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

William Saroyan, Paul Bowles & Opera, Opera

Playbill from the original 1940 production of Love's Old Sweet Song by WIlliam Saroyan, Music by Paul Bowles. There is little doubt that William Saroyan was one of the most-connected people of the middle portion of the 20th century. His correspondence includes figures ranging from Katherine Hepburn to Ed Sullivan, Flann O’Brien to John Cheever. Often, within a few exchanges of letters, one or the other in the letter exchange would bring up the possibility of a collaboration. These collaborations bore fruit from time to time, including some of the most impressive of all work that Saroyan would be attached to.

   Sometimes, they did not.

   Paul Bowles is one of the most fascinating cultural figures of the twentieth century. Like Saroyan, he was a relentless creator, and not willing to confine his creativity to a single area. Bowles was a writer, composer, and translator. He is best-known for his years in Tangier, where he wrote and acted as a historian of indigenous music. Before that, though, he was one of America’s true gifts. A prodigy at both music and poetry, he was publishing work before he was a teenager. His work, at times surrealistic and full of modernist sentiment, stood in many of the most important publications of the day alongside many of the most important figures of the time.

   Bowles studied with Aaron Copland, perhaps the most well-known American composer of orchestral music in the first third of the twentieth century. The two became lovers, and together moved between Paris and New York. At the urging of Gertrude Stein, the two visited Tangier for the first time in 1931. After returning to New York, he began to create music for the stage. Though never fully trained as a composer, his work with Copland, and later Virgil Thomson, was informal, and the two of them had urged Bowles to get more formal training. Despite this fact, many directors, producers, and choreographers sought out Bowles as a collaborator. These included some of the biggest names in theatre, such as Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles.

   There were few names bigger than William Saroyan in the late 1930s. He had exploded onto the scene with the release of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, and then made just as big a splash on the Broadway scene in 1939 with the release of My Heart’s in The Highlands and The Time of Your Life. Even prior to his first plays being performed, he was already in demand by media organizations looking for content, and in 1937, that content was radio.

   Bowles was friends with photographer and writer Dorothy Norman, who was a regular correspondent with Saroyan at the time. Dorothy and Saroyan interacted in cards and letters. It was likely in one of the letters between Saroyan and Norman that he mentioned he was working on a radio piece. In June of 1937, Bowles wrote to Saroyan for the first time.

   “Dear Mr. Saroyan,

   Dorothy Norman has suggested that I get in touch with you regarding the music that might be necessary for a play of yours which she says may be given to CBS. If you do need such music at any time, send me the script a while beforehand.”

   While many of Saroyan’s penpals would become collaborators, Bowles may be the first to contact Saroyan specifically for the purpose of collaboration. He had already scored work for Orson Welles during his period of work with the Federal Theatre Project. He also appeared to have a love-hate relationship with that sort of work.

   “The thing is,” Bowles said in a letter to Saroyan, “I’m itching to get to work at something really serious and meaty and exciting and not just another incidental score. In between furnishing music by the yard, you’ve got to call on yourself for spontaneous, personal inspiration once in a while or you dry up.”

   Thus begun their correspondence, and shortly thereafter, Bowles was asked to provide music for My Heart’s in the Highlands.

 DBR019   “…the details of exactly how I happened to be assigned the composition of the score for My Heart’s in the Highlands aren’t clear in my mind.” Bowles noted in a letter to David Battan in 1981, “My suspicion is that Elia Kazan, who was then part of the Group Theatre, approached me,” and then adding “Saroyan and I had been corresponding shortly before the Group Theatre decided to present the play, and it’s possible that he was partially instrumental in making the decision.”

   Bowles provided music to several other Saroyan productions, notably Love’s Old Sweet Song. Bowles, working largely at creating incidental music for stage, was restless to get to more challenging work. He wanted to create an opera, while this period of Bowles’ career was defined by his theatrical music, he yearned not only to create operatic music, but to collaborate closely on the form with a librettist. 

   In a letter from July 21, 1941, Bowles made his pitch to Saroyan.

   “What would really be ideal would be real collaboration, of the kind we did in Love’s Old Sweet Song, whose songs I still like very much, including the one published separately this Spring. Those lyrics were perfect, but if you remember, they were the result of actual collaboration, which always goes a good long way toward making good prosody and song.”

   Saroyan had already proven himself a master of the theatrical form, and the collaboration on Love’s Old Sweet Song had prover fruitful. While Bowles had already composed an opera, Denmark Vesey, in 1937, with a libretto by Charles Henri Ford, and in 1941 was soloing on writing both music and libretto on The Wind Remains, based on a play by Frederico Garcia Lorca.

   Saroyan, on the other hand, had never written an opera, but had certainly considered it.

   “The idea of writing an opera is an old one with me,” he wrote in the introduction to his piece Opera, Opera in 1940, “but so far it has gone unfulfilled.”

   The piece is metatextual, damn-near post-modernist in approach. It references the tropes of opera, while not, itself, being an opera. The piece is largely a comical farce, put certainly played to a non-operatic audience who thought they knew what opera was all about.  

   Of the play, Bowles said –

   “Opera, Opera I think is swell, but I feel it’s a bit short, and is rather a ballet with a few songs than an opera.”

   What Bowles had in mind was a more-or-less traditional opera.

   “A one act opera wherein the characters speak, sing, recite to music, dance and act and do any other damned thing you can think of… but where we have real songs that will enable us to call it an opera.”

   Both men were busy on many projects, but the idea was strong. Bowles seemed to understand Saroyan’s tremendous level of output.

   “I know you work like a whirlwind, and a composer can’t, but a short time of real collaboration makes for the disparity of in tempo, and helps weld the two elements into one.”

   There is no doubt that both men were excited by the project, but perhaps Bowles slightly more than Saroyan. Bowles ended his July 21 letter with “If you are in New York and busy, still let me know if and when you’ll feel like making the great American opera, and I’ll be there.”

   As often happens when collaborators work at a distance, the progress was difficult to measure. The two appear to have communicated through letters, primarily. At the time, Bowles lived in Jalisco, Mexico, which Saroyan was alternately in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. The letter between the two are fascinating, not only for the discussion of the work, but because of the view of the everyday lives of two of the 20th centuries most fascinating characters in the arts. Saroyan had just moved on to working on Jim Dandy, which ended up a failure in try-outs, never making it to Broadway. The same was true for Sweeney in the Trees. Bowles had been contacted about providing music for both. Bowles wrote extensively about his health woes; Saroyan wrote about his issues with Pat Winters, and the difficulties of working in New York and Hollywood.

   And, of course, they talked about the project.

   “Naturally a tremendous part of the opera will have to be added by the director. I am writing set numbers: songs, dance sequences, etc. I notice for the player-piano you have chosen the same piece we used in Love’s Old S[weet] S[ong]. I’d like to use the same orchestral result of that, which was thrown out in Philadelphia, if you remember.”

   Things were sporadic, apparently, but an interval of roughly a month passing with no news, Saroyan sent a message to Bowles.

   “Dear Paul:

   I am not sure if this letter will reach you but I am eager to hear how the music for Opera, Opera is working out – if at all. Please let me know. I hope you are well now and that you are working.”

   The response, written two weeks later, was rather emphatic.

   “I’m glad you wrote to see how Opera, Opera is, because it’s dead. I struggled for two months with it, and wrote a good deal of music for it. And I noticed as I worked, I was never really ready to tackle anything vocal."

   This was the end of Opera, Opera, at least as far as Bowles was concerned. As Bowles noted in his 1981 letter to Battan, "Opera, Opera was the same proja little closer pleaseect as The Alphabet Opera; Bill sent it to me in Mexico. I didn’t feel it was the right libretto for me, and our correspondence came to an end.”

   Saroyan appeared to have moved on, creating a great amount of work in the early years of the 1940s, though his time in the military both slowed his meteoric rise and changed the timbre of his work. Bowles would keep working in music throughout the rest of his life, by the late-1940s he had transitioned to focusing on prose. He moved to Tangier in 1947, making it his primary residence until his death in 1999. His home in Tangier became almost a point of pilgrimage for Beat writers of the 1950s, with various authors and poets of the movement, including Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, having stayed with him. In 1958, the Rockefeller Foundation funded an ethnomusicology project for Bowles to document Moroccan music, which would become the core of a major collection at the Library of Congress.

   The fascinating thing is that this was not the end for Opera, Opera. In 1956, composer Martin Kalmanoff inquired of Saroyan about creating an actual opera out of his theatrical work Opera, Opera. In the introduction to the opera’s publication, Kalmanoff said, “it is hoped that this spoof of the old school of opera in the grand style will not offend anyone, since it is meant goodnaturedly.”

   While the score and whatever libretto Bowles created is gone today, the legacy of the Bowles-Saroyan collaboration still remains. While many of the scores Bowles created for the stage have been lost, three songs created by the pair have survived – A Little Closer, Please (The Pitchman’s Song) from My Heart’s In the Highlands, and The Years and Of All The Things I Love both survive today in voice and piano versions. These songs were created deeply in their collaboration and makes one wonder what would have been possible had they kept at it.

Special thanks to the University of Delaware Library for providing the letters between Paul Bowles and William Saroyan.

 

Further Information

Background on Paul Bowles life and career - http://www.paulbowles.org/enter.html

The Original score for A Little Closer, Please (The Pitchman’s Song) - https://www.foreversaroyan.com/music

Martin Kalmanoff’s Opera, Opera - https://issuu.com/theodorepresser/docs/kalmanoff_opera_opera_issuu

Finding Aid to the Paul Bowles Moraccan Music Collection - https://www.loc.gov/folklife/guides/paulbowles.html

 

San Jose, California, August 12, 2021 by Chris Garcia, an archivist for Forever Saroyan.

William Saroyan & Flann O'Brien

SaroyanThere is a theory that prolific writers are all of the same tribe. Prolific writers are prolific in different ways, but they tend to find one another, and like members of every tribe, some like one another and others don’t, but all recognize the membership. Two prolific writers of the same period who ended up as a part of each other’s lives were Fresno’s own William Saroyan, and Irish scribe Brian O’Nolan, better known under the pen name Flann O’Brien. 

O’Brien and Saroyan played in different literary arenas. Saroyan, known for his optimistic realism and character insights, contrasts brightly against O’Brien, surrealistic and impressionistic with a side of cheery cynicism.  In 1939, both were riding high on their publishing fame. Saroyan had published 8 books, and his short stories and essays were in the most widely-read magazines in the US and abroad. O’Brien was riding high on the publication of his first novel At Swim -Two- Birds, considered today as a masterpiece and one of the most important novels in the development of metafiction and post-modern literature. These works were not the only areas you’d see their writing. O’Brien wrote under various names, especially in letters to The Irish Times, which would later hire him as a columnist under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen. In 1939, Saroyan had begun his Broadway career, with The Man with His Heart in the Highlands and The Time of Your Life both in production that year. 

Saroyan liked to reward his successes by treating himself to a long trip. Following the publication of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, Saroyan headed to Europe, eventually penetrating the continent as deep as Yerevan and Moscow, though he was denied a visit to his ancestral hometown of Bitlis due to not possessing the proper visa. With the success of his entry into the theatrical world, he traveled again to Europe, this time starting in the Irish capital – Dublin. Home to Trinity College, as well as a thriving literary community that included critic and short story specialist Seán Ó Faoláin, playwrights Christine Longford and George Shiels, and poets Louis MacNiece and Ewart Milnes, it was a natural starting point for William, always interested in finding the next big thing. 

And in Dublin in 1939, it was Flann O’Brien who was drawing the most attention from fellow writers as the new literary sensation. His work, ground-breaking as his countryman James Joyce had been years earlier, was changing the conversation about what was possible in Irish literature. On the trip, Saroyan met with many of the significant Irish writers of the day, and later maintained correspondence with several, notably O’Faolain, Niall Montgomery, and Donagh MacDonagh, along with O’Nolan. Brian and Bill had a lot to talk about, from their own writing production to the war raging throughout Europe. They kept in correspondence in 1939 through 1940 and beyond. 

BB1328Saroyan greatly admired the Flann O’Brien literary output, especially At Swim Two Birds.

“After writing The Time of Your Life (in the spring of 1939) I went to Dublin,” Saroyan noted in the introduction to Sweeney in the Trees, “as I had long planned, and there I met a number of young Dubliners, poets and writers, one of whom, Flann O’Brien, revealed to me the original title of his first novel, At Swim Two Birds, had been Sweeney in the Trees.”

Saroyan, learning the original title, took to writing a play of that name. He noted “If no message other than the one of Sweeney in the trees had come to me in Dublin, my visit would have been all that I could ever have imagined it might be, and Flann O’Brien was no less that year than James Joyce in Dublin twenty years before.” 

Saroyan sent a telegram asking if O’Nolan would mind him borrowing the title for a new play. O’Nolan responded with a telegram of his own – “Go ahead, and more power to you.”

Saroyan wrote that he had completed it in the last days of 1939. The play had a difficult time finding a publisher, not to mention a production. Sweeney in the Trees was published alongside The Beautiful People and Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning in 1941. 

“No play by me may be said to have been performed unless I direct it. This I learned during the summer of 1940 when three of my plays were produced in summer theaters.” Saroyan wrote in , and later mentioned, “Mr. T. C. Upham of the Cape Theatre, Cape May, N.J., made an admirable attempt to present Sweeney in the Trees during the week of August 27, 1940.  

During the period of their correspondence, O’Nolan was busily working on what would become his most famed work internationally – The Third Policeman. This avant garde and highly-influential work is noted for its combination of surrealism and the fantastic, though he might have seen it slightly differently.

“I’m writing a very funny book now about bicycles and policemen and I think it will be perhaps good and earn a little money quietly.”

His prediction would be correct, taken on a longer time-scale. The Third Policeman was not published until after O’Nolan’s death, though it has quickly become his best-known work world-wide, appearing as pop cultural references in shows like Lost. At the time, O’Nolan seemed to sour on the piece after his initial enthusiasm.

“I don’t think it is much good, and haven’t sent it anywhere, yet. The only good thing about it is the plot and I’ve been wondering whether I could make a crazy Saroyan play out of it.”

Saroyan encouraged O’Nolan to turn the book into a play. It would eventually find its way to the stage, but not until Eamon Morrissey adapted it in 1974, six years after O’Nolan’s death.

Perhaps the best-known anecdote about the pair was that of a fifty dollar bet. Saroyan, a known gambler, was so taken with At Swim Two Birds that he made a bet with O’Nolan; if he would send it to New York publishers, one of them would quickly snap it up for publication. This, sadly, was not to be. 

Saroyan made good with the bet, instructing literary agent Pat Duggan to write a check to O’Nolan for 50 pounds. O’Nolan, himself both a drinker and a gambler, responded to Duggan after receiving the check.

“It’s paid on a crazy bet and I wouldn’t be happy if I bought booze with it in the ordinary way. Now, I’ve had an idea. I’m buying Irish Sweep [The Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes lottery, Ireland’s first legal lottery, begun in 1939] tickets with it, the £30,000 to be divided between myself and Bill with maybe a cut for yourselves in the ordinary way of business. My idea is to ride in on Saroyan’s luck.”

Sadly, even with Saroyan’s luck, their horse didn’t come in. 

While the correspondence between the two appears to end in the early 1940s, both would have great periods of productivity and success following their interactions. O’Nolan would publish four more books in his lifetime and become a regular writing for The Irish Times. Saroyan’s career would never quite hit the financial high-water mark of 1934 through the end of the 1940s, but he would continue putting out compelling work until his death in 1981. Perhaps the most interesting connection between the two might be how they are identified with their places – Saroyan with Fresno, and O’Brien with Dublin. Though the two are far apart in genre and technique, both infused their work with their hometowns. Two writers so thoroughly imbued with their sense of place might well be of the type that want to explore the outer-reaches, times and places they may never get to. O’Brien was not nearly the traveler that Saroyan was, but in his writing, went much deeper into realms that were not of his time and place. Saroyan, who traveled consistently, was far more rooted in times, places, and scenarios that rung of his real world and life experiences. Perhaps they were two sides of the same coin, though it is certain, if that coin was flipped, they’d both place a bet on which side would come up. 

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Special thanks to Pádraig Ó Méalóid for his assistance. For more on the letters between Brian O’Nolan and William Saroyan, look to The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien, edited by Maebh Long, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHris Garcia - Archivist, Forever Saroyan. July 28th, 2021 San Jose, California

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