Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter-by-chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we take a final look at the places in Saroyan’s life as we reminisce at 74 Rue Taitbout and then conclude with a walk down the Champs-Elysees, both in Paris, 1969.
These two chapters take place at the time and location of writing. Though the book was published in 1972, Saroyan wrote it in 1969. The chapters are in fact so closely related thematically that we have combined them into one final analysis. Saroyan was living between Paris and Fresno in 1969, and rather than end the book in Fresno, where so much of it takes place, he opted for Paris, the land of great art and history.
In chapter 67, at Rue Taitbout, he writes,
“What it is, is the world and me, and that’s what it is with everybody. That’s what it has always been. That’s all it can ever be. The world is a marvel of invention and engineering, and of many other things. The Earth is a miracle beyond the range of man’s knowledge. But guessing about it, about its connection with the limitlessly vast Universe must go on and on. And every living man, every human being, if not in fact every animal, is a simple demonstration of the endlessness of the beautiful marvel of matter in motion, of energy, of light, of heat, of the displacement of space by the great bodies in the known and unknown Universe.
Thus, the Place is everywhere. And the Person is himself – that is, Yourself, and Myself.
It is a Thing to rejoice in. I rejoice in it.”
This entire book has been about connections on varying scales, from cosmic to human. Saroyan is known for his theme of the “brotherhood of man” but in reality, it was the oneness of everything that he believed in. It’s just that humans were what he wrote about.
He could have ended the book here, with the all-encompassing conclusion that every person is a tiny part of a Universe that functions logically. All of the chapters were leading up to this point, the grandest scale. Saroyan admired Carl Sagan, who would often appear on the Johnny Carson show and is known for bringing the cosmos to a level of accessible human understanding. Sagan notably said, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” This would have resonated with Saroyan, whose own spirituality might have aligned with Sagan’s pulpit.
Saroyan loved to drive around, and in driving he found that places were more the same than different. As soon as he took his first cross-country train ride from San Francisco to New York, when he was 20, he expanded his understanding of people and places, observing that the folks in Iowa were the same as the folks in California and New York, at their core.
He never felt comfortable in the land of fame. In the mid-20th century, when he was at his most famous, society idolized its writers and screen actors, other forms of entertainment being challenging for the average citizen to access. Movies cost about a nickel and most people got their information from newsreels or newspapers or the radio. There were fewer celebrities, and Saroyan rose to the top of an already small, elite class of the famous. But it didn’t really sit well with him, as is often the case in rags to riches stories. His heart was in Fresno and the hills of California. It was with the Armenians though he wrote about all types of immigrants. Especially in his early works, focusing on the eclectic characters who lived on the West Coast, he took the perspective of people from the Near East, Mexicans, Japanese, Filipinos, Native Americans, black folks, and anyone who was struggling against the systemic oppression that was flourishing in the laws of California and in the federal government. Saroyan knew this oppression firsthand as an Armenian excluded from Anglo-Saxon society in Fresno. This discrimination affected him greatly and early on developed in him a curiosity about what makes people different. In the end, he figured not much did except money.
When he had money, he spent it. And in this way, he moved between classes of society, marrying a rich debutante and yet never retaining enough income to keep her living in luxury the way she wanted.
Saroyan’s literary idols wrote about social and economic classes in the 19th century, and William lived among both sides of the haves and have-nots, preferring to hang around the have-nots who didn’t spend the time or energy putting on airs. He valued authentic people, as we’ve learned throughout this memoir.
But he adds on another chapter, the 68th. It’s almost as if he finished the book at his flat on Rue Taitbout, chapter 67, and then took a walk on the streets of Paris and thought, no that’s not really how this ends. Reading these two chapters together is like being in conversation with Saroyan as he negotiated a proper ending. In the last chapter, walking along the Champs-Elysees, he concludes:
“But the Universe is too large to be named one of the places which is experienced, although this is actually true, and so it is in order to make it a smaller circle of a place. A continent, a nation, a state, a valley, a city, a neighborhood, a street, a house, and so on.
Well, it can’t be done –that’s what it comes to – it can’t be done. The Great Place, the Only Place, is All Reality, and after that there are only favorite places.
For me they are various cities, their streets, and the places in which their people spend their time. Fresno, San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, Dublin, Moscow, and so on.
I used to like movie theatres, especially up to about the age of twenty-eight. And I used to like the theatre, where plays were performed on the stage, but that also has become something neither enjoyed nor needed.
Best of all, best of all is a long street in a city, and myself upon it walking at my leisure to see what’s there.”
Some scholars believe that Saroyan was so interested in the universe, life, and death, because they were beyond control and thus fascinating to a person whose life had so often been beyond his control, with the early death of loved ones and the significant years in the orphanage. But in writing stories, he could control all the characters, creating micro universes of fiction and controlling who lived or died within them.
In his 1930s fiction, huge concepts of existence are broached constantly. In Inhale and Exhale, he wrote, “When a man is born, which part of the universe does he inhabit? Why, he inhabits the whole part of it, including the part Mr. Einstein hasn’t yet discovered, explored, and given spatial limitations, the limitless part no less than the part between the earth and the sun, and the earth and the moon. He inhabits everywhere because by the good grace of the great Creator he inhabits himself, that is to say, living flesh, made living by the inexplicable, that is to say, energy and what falsely passes for intelligence but is actually matter. Fire. Mortal fire. He lives, and he lives within himself, which is the universe” (“The Gay and Melancholy Flux,” from Inhale and Exhale).
And in another story from that collection: “In sleep alone shall you find the hidden universe: the place of your reality” (“A Tipped Hat to the Lamppost,” from Inhale and Exhale).
In his preface to a collection of essays about Saroyan, Leo Hamalian wrote, “What makes his work religious is his talent for transforming and illuminating by his own special inner radiance anything that is drawn into the sacred circle of his imagination. The mundane takes on a magical quality, and the ordinary becomes glamorous. Even when he remembers that searing experience as an orphan in the arctic reaches of his soul, he curbs, resists, and even denies some part of the spontaneous outcry against the injustice of life that took away his father, that threw him still raw and unready into the fight for survival, and creates his own fictional universe that gave meaning to the chaotic arrangement of life. He thus triumphed over his suffering. So often words are abused and degraded in the author’s attempt to express the inexpressible, but in Saroyan there is a sifting and tempering that was part of a perpetual process of interior writing that engaged the great issues of existence, no matter how swiftly he registered his thoughts on paper” (William Saroyan: The Man and the Writer Remembered, Hamalian).
This idea of the universe being within the person can also be attributed to one of Saroyan’s particular influences, Walt Whitman. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman describes himself as “containing multitudes,” and this is noted by both Nona Balakian and David Calonne, two major Saroyan scholars.
In the essay “My Real Work is Being,” Calonne writes, “This yearning for oneness, for unification of the self with the pulsing body of the world, is a dominant feature of Saroyan's literary personality. The urge to identify the self with the universe, the perpetual "universalizing" of experience, is a quality he shares with earlier American writers—Whitman in particular. That we are all the same person underneath the superficial masks of daily social interaction is for him a palpable truth. The driving impulse behind his vision of life is the conviction that we are all tied together by the bonds of common humanity—within each human breast beats the same cosmic energy.”
Saroyan’s beloved Uncle Mihran also said of him, “he embraces the whole universe” and this is why Mihran admired his writing so much.
In his own words, Saroyan wrote in the December 18 diary entry of Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon: “In speculations about how the universe itself came into being, it is not strange that one of the theories is that it all started with an explosion, which in its human sexual form is at the dead center of man's truth and reality. The meaning of the orgasm is clear to every new life, even when none of the details are known, when all of it is misunderstood or bogged down in lore, religion, philosophy, cult, culture, tabu, or something else. All living things of the animal family have one variation or another of the orgasm as the means by which the living thing may go on being itself, in all of its inevitable variations, which nevertheless have a general sameness.”
This memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time, takes the reader on a journey through time and space but through the eyes of one tiny speck on the earth. We have seen just how relatable that experience can be as we nod our heads and smile with understanding during so many chapters. And then there are the chapters that are harder to read, the ones about pain, frustration, and being misunderstood by our loved ones. These, too, are relatable, if difficult to read. Saroyan didn’t pull punches and he didn’t pretend to be a person he wasn’t. Even when his stories were idyllic, he never pretended to have a pretty little life as the writer.
Like the circle and the egg symbols that he often returned to, this memoir also has a cyclical nature. It’s hard to know exactly how he designed it in his mind, but in many cases one chapter naturally leads to the next, as one’s thoughts stream together with connections. Remember that the book begins,
“Places make us – let’s not imagine that once we’re here anything else does. First genes, then places – after that it’s every man for himself, God help us, and good luck to one and all.
The fascinating thing most likely though is how the same place – a miserable school, for instance, with rotten teachers – bores one man into art, and drives another into crime – the only two arenas we really have: art, making: crime, taking. ‘The genes, the genes’ cries the man who believes inheritance, not environment, does it. But does it? Alone? I have never seen poor people in the slums who were not equal to being instantly clean and refined in a mansion, with a million dollars. And take away the millionaire’s money and put him in the slums and how elegant will he be fighting mice and cockroaches? Yes all well and good, perhaps you are saying, but doesn’t that mean that people make me? Of course, but people are places.”
This is the thesis of his book and by the end, he is reiterating it and also saying that despite spending all this time thinking about the past, there’s nothing better than just taking a walk and being in the present. Let’s put this on the Saroyan map and turn off the typing machine one last time.
Thanks for joining us on this deep dive into the life and times of William Saroyan. We hope you learned something about the man, his era, and the locales he spent time in. Every artist is both eternal and a product of their times. But it’s rare that we get such complete insight into those times in one book. Places Where I’ve Done Time is not among Saroyan’s most popular books. But if you’ve followed along with each chapter, you’ll see that is one of his most introspective and daring works.
If you enjoyed this analysis, please be sure to follow another forthcoming series produced at our archive: “Forever Saroyan Presents: Three Times Three,” a ten-part look at Saroyan’s 1936 collection of short stories, Three Times Three, and their introductions, hosted by archivist Chris Garcia. And be sure to reach out to us with your Saroyan stories and inquiries. Let’s work together to keep this remarkable man’s legacy alive.