William Saroyan’s The Gay and Melancholy Flux

SaroyanWilliam Saroyan’s literary powers not only found a receptive audience in the United States, but also around the world. One of the countries where he was most popular was the United Kingdom. A part of why he was so popular in the UK is that he had an excellent publisher for most of his early books, including several while Britain was in the midst of World War II. The relationship between Saroyan and his primary UK publisher, Faber & Faber, ran for decades, and it includes one of the most impressive and unusual of all Saroyan’s collections – The Gay & Melancholy Flux.

Saroyan had been selling stories and articles since 1928, and in 1934 he released the masterpiece, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories. The reaction to the collection was immediate, and Saroyan was referred to by The Guardian as “An Armenian Genius.” He was a sensation and he sold thousands of books on both sides of the Atlantic. He was flying high, and then even higher when he released the much-praised Inhale and Exhale in 1936. Established as one of the leading young writers in the world, Saroyan was arguably the most popular young writer of the mid-1930s in the UK and North America. Reviewing Inhale and Exhale, The Guardian printed, “The universality of William Saroyan is, in a word, titanic.”

Faber & Faber was one of the most prestigious of all UK publishers at the time. The imprint was founded in 1925 as Faber and Gwyer by Geoffrey Faber and Maurice Gwyer, who was the publisher of The Nursing Mirror, a weekly medical magazine. They quickly brought on board one of the glowing literary lights of the day – T. S. Eliot. Already a major figure of Modernist literature following the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Wasteland,” Eliot served as Faber and Gwyer’s literary advisor, eventually joining the directorial board. They began publishing many of the most important poets and writers in the UK at the time, including W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound, and Eliot himself. In 1929, The Nursing Mirror was sold, Gwyer went his own way, and Faber renamed the imprint Faber & Faber despite the fact that he was the only Faber involved!

Eliot was arguably the most important aspect of Faber’s editorial direction, and he was well-aware of what was going on in the American literary scene at the time. Saroyan was an obvious choice to add to the fold. His masterpiece, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, was published in the UK by Faber. As they would often do throughout their relationship with Saroyan, the Faber edition did not include Saroyan’s introduction and omitted one story. Some of the stories in it, like “Dear Gretta Garbo,” were a bit beyond the grasp of contemporary audiences, but have since grown in stature. Eliot and Faber certainly recognized the quality of the writing and possibly even understood the direction these works would take in the future. After the 1935 publication of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories in the UK, Faber & Faber acquired the rights to Saroyan’s Inhale and Exhale, a powerful collection that was very well received. There were several stories from the US edition of Inhale and Exhale that were not included in the 1936 Faber edition, possibly because the US edition ran almost 450 pages. Faber left out the important pieces “Ah-ha” and “I Can’t Put Two and Two Together,” among others.

Cover495Because of the omission of these stories, or perhaps wanting to publish more of his voluminous output, Saroyan pitched the idea of a new compilation: the stories that were not included in Faber’s edition of Inhale and Exhale, about twenty in all, including some that Saroyan thought to be among his best.  These included some that would go on to be oft re-printed, such as “The Great Unwritten American Novel”. Saroyan’s European agent, Lawrence Pollinger, went about negotiating with Faber for the release of these stories. Initially, there was excitement about publishing the stories, but not about the titles Saroyan pitched.

“They are not, however,” Pollinger said in a letter to Saroyan on January 7th, 1937, “very happy about your choice for the title – THE GAY AND MELANCHOLY FLUX, WORLD WILDERNESS OF TIME LOST, or TEARS OF THE WORLD AND ITS CHILDREN – and ask if you will kindly let them have two or three other alternatives. Kindly push these along to me for Faber are anxious to go ahead with the manufacture of the book.”

At nearly the same time, three young UCLA students, Gil Harrison, Hal Levy, and Bill Okie, made a trip from the Westwood campus to Hollywood to visit Saroyan, then at work writing for “the pictures,” as he called it. This meeting would lead to the formation of a publishing company, The Conference Press, which would begin operations with the publication of Saroyan’s collection Three Times Three. The collection featured nine new stories. This third collection of stories featured one of the most important pieces Saroyan would ever write --  “The Man with His Heart in the Highlands.” In 1939, he would adapt as his first successful stage play,

Saroyan had Pollinger offer Three Times Three to Faber for possible publication, but T.S. Eliot was not sure about the amount of material. After a meeting with Eliot and Frank Morley, also a director at Faber, Pollinger wrote to Saroyan on January 15th, 1937:

              3 times 3 cover  “They feel, and I am inclined to agree with them, that to publish THREE TIMES THREE as a separate book would not cut a great deal of ice here. Further, by adding the eight or is it nine stories (I haven’t a copy of the book with me to check) from this volume to THE GAY AND MELANCHOLY FLUX will make that book a really meaty volume in every way. Without the THREE TIMES THREE stories it would run to not more than 212 pages which is a pretty slim volume for which to ask 7 shillings and 6 pence.”

Faber stated they wanted all the stories from Three Times Three, save for “Quarter, Half, Three-Quarter and Whole Notes,” and none of the introductory material. The newly recombined volume, The Gay and Melancholy Flux, was announced in the Faber & Faber catalog, but the story list was not yet finalized. Apparently in the last iteration, three stories were added: “Love,” originally included in the US edition of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories, as well as two pieces that had yet to be published anywhere – “Hunger” and “Ben.”

The stories in The Gay and Melancholy Flux explored many of Saroyan’s most important themes from his early career: mortality, the difficulties of youth, love (romantic and otherwise), and the promise of the future. These are works that fit in well with those that had been included in his previous collections, but also extended his reach stylistically. His story, “My Picture in the Paper,” focuses on how the modern age of mass communication has changed the meaning of fame, a theme he dealt with pointedly in “Dear Gretta Garbo,” but now explored the idea beyond a simple single event and worked with a stronger set of literary devices. “The Great Unwritten American Novel” plays with large ideas of identity and creation in a stream of consciousness style. He returns to the extreme fluidity of language and location in the story “The Train.” The works here are, perhaps, a bit less traditional, with a flair of modernism that wasn’t fully explored in his earlier writing. In the end, “Quarter, Half, Three-Quarter and Whole Notes” was included in the collection, and is another example of Saroyan eschewing traditional narrative in favor of a fairly philosophical rumination on writing.

Though these works had appeared before, when placed together, the Modernist sensibilities become more evident. They feel more influenced by writers like Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and even T.S. Eliot. When mixed with his traditional approach, the ‘Saroyanesque’ style as it would come to be called, this makes for fascinating reading.

The best examples of the approach come through the two stories that had not appeared anywhere previously. “Hunger” is not so much a traditional story as it is an examination of the interaction between a viewer and the setting, in this case the darker side of the urban environment.

The writing is unlike his earlier work, far more impressionistic while leaving much of his vaunted characterization aside. The result is a story that brings a reader to a place and allows them to explore their own relationship with the idea of the city. From the opening line, “On the seventh day of nothing, he began to laugh,” it is clear that Saroyan is working from a different playbook than he had in his previous writing.

“Ben” is a completely different beast.

GaMF coverIt explores mortality and history, and how the two concepts play off of each other. The style Saroyan deployed borders on prose poetry, and echoes of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” can be heard in the deeply symbolic prose. In fact, it would be fair to put “Ben” on the list of most far-reaching short stories ever written, invoking ideas of terror and wonder, light and dark, and the deep impact of many of the most significant moments in human history, all packed into less than ten thousand words. One reading of the story, that long-passed events that should have no impact on our lives in the present day end up defining our lives, can be seen as an extended metaphor for the impact of the Armenian genocide as a defining force on all Armenians, Saroyan included.

Perhaps it is this experimentation that led both of those stories to never be re-printed or offered in any of his later collections. Reviewers of the time seemed to understand that some of these stories were looking far further ahead than others.

“…such nightmare rhapsodies as ‘Ben’ and ‘The Great Unwritten American Novel’ do one thing better than all others – they emphasize the vast gulf that divides writers of other times from those of our day,” noted The Guardian in June, 1937. 

Often, stories that are ahead of their time end up languishing in the days of their creation, and perhaps that it what happened with “Ben” and “Hunger.” Or perhaps it was simply the fact that they appeared in a single UK anthology instead of one of his US bestsellers. It’s impossible to say for sure.

The reviews for The Gay and Melancholy Flux were positive, if not exactly plentiful. Thomas Moult of The Guardian praised the work, noting “Mr. Saroyan is bitingly witty, humorous – grinning and grimacing in the face of life and death the whole time, - and in his courage and sympathy with his people, his anger and pessimism, he might be called a laughing and snarling philosopher.” The Daily Express called it “the most yawn-proof book in the bundle.”

Sales for the book, though, were not nearly as impressive. Released in 1937, the book was the third Saroyan title on UK shelves in less than 2 years, and thus he may have crowded his own marketplace. The title only sold 636 copies in the first 90 days, and a total of 997 by March 31st, 1938. The UK release of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories sold 1391 copies in the first year, and Inhale and Exhale 762 copies in the first 4 months. This had to be disappointing, though several stories in the collection did find new life in translation. “The Man with His Heart in the Highlands” was reprinted several times beginning with The Evening Standard in the UK, and in French translation for the magazine Mesures. Rights for the title story, “The Gay and Melancholy Flux,” were sold for translation into several languages, though possibly never actually published.

Saroyan followed up The Gay and Melancholy Flux with another collection, Little Children, which sold much better, moving 2,221 copies in the first year, making it his most popular UK title up to that point. Saroyan would continue publishing with Faber through the War years and into the 1960s, thirty titles in all. The relationship roughly correlates to Saroyan’s most prolific period. Though he published new works with companies like Peter Davies and Cowles throughout the 1960s and 70s, his best-known and most loved works had come out with Faber & Faber.

While The Gay and Melancholy Flux remains one of his least known collections, Forever Saroyan has taken up the cause of one of the stories: “Ben.” As a part of the 113th Birthday Celebration reading series, actor and writer Derek McCaw read the story, marking the first time it had been published in any form in the United States. 

 

Chris Garcia - Archivist for Forever Saroyan - October 15, 2021, San Jose, California

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

               

 

               

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