Homer to act as a messenger. His girlfriend, Diana, is very much in love with him, though he has difficulty reciprocating it. He rarely goes out into the world, but Diana helps to draw him out. He is very generous and patriotic, and treats people of different ethnicities the same. Even when faced with a robber, he is kind and generous.
Mr. Grogan is an older gentleman who works as the telegraph operator at the telegrapher office. He and Homer become friends. Despite their age difference, Mr. Grogan treats Homer as something of an equal. He has a tendency to drink alcohol and even instructs Homer on how to rouse him when he’s drunk. Mr. Grogan has been a highly-skilled telegraph operator for years, but is afraid that he will be replaced by a Teletype, an automatic telegraph interpreter. He deals out advice to Homer while they work together. Sometimes, he is deeply affected by the messages he records. His health is starting to fail him, and he passes away as he records his last telegraph message announcing the death of Marcus Macauley.
The matriarch of the Macauley family, Katey Macauley is the widowed mother of Homer, Marcus, Ulysses, and Bess Macauley. Her husband passed away two years prior to the start of the events of the novel. She is a loving mother of her poor family. She is philosophical and somewhat ethereal in her view of life. She plays the harp and leads the family in everyday life. She communicates with her dead husband, Matthew, at times, and he tells her that Marcus is going to come with him.
Marcus is the eldest son of the Macauley family. At the start of the book, he is off fighting World War II, and has befriended Tobey George, a fellow soldier. He admires his late father greatly, especially the fact that he worked so hard to provide for his family. He is planning to marry Mary Arena when he returns from war. He sends a letter to Homer instructing him to become the man of the house if Marcus doesn’t return, but that he wishes to come back and spend his life with the family in Ithaca.
Tobey is a soldier who is a good friend of Marcus Macauley. He is an orphan who feels as if he’s detached from the world. Marcus wishes to share his life in Ithaca with Tobey, and Tobey wants to be a part of the Macauley family as well. Marcus tries to set up Tobey with his sister, who Tobey has only seen in a photograph that Marcus has given him and which has led him to fall in love with her from a distance. After Marcus’ death, Tobey comes to Ithaca and is welcomed by the Macauley family.
Mary is a neighbor of the Macauley family, and Bess’s friend. She is in college, but initially wants to leave college to get a job. She is the girlfriend of Marcus Macauley, who is off at war, and plans to marry Marcus when he returns. She is a frequent visitor to the Macauley home and sings with the family.
The older sister of Marcus, Homer, and Ulysses Macauley, Bess is the best friend of Mary Arena. Tobey George is given a picture of her by Marcus, and Tobey becomes infatuated with her.
Ulysses Macauley is the youngest child of the Macauley family. He is four years old and has all the curiosity of a child his age. He misses his oldest brother and father, and often tries to make sense of a world where things don’t seem reasonable. He gets himself caught in a trap, but is unhurt by the experience. Ulysses becomes friendly with Mr. Grogan while Homer is working.
Perhaps the principal theme of Saroyan’s writing, mortality plays an essential role in The Human Comedy. Not only do several characters die in the novel, but it deals with the external matters connected to death, especially the individual process of grieving.
The Macauley family patriarch, William Macauley, has been dead for two years when the novel opens, though he is a presence both in the thoughts and actions of his surviving family and as a ghost who communicates with Mrs. Macauley. His absence is felt, though not understood, by young Ulysses, and he is warmly remembered by his son Marcus in his letter to his brother Homer. At once, he is seen as gone, which is how Ulysses feels, and always there because of the impact he has had on the rest of the family. Saroyan plays with this idea in several of his works, and here is exploring the idea of memory as a form of living.
We see all of the stages of grief -- denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and acceptance, represented at various times throughout The Human Comedy. Homer delivers a message from the War Department to Mrs. Sandoval telling her that her son has been killed. He feels the need to add that it must be a mistake and that he must be alive. Mrs. Sandoval, though, seems to accept this as truth immediately, and moves forward. Homer, in his youth, is at the first stage of grief, denial; Mrs. Sandoval is reacting as if she is at the final stage, acceptance. We see Homer get angry after delivering the news from the War Department, as well as briefly after the death of Mr. Grogan. Felix, following the death of Mr. Grogan, seems to be experiencing the third stage, bargaining.
As the stages of grief happen differently for everyone who encounters them, Homer deals with his brother’s death with a bit of anger. “When my father died, it was different,” Homer says following the receipt of the death notice for his brother. “He had lived a good life. He had raised a good family. We were sad because he was dead, but we weren’t sore. Now I’m sore and I haven’t got anybody to be sore at.” This passage shows Homer reflecting on the undirected anger he is feeling, the second stage of grief, whereas he had previously gone to the third stage, depression, with the death of his father.
But it is ultimately the idea of acceptance that seems to be the main message. After learning of the death of Marcus, we see the family come together to sing as Tobey George meets the family he has heard so much about. They bring him in as if he is immediately a part of the family. We are left with the idea that yes, they have had to accept the reality of their loss, but there is still life here, and they must live it in spite of their grief.
Ithaca, California, is not a real town, but it is closely modeled on Saroyan’s own hometown of Fresno. Saroyan was born in Fresno and spent much of his youth in the city. The location of the town, the climate, and the agricultural nature of the real and fictional cities are near-exact duplicates. Ithaca is a town that is ethnically diverse, much like Fresno, and is a stop along the railway. The town is not a large one, and thus there are a few stores, a market, a chain store, likely what would be called a supermarket today, a telegraph office, schools, a theater, and a few other shops. Most towns like Ithaca were built around thoroughfares -- roads, rivers, or train tracks -- as a way to ensure arrival of goods, and to allow for the export of items to other towns. Ithaca, with a largely agricultural setting, would have relied on the train to get its goods both in and out of town. Saroyan opens the novel with Ulysses waving at the African-American worker on the train and this may well be a nod to the important role the train plays in everyday life in Ithaca.
As we are presented with Ithaca, we are shown how it is not yet a town of the 1940s in many ways. The telegraph office would not have been completely out of place, but by the 1940s, most telegraph operators had been replaced by Teletype machines for receiving and printing messages, and multiplexers and repeaters for transmitting messages further down the line. There are cars mentioned, but even the telegrams are delivered by bicycle messengers.
Saroyan gives us a series of glimpses of life in Ithaca that indicate a time of simple concerns and a town that values inclusion and charity. Mr. Spangler is a good example of the way of life in Ithaca being different from what we would expect. When he is faced with an armed robber, he simply hands over the money, not because he is afraid, but because he can tell the robber needs it. He engages with the robber not as a threat, but as a person who needs help. This is in stark opposition to how this same scenario would likely play out in bigger cities.
Saroyan’s presentation of small-town life is in direct opposition to the way that small towns are shown in stories by contemporaries like Sherwood Anderson and Ray Bradbury. Saroyan sees the good in small-town life, and perhaps even shows a longing for the simplicity of it. Saroyan negatively portrays the visit of Rosalie Simms-Pibity, with her insistence on pronunciation and the listing of all her accomplishments to the Ithaca Parlor Lecture Club. This insistence on formality seems far from the norm for Ithaca, and Homer’s reaction to receiving the dime tip for delivering the telegram to her plays on the idea of how those from the big city see small-town life.
Saroyan often works with the idea of what America means as a part of a larger narrative structure. His settings are places of kindness, and more importantly, places where various kinds of people can interact, largely positively. Saroyan, who grew up an Armenian-American in the racially diverse city of Fresno, often writes about characters from different backgrounds, and even if interactions are not completely positive, the reason for conflict is rarely due to racial divides.
We are given characters whose English is not altogether perfect, but they are all working together to give each other the best possible life. When a character is shown to see themself as above others, they are painted not necessarily as a villain, but as a fish out of water, someone who doesn’t necessarily belong, and who at the very least requires time to come to understand. This shows in the class dynamics present throughout the book, and is most evident in the way Homer views, and later accepts, posh Hubert Ackley III. There is distrust and more than a little envy, but eventually, there is an understanding of their differences and a settling of Homer’s grudges.
The mixing of ethnicities in the Fresno of Saroyan’s youth, where large populations of those from Armenia, Mexico, Japan, and the Philippines interacted with the Anglo population, sometimes led to tension. While Saroyan makes note that the white population of Fresno looked down on the Armenians in The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse, and it is true that most ethnic groups at the time were confined to enclaves, there was more mixing of races on a daily basis in Fresno than in most cities in America at the time. We see little strife in Ithaca coming from ethnic issues in The Human Comedy.
When Homer delivers the War Department notice to Mrs. Sandoval, as well as when he delivers letters to others, he treats every person with the same respect, regardless of ethnicity. Even when he encounters someone he is not fond of, he still gives them their due attention. Homer appears either unaware of their differences, or perhaps he is only aware of the differences that directly affect his life, such as those of class and social standing in high school. We see there is tension, but then acceptance once gaps are bridged. This message appears in several of the vignettes in The Human Comedy, and also in Saroyan’s popular short story collection, My Name is Aram.
Little Ulysses Macauley also has a scene that addresses racial considerations having little importance. In the opening scene of the book, as a train drives by, he and an African-American train worker wave at each other. In this moment, we see that Ulysses has no compunction about interacting with a Black man from a population not largely present in Ithaca. We see that Ulysses is excited at the possibility to see him again, not because this is an exotic encounter, but because the man waved back and sang. The interaction is highlighted -- that by being the only one who waved back at the four-year-old, the man becomes a part of his world. That distinction is key to understanding Saroyan’s view: everyone is judged by their actions and their interactions.
William Saroyan deploys quite a unique style in his writing. He is sometimes called a minimalist for keeping his writing direct and to the point rather than filled with excessive description. This economy of language may have come from the short form works he wrote for the first decade of his career. In The Human Comedy, he allows himself a bit more freedom in his writing, while still maintaining a tight format.
One notable style choice is that the stories of the Macauley family and Ithaca are not told in a straight, traditional, point-to-point narrative. Instead they are broken into a series of scenes, some of which are detached from the main action. They are generally laid out chronologically, though some stories have no literal connection to others, and they could be placed anywhere in the story and not change anything.
In structure, The Human Comedy is closest to a coming-of-age story. Homer can be read as the main character, and most of the action is either his or reflecting on his situation. At the age of 14 and getting his first job, he is at a critical turning point in his life, and that turning point helps inform the rest of the story.
My Name is Aram by William Saroyan, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1940
Fresno County Historical Society Curriculum on Migration - https://www.valleyhistory.org/central-ca-migration-curriculum
The History of the Telegraph in California - https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41168703.pdf
Trailer for The Human Comedy -
“Seventy Thousand Assyrians” is a short story written by Armenian-American author William Saroyan and published in Story Magazine in 1934. It was one of his first stories published and appeared in his first collection: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories later that year. The story deals with a main character, modeled on Saroyan himself, who goes to get a haircut, only to become embroiled in a conversation with the Assyrian barber who expresses his thoughts on historical memory, ethnic identity, and other topics.
Our main character has not had a haircut for forty days, and his hair has gotten so long he “had outgrown his only hat.” Not having much money, he goes to the local barber college to get his hair cut. He exchanges friendly words in Japanese and English with the young Japanese man at the barbershop, and then a young student barber comes to cut the man’s hair. After he begins the haircut, the main character, an Armenian-American, asks the student barber if he is also Armenian. The Barber explains that he is Assyrian, having come to the United States five years prior, and that he is trying to turn away from his home country. He explains that there are only seventy thousand Assyrians left in the world, and that number is shrinking because of regional conflict, genocide, and other factors, and that many, if not most, Assyrians are trying to erase their connections to the homeland in favor of building a new life in America.
There are three significant characters in the work, the first being the narrator. While it is often inaccurate to assume the speaker in a story is the author, in this case it seems clear that the main character is, or is at least closely modeled on, Saroyan himself. The narrator is a writer writing a story, he doesn’t have much money, something that Saroyan struggled with throughout his life, and he is an Armenian. Saroyan also lived at a house on Carl Street in San Francisco, which the character mentions as the location of his home.
At times the narrator, who is a writer, revises the story he is telling, including tightening up the first paragraph into a much cleaner, less poetic form. The humor he employs is self-deprecating, but he is jovial, intelligent, and thoughtful, all traits that Saroyan would have applied to himself.
The young Japanese man at the barbershop is not present for long, but he is shown to be dutiful, and and if not exactly talkative, more than happy to engage in chit-chat. He shows interest in the main character speaking to him in Japanese, and they talk about a fellow acquaintance briefly.
The student barber is a young Assyrian, having come to America five years prior, first arriving in New York, then going on to Turlock, in central California, before finally settling in San Francisco. He explains his family’s roots, what it means to be Assyrian in the 1930s, and how the various members of his family are dealing with being away from the ancestral homeland. Saroyan seems perplexed by the idea of not wanting to continue the traditions of one’s homeland, but the barber says that there are different forms of dealing with being taken away, and their way is to try and become American.
Assyria was a kingdom in Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an area that covers portions of modern-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Located in the northern portion of the Fertile Crescent, it made up the majority of the northern section while Babylon occupied much of the south. Assyria morphed from a city-state into a nation, and then into an empire over the course of almost three thousand years. The rulers of Assyria built great monuments and well-known works of art dedicated to their great victories and traditions, including the famed lion hunt reliefs found at the North West Place in Nimrud.
Assyria was the home to several early Christian groups, possibly introduced to the faith by the Armenian Christians they neighbored in Anatolia. The Church of the East was founded in the eleventh century, with its own leadership separate from that of the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox lineages. Centuries later, the Church of the East had a schism, giving rise to the Assyrian Church of the East, which still exists to this day.
As time moved on, the Assyrians were conquered several times, including the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, the Mongol conquest beginning in 1096, and later by the Ottoman Empire. Assyrians found themselves often subjugated, and many Assyrian Christians were either forcibly converted to Islam or chose to convert to avoid persecution. At times, various portions of Assyria were split off and administered by different powers, giving rise to the nations of the area we know today.
The most significant events to this story began in the latter half of the 19th century. Western powers were at the height of their colonial ambitions, in particular the Ottoman and British Empires. While World War I was raging across Europe, a genocide was perpetrated against the Assyrians, committed by Ottoman and Kurdish forces. This genocide happened at the same time as the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks, and the Greek Genocide. Like the Armenian and Greek populations of Anatolia, many Assyrians left their homeland and settled in Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. Many Assyrians and Greeks who came to America settled in and around Detroit and Chicago, as well as in the Central Valley of California. In the Central Valley, they’d have been in contact with Armenian populations, especially in and around Fresno and Turlock. Saroyan often wrote about the shared connections between Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks in California, notably in “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse” in My Name is Aram.
This piece is a story told more than a story shown. The narrator is also the main character of the story he is telling. As a result of the character essentially being firmly grounded in Saroyan’s persona, it’s possible there are auto-biographical elements in the story as well. The story is told with a metanarrative style, that is the teller of the story knowingly telling the story, and this includes elements that touch on the process of storytelling itself. Today, stories written in this style are often referred to as “post-modernist,” though the term would not be applied to literature until the 1970s. The following paragraph is an excellent example:
Now I am beginning to feel guilty and incompetent. I have used all this language and I am beginning to feel that I have said nothing. This is what drives a young writer out of his head, this feeling that nothing is being said. Any ordinary journalist would have been able to put the whole business into a three-word caption. Man is man, he would have said. Something clever, with any number of implications. But I want to use language that will create a single implication. I want the meaning to be precise, and perhaps that is why the language is so imprecise. I am walking around my subject, the impression I want to make, and I am trying to see it from all angles, so that I will have a whole picture, a picture of wholeness. It is the heart of man that I am trying to imply in this work.
This paragraph demonstrates the playfulness of Saroyan and his embrace of contradictions. He is writing about his writing and at the same time making clear reference to the different methods of writing. Saroyan was known for the tautness of his prose, for not being overly “wordy” and using compact sentences without much adornment or unnecessary description. Here, he goes on about the process and style of writing itself, adding to the setting of the piece instead of telling the story. He indicates what he considers the ideals of good writing – brevity, directness, and clarity, but does so within a digression of 150 words.
The setting for “70,000 Assyrians” is San Francisco in the early 1930s. The city is stated several times, and the timeframe is stated at the end of the story as 1933. The part of San Francisco the story takes place in is not the nicest part; it is similar to the Bowery in New York, known for high crime and low opportunity. This is the sort of setting that Saroyan often wrote about in his work, preferring to present the lives of the working class and lower status figures in society.
Saroyan was always incorporating elements of the world around him in his stories, both from events he personally experienced, and items that he saw in the newspaper, in newsreels, or generally in popular culture.
Early in the story, he says “Readers of Sherwood Anderson will begin to understand what I am saying after a while; they will know that my laughter is rather sad.” Anderson was a popular American author starting in the 1920s with a style based on an unsentimental presentation. He was also one of the first fiction authors who incorporated ideas from psychologist and analyst Sigmund Freud.
He references Ernest Hemingway, arguably the most famous author of the day, and then gives a list of his most famous works. This may have been something of a mocking jab at Hemingway, who was known as something of an egomaniac. This passage, and a series of back-and-forth comments in magazines over the next few years, were the basis for a feud that lingered between the two of them, though at times there were friendly with one another.
The story mentions a cartoon – “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.” The cartoon was actually titled The Three Little Pigs and was produced by Walt Disney Studios. The song that played throughout it was ”Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” performed by Henry Hall and written by Frank Churchill, with additional lyrics by Ann Ronell. The cartoon features a retelling of the three little pigs fable, where one pig builds a house of straw that a hungry wolf blows down, another pig builds with wood which suffers the same fate, and the final pig makes his of brick. When the wolf attempts to enter through the chimney, it ends up in a boiling pot, being cooked alive. The 1933 Disney version of the tale was one of the most successful cartoons of the day and has been remade many times. It was added to the National Film Registry in 2007.
Saroyan had a complicated relationship with the major literary figures and outlets of the time.
“I have no desire to sell this story or any story to The Saturday Evening Post or to Cosmopolitan or to Harper's.”
These were three of the top magazines in America at the time, as well as the best-paying. They were all known to publish highly literary material by the best-known authors of the day. While he was not overly fond of those particular magazines, he did certainly submit to each of them as early as 1929, and would be regularly published by all of them, starting with Harper’s in 1941.
“I am not trying to compete with the great writers of short stories, men like Sinclair Lewis and Joseph Hergesheimer and Zane Grey, men who really know how to write, how to make up stories that will sell.”
The authors he refers to here were three of the best-selling authors of the day. Sinclair Lewis was one of the most lauded writers in America by 1934, having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 for works including Elmer Gantry, It Can’t Happen Here, and The Jungle. Hergesheimer was known for his stories set among the rich and famous. He had been voted the “Most Important American Writer” by Literary Digest readers in the 1920s. Zane Grey wrote Western stories, notably Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912. By 1934, he was a famous writer, but publishing far less frequently.
Another name Saroyan mentions is Mencken, the writer, commentator, and co-founder of one of the most important literary magazines, The American Mercury, which published Saroyan’s work often throughout the 1930s.
The Brotherhood of Man
The stated goal of this story, and one of Saroyan’s major themes in his works, is to make clear the idea of the “brotherhood of man.” This concept dates back centuries and traditionally is used to indicate that all humans on Earth share a sense of humanity and camaraderie. This idea of the brotherhood of man has been explored by many philosophers, artists, and writers, including Mark Twain who once wrote, “the universal brotherhood of man is our most precious possession, what there is of it.”
In the story, Saroyan explores the idea by examining the individuals the main character comes across. They are all a part of the same community, and thus share a set of experiences, even if they are not entirely the same. Saroyan treats each of them with kindness, no matter their station in life. This is a signature of many of Saroyan’s works, especially prevalent in the books My Name is Aram, The Human Comedy, and the play The Time of Your Life.
One key element is when characters of different background and social status interact, they act in a way that is non-confrontational and helps to close the distance between those differences. The main character speaks Japanese to the young man in the barber shop, closing a gap between them, as an example of treating someone of a different background with respect.
The Immigrant Experience
Another major theme is the universality of experience among immigrant populations in America. Saroyan, born in America to immigrant parents, is Armenian, and writes about Armenian-ness often. The narrator interacts with the Japanese boy at the barber shop and uses some Japanese he picked up. He knows that the immigrant experience means that out in the world, you are less likely to hear your own language, and even less likely to hear any of it from those who are not of your same nationality or ethnicity. Though there is a power dynamic in play, Saroyan makes it clear that they have a similar place in the structural setting of their interactions because of their shared experience as small parts of non-dominant cultures in the United States.
The Assyrians and the Armenians have much in common, including a history of diaspora. Both peoples were forced from their homeland at about the same time, but far more Armenians came to America than Assyrians. Still, their experiences are mirrors of one another, as their populations set up churches, grocers, aid organizations, and other businesses that allowed their communities to flourish in their adopted countries.
The Role of the Writer
Much of the early portion of the story deals with the writer making notes about the world around him, and the writer’s role in them, both as participant and observer. He talks about his process, even the very idea of revision as he rewrites the opening of his story to make it clearer, with simpler language. This shows that he values clarity and brevity, and rejects the classic “show-don’t-tell” model of writing in favor of the oral tradition.
He emphasizes that he believes writers are first and foremost observers, reporters of the things they encounter. This puts him at odds with what he sees being printed in magazines by the big-name authors, among them Hemingway, Grey, Mencken, and Lewis. He mentions that his intention is not to write a great story, but to record things he’s seen and then use that story to relay the idea of a “brotherhood of man.” He notes that he is “writing a letter to common people, telling them in simple language things they already know. I am merely making a record, so if I wander around a little, it is because I am in no hurry and because I do not know the rules.” He notes that he is repeating the words of the barber exactly, so as not to flavor them with his own thoughts.
He also seems to be saying that the role of the writer is to up-lift, and specifically to remind the reader about the brotherhood of mankind. Saroyan does this in several ways, including directly saying it. He highlights his interactions that are positive and is not concerned with exterior events that would paint a negative light on those characters he interacts with. He makes a point to show that he attempts to treat everyone well, those of high and low status, and that he will only pass along information that he believes will benefit the reader. Perhaps referencing others writers not known for their egalitarianism makes a powerful comment.
70,000 Assyrians - http://www.zindamagazine.com/html/archives/2007/06.03.07/pix/Saroyan.pdf
A Brief History of The Assyrian People
A look at modern Assyrian people
Appearing first in the June, 1941 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, “The Hummingbird that Lived Through the Winter” is one of William Saroyan’s most-often reprinted stories. In it, Saroyan tells the story of an unnamed narrator and old Dikran, a man of more than eighty years. Dikran finds a hummingbird, sick and perhaps dying, and the pair work to bring the hummingbird back to health.
The story of “The Hummingbird that Lived Through Winter” is very simple – one day in the dead of winter, old Dikran finds a hummingbird and, with the assistance of his young neighbor, gives it honey and warmth. Hummingbirds require a warm environment, particularly one where an abundance of food is available in the form of nectar. The narrator notices old Dikran holding the bird and assists him in feeding it, which appears to revive the bird. The narrator opens the window and the hummingbird flies out. Later, the narrator asks Dikran if the hummingbird survived. Dikran points out all the hummingbirds that have gathered in the Spring and says, “each of them is our bird.”
The main characters, Dikran and his young neighbor, are opposed not by an individual but by a force – winter. They must fight against nature itself to save the bird. This story has high stakes because we understand that nature, and especially the change of season, is impossible to fight. The hummingbird is an unwitting victim of either its choice or inability to fly away to warmer areas as the rest of the hummingbirds did.
The story is set in Fresno, California. Fresno is situated in the central valley of California, a primarily agricultural area. In the first few decades of the 20th century, thousands of Armenians fled their home country and settled in Fresno, mostly in neighborhoods of Armenian immigrants.
The year the story takes place is not stated, but there are clues. The early paragraphs indicate that the narrator, like William Saroyan himself, was born in 1908, as he states that he was 14 in 1922. It appears that this story takes place at some point near or prior to then, as it is pointed out that he’s a still a boy.
William Saroyan is playing with several of his favorite themes in this piece. For such a short story, Saroyan has packed in much of the intellectual content that he traditionally explores in his longer pieces.
Arguably Saroyan’s most frequent theme, the life and/or death of the titular hummingbird is the central concern of the narrator. When old Dikran finds the bird, it is barely alive, but the attention paid by Dikran and the narrator allows for the bird to again take flight and leave when Dikran tells the narrator to open a window.
There are many parallels between saving the life of that hummingbird and saving the life of a human being. First and foremost is the idea of letting go. When a life is saved, whether through direct action or through continuous assistance, the path of healing can be slow, or as shown here, abrupt. Once the patient is healed, they must prove they can make it on their own. That is often a difficult point, and sometimes the recovery is so fast, it seems as if the problem never occurred in the first place. Other times, of course, there is slow recovery over the course of months or years. When Dikran tells the narrator to open the window, he’s not only allowing the hummingbird to leave the house, but he’s also allowing the bird to prove that he’s done his duty; a healer has only done their work if the patient can make it on their own after treatment is withdrawn.
The open-ended question of whether or not the specific hummingbird has survived is also important. The narrator wants to know if that bird itself beat the odds and has survived into the Spring. Dikran, on the other hand, has noticed that the hummingbirds are still there, and that whether or not the specific hummingbird has survived, the hummingbirds have continued, and will continue, into the future. It’s possible to read this story as an expression of the idea of species continuance in the face of individual mortality: it is less important to see a single individual survive than the continued survival of the species. This idea can be applied broadly, including as a reflection of Armenians in diaspora. That an individual is not within their homeland is far less important than the continued existence of the homeland and the culture it has fostered.
One major theme is that all things are dependent on one another, and some are more directly dependent. Clearly, the hummingbird will die if not cared for by Dikran and the narrator. The pair of them take on the role of caretakers, though they do not have to do so. They find it their duty to save the life of the hummingbird not for themselves, but for the continuance of all hummingbirds.
Old Dikran is blind, but he is still vital, and he is the source of healing for the hummingbird. He cannot see the hummingbird himself, and he must rely on the vision of the narrator to tell him what it is he has in his hands. It is made more difficult as the narrator does not know the word for hummingbird in Armenian, possibly because hummingbirds do not live in Armenia and there is likely not a word for it. The pair communicate half in English and half in Armenian, a common way for first and second generation members of diasporic communities to communicate. They have different experiences of the world that they are in, and while the narrator has experienced much more of his life in America, and thus in English, to be able to reach Dikran he must reach into his Armenianness to exchange ideas and give direction. To enable Dikran to save the hummingbird, the narrator must provide an aspect of the world to him verbally. He is acting as a translator, as well as a force for providing the assistance required to save the bird.
One theme that can be read here is the role of human stewardship over the Earth around them. Dikran has a beautiful garden, which stands out in the poor neighborhood where they live. He has nurtured the ground and grown beautiful plants. Though he is almost completely blind, he continues to build and nurture the land, providing a small patch of comfort and beauty to their Armenian community in Fresno.
The hummingbird is clearly dying. This fact is what sets the story into action, but it is dying likely through no fault of its own. It is up to a pair of humans to care for and nurse the animal back to health, and they do so through the use of natural (honey), personal (the warmth of Dikran’s hands), and technological (the warming of the honey on the stove) methods to ensure the survival of the bird, at least briefly.
When the narrator discusses the survival of the hummingbird with Dikran later, he says that each hummingbird is their hummingbird, that the survival of the whole is greater than any individual, and that each one they help enables the flock to continue. This is an element of environmental conservation, that individual work is part of a bigger picture.
This story can be seen as separated into two different streams, which gives us our primary clue as to who the narrator actually is. The first four paragraphs deal not with the story of the hummingbird, but with the very idea of hummingbirds, and about the narrator’s experience and appreciation of them. This portion is written with an informal, almost conversational style, as if the writer is speaking directly to the reader. This ties the story to the voice, and thus the character, of author William Saroyan. The style in the later paragraphs is more traditional, and is dialogue and story driven, as opposed to the looser style of the opening.
Saroyan’s writing tends to be evocative, but unadorned. His language focuses on clarity and certainty. He does not waste words, and if he provides a description, it is because it is vital to the narrative. He was also known for prose that provided a positive view of the world, even when presenting a story that does not exactly end well the for the characters. This sensation of hopefulness and a general lack of the cynicism that permeated modernist writing at the time has come to be called “Saroyanesque,” and is the lasting marker of the great man of Fresno.