The 113th Birthday Celebration Reading Series

William Saroyan was born on August 31st, 1908, in Fresno California. The 4th child of Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, William would go on to become the most celebrated Fresnan of all time, and one of the 20th century's great literary figures. 

In honor of his birthday, Forever Saroyan is proud to present a new series of readings, featuring two lesser-known Saroyan stories, and one of his most memorable classics. 

 

Ben (1937)

First published by Faber & Faber as a part of The Gay & Melancholy Flux in 1937, Ben is something of an outlier in William Saroyan's bibliography. A powerful, impressionistic story of history and mortality, Ben shows a rare side of Saroyan's work, embracing a decidedly modernist tone and aesthetic that he never again seemed to work in. The story's wide-ranging subject matter and the way it plays with timelines, both human and historical, presents a rare glimpse of Saroyan working outside of his regular style.

 

 

 

Reader Derek McCaw is an actor, podcaster, writer and editor dividing his time between the Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. Since 2000, he has run the website Fanboy Planet

 

Pure Agony (1937)

Pure Agony, read by Kristy Baxter, was first published in Globe magazine and has not been re-published since. It is a story of heartbreak, longing, and the inability to cut portions of one's heart out to save it from the pain. The story is an exceptional example of his early period prose style, though deals with heartbreak in a fashion that was much more reminiscent of his later memoir writing. 

 

 

Kristy Baxter is a writer and podcaster out of Johnstown, PA. She is the co-host of Short Story, Short Podcast and Old Timey Crimey, as well as the producer/host of Detectives by the Decade. 

 

Dear Gretta Garbo (1934)

One of Saroyan's best-known and loved works, Dear Gretta Garbo talks about the role of celebrity and how movie star and a reality star can blur the lines. Incredibly prescient for its discussion of the collapsing of media celebrity at a time before television and the internet made it commonplace. 

 

Chris Garcia is an Archivist for Forever Saroyan. Outside of the office, he is a zine publisher, writer, filmmaker, and podcaster.

 

 

The Free Company

clip 84177277 1In early 1941, it was obvious that the war raging in Europe was going to boil over and become the second World War. Most acknowledged the United States was not going to be able to remain apart from the action, though isolationist sentiment that had held much of the country since the end of The Great War in 1918 meant that large factions in the United States did not want us involved. There was a general understanding, to a degree, of what was actually going on in Germany and Manchuria, at least enough to make us aware that there were atrocities happening, even if we could not yet name them. As is often the case, a number of artists and writers understood what was going on in the world in a completely different way than was being presented. They were concerned that Americans might not remember what their country meant, and the potential danger of that when it would come time for Americans to take up arms and enter the fray.

 The writer James Boyd thought that this would be a good project to tackle with the outstanding amount of literary talent that was bubbling up with the opening of new publishing and presentation opportunities. A veteran of World War I, Boyd was widely regarded as a fine writer of historical fiction. His novels Drums and Bitter Creek were lauded for their historical accuracy and inclusion of modernist literary technique and theory. A gathering of writers in Washington in fall 1940 inspired Boyd to consider the role writers might play in bringing about thought for the role and meaning of America, and these interactions brought about a plan for a project.

  “It occurred to some of us who talked together in Washington and other places that in this state of affairs,” Boyd noted, “there might be a chance for the writers of America to perform a function. Not to exhort, still less to prescribe, but by the power of the word to remind, no more than that, our people of their possessions.”

 Looking at the landscape at the time, there were a few potential forms the project could take, with film and live theatre both being considered, but it was ultimately radio that was chosen, perhaps because it was the most direct and personal of delivery methods. Boyd set out to gather some of the brightest lights in the theatrical and literary world. Boyd’s reach was impressive, and he quickly began to gather other writers.

“With this much of the scheme in mind I talked with Robert Sherwood and later with Elmer Rice and with William Saroyan,” Boyd said.

Sherwood was a well-known playwright who would win 4 Pulitzer Prizes and an Oscar over his lifetime. Rice, a popular writer who had also won a Pulitzer, was one of the most active writers in New York, and a major influence on Tennessee Williams. Saroyan had also won a Pulitzer just a year before for The Time of Your Life.

 With that team in place, they approached CBS about potentially airing the project. They were skeptical.

  “In principle they were responsive but dubious of the outcome.” Boyd said, “They spoke of an anonymous lady who had once promised a constellation of authors who had not materialized. We said that we were not an anonymous lady.”

 Twitter017The group left with a promise of airtime on the Columbia Broadcasting Network, and Boyd set out to gather more names. He approached only the most important people working in American letters at the time. Along with Saroyan, Rice, and Sherwood, Boyd brought Sherwood Anderson (novelist and well-known trade union supporter), Archibald MacLeish (three-time Purlitzer winner and then Librarian of Congress), Marc Connelly (Algonquin Round Table member and Pulitzer winner), Maxwell Anderson (playwright and screenwriter), Ernest Hemingway (best-selling prose author), John Steinbeck (best-selling novelist and short story writer), George M. Cohan (Legendary Broadway composer and performer), Paul Green (Pulitzer prize-winning playwright), Stephen Vincent Benet (Pulitzer and O’Henry Award winner), and perhaps most interestingly, Orson Wells, then one of the hottest properties in New York, having not only directed several hit Broadway shows, but also the radio program Mercury Theater on the Air. Welles and Saroyan were arguably the two biggest young bucks on Broadway!

That fact that such a cadre of talent could be put together is amazing when you look at the amount of work each of them were up to at the time. The introduction to The Free Company Presents notes - “But we can say the attitude of most of the writers was heartening. Some are not well, some are poor, all are busy. The demand for a piece of unpaid work in a medium unfamiliar to many of them was a serious one. They took it seriously.”

 Once the writing side was settled, it became imperative to secure top-notch acting talent. The group knew they would have to work with well-known radio personalities if they were going to bring mass attention to such an admittedly unique project.

 “Once the scripts began to come in we had to meet the problem of casting.” Noted Boyd, “It was necessary to get permission from the Screen Actor’s Guild and the American Federation of Radio Artists for the stars to appear. We got it, and encouraging words besides.”

  The project was being guided not only by Boyd, but by a volunteer committee consisting of Robert Sherwood representing the writers, W.B. Lewis, then the Vice-President for CBS Radio, to represent radio, and actor Burgess Merideth. Merideth, at the time was best known for his work on Broadway, as well as film appearances, and it gave the project a recognizable name to drive not only the appeal to an audience, but to appeal to actors to come on-board an unpaid project.

 Boyd and company were working on the important behind-the-scene aspects, but also on bringing attention to the project publicly. On January 26th, 1941, articles about the project began to pop up in papers around the US, despite the fact that the entire group had yet to be finalized! The key to the announcement was not only to bring forth the list of contributors, but to hammer home the idea of what the project was actually being created for.

The January 26th, 1941 edition of the Capital Times carried coverage of Boyd’s announcement – “Members of the company are preparing to present the bases of our freedom, not as paid propaganda, but as voluntary statements of faith by a group of Americans qualified to give them eloquent expression”

Twitter018Boyd later adding – “The effectiveness of hostile propaganda, so tragically demonstrated in various European countries, is greater here than generally realized.” And “So far, most effort in this country has been directed to attacks on that propaganda. But the best defense would be positive restatement in moving terms of our own beliefs. They will be presented, not as abstractions, but as a living spectacle made actual; to the mind by color, drama, and passion.”

The project moved forward through 1941, though not completely without hitch. Elmer Rice, suffering from exhaustion, could not participate, and Hemingway was unable to return from China in time to work on the project, while George M. Cohan found himself backed up with other musical concerns and was unable to complete his own play, but did appear as an actor in an episode. Steinbeck, as was often the case, was backed up on his own projects. Sadly, Sherwood Anderson passed away before he could complete his entry, though Boyd, and perhaps others, stepped up to complete his entry.

Still, the project was well-marketed, as if it were a new regular, much-hyped program. The Department of Justice and the Solicitor General of the United States were both fully on-board, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt even mentioned it in her My Day column run in papers across the United States.

The Free Company debuted on February 23rd, 1941 with William Saroyan’s The People With Light Coming Out of Them. The story opened with an exchange between William Saroyan and host Burgess Merideth, set-up to seem as if Merideth was asking Saroyan to deliver a story on the spot. The story Saroyan tells is a slice-of-life piece, showing the interactions of people of different classes, ethnicities, and races. The advance notices of the program were enthusiastic. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said “In Saroyanesque-manner, the play achieves tremendous impact through simplicity of speech by “just ordinary folks” who reveal through their neighborly small talk what it means to enjoy freedom.”

The program was very well-received, and the performances by John Garfield, well-loved film star and Academy Award nominee, and Edmund Gwenn, whose portrayal of Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street would forever influence the vision of Santa Claus in American culture.

The series was a fair success, and after the 11 initial episodes aired, many called for more. The first sign of its success was how listeners by the thousands were writing in to the stations to get the small printed booklets of the episodes. These were sold for 10 cents, which barely covered printing. These booklets would be compiled into a single volume later in 1941. There was great hope that the project would get another season, partly so those who had not had a chance to write their pieces could do so, and partly because thScreenshot 2021 08 25 155005ose that had appeared were of such high quality.

That’s not to say that there was not some controversy in the project. Maxwell Anderson’s piece, Miracle on the Danube, has been seen as a shot across the bow at the Nazi regime, perhaps intending to stoke the fires against the Germans so that in our inevitable entry to the second World War, Americans would be primed for hating the Nazis. In fact, several of the plays, both at the time and in the decades since, have been referred to as ‘propaganda,’ though part of the reason for that might have more to do with external politics.

Orson Welles, usually pointed to as one of the most fervent followers of The Free Company agenda, was nearing the end of production on Citizen Kane, his fictionalized harsh, though masterful, indictment on the life and times of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, who controlled a great number of American papers, had taken to swiping at Welles wherever possible. After Welles’ His Honor the Mayor appeared, Hearst’s papers went on the offensive. In a story ostensibly about a speech at a Los Angeles American Legion luncheon, the paper makes sure to mention “the rising storm of protests of groups from coast to coast against the subversive propaganda seen in the Free Company series of radio broadcasts is expected to be coordinated into a unified national program May 1 and 2 where American Legion leaders gather in Indianapolis.”

It's most likely a second season of The Free Company did not happen because of the entry of the US into World War II following Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Several of those involved, including Saroyan, would serve the war effort in various ways, including serving in the First Motion Picture Unit, writing and acting in films meant for audiences at home, as well as for training and entertainment for those on the front lines. Sadly, several members passed away as the war raged on, including James Boyd, who passed in 1944.

The Free Company is one of the first writer-led projects to realise the power of radio as a means to convey political, social, and creative messages with the goal of promoting American values. The names who participated, and the quality of the material produced, makes the Free Company a landmark in American mass media history.

 

Related Links

The Free Company Presents The People with the Light Coming Out of Them 

The Digital Deli Too with the Credits and Other Info

Material pertaining to His Honor The Mayor

 

Chris Garcia - Archivist for Forever Saroyan - August 27, 2021 San Jose, California

               

 

               

The First Daddy-o of Fiction

The Golden Gate Bridge, National Archives

 “It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time.”

If I told you this was written by William Saroyan, would you believe me? Does it have the same rhythm, the same sentiment as early Saroyan works? It’s not Saroyan, but rather Jack Kerouac, famous Beat writer, excerpted from On The Road. Although Kerouac and Saroyan apparently never exchanged correspondences, Kerouac was a big fan, about one generation removed from Saroyan. There is ample evidence in Kerouac’s collected writings that he read Saroyan and was influenced by him, especially in Kerouac’s impressionable teen years. Apart from Kerouac simply liking Saroyan’s offbeat style, there were many similarities between the two that may have laid the groundwork for the affinity.

Jack Kerouac was born March 12, 1922, in Massachusetts. His family hailed from French Canada and spoke French at home. When he was four, his older brother died, deeply affecting young Jack. He came to rely emotionally on his mother, as his father distanced himself from the family with drinking and gambling. In many ways this mirrors Saroyan’s own background, the first generation to be born in America, speaking a foreign language, and suffering from the powerful loss of his father when he was young.

Kerouac's Naval Reserve Enlistment photograph, 1943, National Archives

Kerouac, however, attended college briefly, while Saroyan dropped out of high school. They both served in the military as well, but didn’t thrive there. Saroyan hated the Army and made it clear, saying it damaged him beyond repair. In Obituaries, he wrote, “I swear to Christ the whole rigamarole of lunch bores the bajesus out of me, and yet if you are in a rotten situation of daily work, as being in the stupid Army first in America and then in Europe, man, lunch can be something like your best chance not to flip your goon at last, for sure, postponed as that probability has been for the whole two years you have been the captive of the people and machines of cleverness and corruption in the Army.”

Saroyan Army Publicity Photograph, circa 1945, Forever Saroyan

Kerouac was honorably discharged from the Navy on psychiatric grounds with a diagnosis of schizoid personality after only ten days of active duty service. In an undated letter, he said of his time there, “I just can’t stand it; I like to be myself…[I]t was clearly and simply a matter of maladjustment to military life. On this, the psychiatrist and I seemed to be agreed in silence. I believe that if his queries had ended at that point, my diagnosis would have been psychoneurosis—a convenient conclusion which could have explained any number of idiosyncrasies in a protean personality…I see no reason for being ashamed of my maladjustment.” In Gerald Nicosia’s biography of Kerouac, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, he writes, “Jack also feared madness, and it was Allen [Ginsberg] who forced him to see that what seemed unreal was 'the only thing, the inevitable – the one. There is no evasion of it.'” Saroyan’s memoirs are filled with references to madness, as he worked through his own demons. In Here Comes There Goes You Know Who, he wrote, “I suppose I might say that as a writer I have been a little afraid of money in the bank, as other writers are said to be afraid of losing their ability to write, or of madness, or of indifference, or of ridicule, or of death…And I don't believe that I am afraid of madness, because madness is also myself, I have always had it, I don't think I would give up my paranoia for anything in the world.” For both writers, the concept of Madness loomed large in their life and writings.

Kerouac also came from a working class family who struggled financially and discouraged his writing, favoring work at a local mill instead, just as Saroyan was encouraged to work in agriculture, the industry in his hometown, and was discouraged from writing by his family. Later, they even shared editor Bob Giroux, whose first best-seller was The Human Comedy, before he found his way to editing Kerouac’s works.

As a young man, Kerouac was highly influenced by Saroyan’s writing, as well as by Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. In fact, it was common for fans of Saroyan to be influenced by these three authors, who each had uniquely American styles. While the European authors of the 19th century were mostly formal and often stodgy, American authors in the first half of the 20th century broke open the fiction genre, introducing a casualness and rhythm that flowed like the spoken word without bothering too much with traditional stylistics.

In a famous Paris Review interview in 1968, shortly before Kerouac’s death, Ted Berrigan with friends Aram Saroyan and Duncan McNaughton sat down with Jack to discuss his career. He said, “As for Saroyan, yes I loved him as a teenager, he really got me out of the nineteenth century rut I was trying to study, not only with his funny tone but also with his neat Armenian poetic – I don’t know what…he just got me…Hemingway was fascinating, the pearls of words on a white page giving you an exact picture…but Wolfe was a torrent of American heaven and hell that opened my eyes to America as a subject in itself.”  Nicosia’s biography notes that Jack described his own collection of short stories, Atop the Underwood, as "in the Saroyan-Hemingway-Wolfe style.” In Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, Vol. 1, 1940-1956, Kerouac wrote, “At 18 I read Hemingway and Saroyan and began writing little terse short stories in that general style.” Every young writer emulates their idols at first, after all. There are multiple mentions of Saroyan in the two volumes of letters compiled by Ann Charters.

Kerouac appreciated the lean sentences of Saroyan and Hemingway, and his first novel, The Town and the City, published in 1950, was a semi-autobiographical novel reminiscing about his small town childhood in a way that feels more like Saroyan than his later, more experimental works. In Understanding Kerouac, Matt Theodo describes this early period of writing as especially influenced by Saroyan: “[The character] Peter tries to illustrate that people of the world are real and sincere, a point Kerouac, like William Saroyan, spent his career trying to prove.”

All of Kerouac’s biographers attribute his introduction to Saroyan to his friend Sebastian “Sammy” Sampas in their teen years. And in the introduction to his book Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac said of himself, “Decided to become writer at age 17 under influence of Sebastian Sampas, local young poet who later died on Anzio beach head; read the life of Jack London at 18 and decided to be an adventurer, a lonesome traveler; early influences Saroyan and Hemingway; later Wolfe.”

While Kerouac’s writing became even more non-traditional as his career progressed, himself becoming an influencer of future generations, his foundational love for Saroyan shone through. On February 28, 1940, Kerouac wrote in his journal: “Time for action, time for a new life, for my real life. I’ll be 28 in two weeks…a goodly age….Much traveling. No stagnation. No more formal sorrows! No more metaphysical awe! Action…production speed…grace…turn the world into an early-Saroyan story, with mature purposes & absorptions. Go!(Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954). You can see from this journal entry that Kerouac was concerned with moving, progress, action, just like Saroyan.

Kerouac wrote often about injecting jazz into his writing, being majorly influenced by musician Charlie Parker. He allegedly wrote that he wanted “to be considered as a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jazz session on Sunday.” Saroyan was also known for his punctuated, rhythmic sentences, and wrote, "The thing I knew in 1934 was that it was necessary to write a story every day…Some of the stories were jazz, pure and simple, but jazz in writing” (After Thirty Years). Saroyan and Kerouac were both influenced by music, and Saroyan perhaps gave Kerouac at least part of the blueprint to incorporate that into his fiction. In David Calonne’s well-researched essay on the connection between Kerouac and Saroyan, Bebop Buddhist Ecstasy: Saroyan’s Influence on Kerouac and the Beats, he delves into this jazz writing: “What Ginsberg was to later call ‘spontaneous bop prosody’ was actually the original invention of the Armenian genius from Fresno. Saroyan’s early stories are bursting with a hip, casual, direct, autobiographical sound new to American literature.” Allen Ginsberg was no stranger to Saroyan’s work and also teased Kerouac about his childhood attachment to it. In Nicosia’s biography, he explains that Ginsberg, one of Kerouac’s many surrogate brothers, “enjoyed mocking Jack’s sacred cows. Signing one letter ‘Sebastian,’ Allen told Jack he would meet him ‘carrying a volume of Saroyan in my hair.’”

Under Ginsberg’s influence, and others of the Beat Generation, Kerouac’s writing did become more playful and mystical, but the rhythm stayed Saroyanesque. These excerpts feel like literary family, one generation informing the next:

Saroyan:

“Fog over San Francisco and a sky that is mad with mist and the splashings of high electric lights: a sense of being out of time, a sense of despair mingled with mockery; wet pavements, the usual people walking.” - “Sleep in Unheavenly Peace,” The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, 1934.

Kerouac:

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments…and just at that moment a locomotive howled, and I said to myself, Yes, yes, Saroyan’s town.” -On the Road, 1957

Though Saroyan’s name may have faded from American curriculum and the celebrated literary canon, his influence spread to other 20th century writers, whose influence passed on to younger writers and on and on, which may be his most enduring and important legacy.

Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo circa 1956, Wikimedia Commons

 

Sources:

Academy of American Poets. “About Jack Kerouac | Academy of American Poets.” Poets.org, 2014, poets.org/poet/jack-kerouac.

Berrigan, Ted. “Jack Kerouac: The Art of Fiction No. 41.” The Paris Review, 1968, www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4260/the-art-of-fiction-no-41-jack-kerouac.

Calonne, David Stephen, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Bebop Buddhist Ecstasy : Saroyan’s Influence on Kerouac and the Beats. San Fransisco, Sore Dove Press, 2010.

Dale, Rick. “THE DAILY BEAT: Today in History: Jack Kerouac and William Saroyan.” THE DAILY BEAT, 13 Apr. 2019, thedailybeatblog.blogspot.com/2019/04/today-in-history-william-saroyan-and.html.

Kerouac, Jack. Lonesome Traveler. London Paladin, 1990.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. London, Penguin Book, 1957.

Kerouac, Jack, and Ann Charters. Selected Letters : 1940-1956. New York, Ny Penguin, 1996.

Kerouac, Jack, and Douglas Brinkley. Windblown World : The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954. New York, Penguin Books, 2006.

Kleiman, Miriam. “Hit the Road, Jack!” National Archives, 15 Aug. 2016, www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2011/fall/kerouac.html.

Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe : Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Penguin, 1992.

Saroyan, William. After Thirty Years : The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. New York, Harcourt, 1964.

Saroyan, William. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, by William Saroyan. New York, Random House, 1934.

Saroyan, William. Here Comes-There Goes-You Know Who. [an Autobiography.]. London, Peter Davies, 1962.

Saroyan, William. Obituaries. Berkeley, Calif., Creative Arts Book Co, 1979.

Theado, Matt. Understanding Jack Kerouac. Columbia, University Of South Carolina Press, 2009.

 

This article was written by Dori Myer, Archivist, Forever Saroyan, LLC, San Jose, August 2021

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