The Place of Places: Chapter 65, The St. Francis Hospital, San Francisco, 1935

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 are admitted into The St. Francis Hospital, San Francisco, 1935.

stjohns 19582In 1935, Saroyan went on a European tour, visiting many countries, including Soviet Armenia. In Tiflis, Georgia, which was also Soviet, his appendix became infected. He took sick there, thinking it was just from spoiled food, and continued on to London, New York, and then home to San Francisco. He figured his illness was just another small one that is easily gotten over during the course of life.

This is a summary of this chapter, but in Letters from 74 Rue Taitbout, he describes the story in greater detail. He tells us he was eating at the Intourist Hotel and suddenly felt very ill. He yelled at the waiter that they were serving dirty food and then drank several bottles of water all night. He felt weak and pale in the morning, but better by evening, and able to take the train to Erivan.

Three months later his stomach was still hurting, and he was still drinking water, now back to writing in San Francisco. He had rented a small office near Kearney Street to see if he could write better in an office than at home. Running a slight fever, he wrote the story “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands” and continued to run a fever the next day. Remembering that his father had died from a burst appendix, he took a taxi to the St. Francis Hospital. The family doctor, Harold Fraser, was called in.

“I knew at three o’clock that I was in trouble – far-out trouble, that is. I got up and shaved, hoping the trouble would go away, but it didn’t. For my father it did –that is to say, the infected appendix burst, and he imagined his relief was the consequence of an improvement in his condition, rather than a killing accident. In short, he was tricked, and rested in a false sense of well-being, at last” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

famHe goes on: “A burst appendix brought on the peritonitis that killed my father in San Jose, California, in July of the year 1911, when he was thirty-six years old. My father got over his illnesses as a rule, as all of us do. But this time he didn’t. And by the time he knew he was dying, it was too late –the game was over.”

Saroyan’s biographies claim that Armenak pleaded for water as he lay dying. And that although Takoohi knew this could mean certain death, she acquiesced, gave him the water, and his appendix burst. His son, Aram, posited in the biography William Saroyan that Armenak was supremely unhappy with his life in America, failing in his religious calling and disappointed with attempts at farming. Aram suggests that maybe Takoohi knew Armenak wanted to die and allowed him that deliverance. Apparently, his last words to her were, “Takoohi, don’t beat the children.”

When Armenak died, William was only three, and he had never known his father like his older siblings did. In Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever, he writes, “And so I could love and admire my father and did love and admire him, and at the same time refused to believe in his death, and permitted myself to believe that he would come back, somehow come back to me –the hell with the others, the rest of the kith and kin, my father would come back to me, for I had never known him at all, and they had, and I loved and admired him most, for to me he was a perfect man and had no cock and balls and didn’t fart or anything else gross and stupid and real and shitty like that, and all.”

Ph5 SaroyanBeardFresnoWe have discussed this trauma of losing his father in many other chapters, as William realized that it greatly shaped who he was. The family would often refer to Armenak as being too good for this world. The way in which Armenak lived and died featured in William’s thoughts regularly. In subconsciously seeking out surrogate fathers, he would make the connection that Sherwood Anderson also died of peritonitis, like Armenak. Finding similarities in his heroes helped him make sense of his loss.

For William, becoming a writer and surviving appendicitis were symbolic of accomplishing what his father didn’t. Beyond that, Aram also became a writer, as did his own daughter, further solidifying the family trade down the paternal line. At the hospital, the doctor told Saroyan that if he had waited another 10 minutes, his appendix would have burst, and it was likely he could have died. Saroyan rejected the idea that he might not do better than his father in this way. Saroyan’s daughter, Lucy, would also have an appendix illness that needed surgery when she was a child. The repetition and cycles in this family are nothing short of poetic. It’s no surprise that Saroyan was so fascinated by the concepts of the egg and the circle throughout his life.

After the emergency surgery, Saroyan explains,

“At eleven or so, when I came out of the ether, it was all over. I had traveled far and wide and deep in the ether sleep, so that when I finally reached the destination I was trying for all the time, wakefulness, I had the sense of having been in the land of Death, so to put it, among the long, long dead, where I might have traveled forever. Hence, my being back in the world, in the land of life, affected me in a way that nothing before or since has affected me. I felt that I was experiencing the event of birth, excepting that it was into a fully grown body and into a life of much personal reality, many events, much failure and much achievement” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

Deep Sleep 052663 40x30 LowRes FIn the previous chapter, we discussed Saroyan’s relationship to sleep. He didn’t get much of it, but when he did, he dreamed vividly and considered it a transition land between life and death. We also addressed how people who claim near-death experiences tend to have disrupted circadian rhythms and sleep cycles, like Saroyan did.

To leave this quote here would be optimistic, as Saroyan leaves this chapter as a changed man, reborn and mystically aware for the first time. But in Letters from 74 Rue Taitbout, he elaborates on waking from surgery, with a more ambivalent long-term outcome:

“At about eleven in the morning, an hour or two after the swollen appendix had been removed, I came to, feeling as if I had just been born into a grown man’s body, aged twenty-seven, and I felt the most profound respect for the mere fact of being alive that I have ever felt, vowing to cherish every instant of my time and to keep myself in good health, pushing aside all of the stuff that only gives the body a bad time –cigarettes, whiskey, anxiety, impatience, excessive work, and so on…But it didn’t work out that way. And I am still so caught up in the limitations of my character that I smoke and drink and eat the wrong kind of food and never do any exercise except a little walking, and so my health is shot –I’m fat, I’ve got ulcers, I’m impatient, I never sleep more than two hours at a time, wake up, read, sleep another hour or two, and so it goes all night except when I am so drunk I am anesthetized into four or five hours of sleep. That is how it is with me at the age of fifty-nine. I’m dying, most likely, but no more than I always have been, but what killed you at the age of forty-four, that’s what I’d like to know.”

This last part is in reference to Doctor Harold Fraser, the subject of the chapter and imaginary recipient of the letter from Rue Taitbout. In fact, he died at age 50 from heart disease. In this Places Where I’ve Done Time chapter, Saroyan reminds us that Dr. Fraser was also the personal physician of James Rolph, the former mayor of San Francisco and governor of California. This is perhaps to remark on the small-town quality of San Francisco in the 1930s and the ongoing way that chance meetings affected Saroyan throughout his life.

Cover392In his later memoirs, Saroyan didn’t shy away from the truth of his defects in character, his vices that made for nearly insurmountable financial problems. That he survived so long past his father perhaps made him feel confused or guilty about his own lifestyle compared against a man others considered unimpeachable. Here again we see the important theme of legacy and what we owe our ancestors. Aram would write a whole book about this in Last Rites, deconstructing his relationship with his own father as Saroyan had tried to do in fits and starts with Armenak.

Saroyan ends this chapter having woken up from surgery reborn, “If ever I felt that a calling out of glory hallelujah made sense, it was the first minute or two after my return to myself and to the world. My gratitude was so great, breathing felt like praying…Life, personal life, human life, my own life, was a miracle involving billions of years of failure and achievement.”

This chapter is about the survival of generations and even the way that our lives can improve upon our ancestors’ lives. As we near the end of this book, this chapter is a slight break from the big metaphysical concepts, but it remains in the realm of big picture analysis of his life. Gone are the small moments and memories that creep into the mind. Now those are fully replaced by life and death experiences and the legacy each generation leaves behind.

Echoes of Saroyan


William Saroyan - The Painted Word, Forever Saroyan's installation at the Saratoga Library in Saratoga, California, opened on August 1st, 2022. The exhibit, curated by Chris Garcia and Dori Myer, features 16 paintings and drawings by William Saroyan ranging from roughly 1930 through 1963. There were also materials relating to Saroyan's lyric work, and film and theatrical writing. The exhibition, the first of Saroyan's work this decade, is supplemented by printed biographical materials. 

On August 6th, 2022, Forever Saroyan, LLC, presented Echoes of Saroyan to celebrate the opening of the exhibit. The event featured a selection of works and materials related to Saroyan's life and output, as well as a video presentation, and two speakers - authors Mark Arax and Aris Janigian.

IMG 023094The displays focused on four major areas - The life and impact of William Saroyan, Saroyan's three most important works:The Human Comedy,  The Time of Your Life, and The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories; Saroyan's international popularity; and Saroyan's musical output. These small, table-top displays were curated by Chris Garcia, and included materials that had never before been displayed, including the original lyrics for "Come On-a My House," the telegram Saroyan sent accepting the New York Drama Critics' Circle award for The Time of Your Life, and Saroyan's certificate recognizing his election to the National Institute of Arts & Letters. 

The video presentation focused on providing context to Saroyan's life with several pieces presented in his own voice, including excerpts of Saroyan on the Dick Cavett Show, reading the dedication of The Human Comedy, and delivering his most fiery of speeches - The Armenian and The Armenian

IMG 1227Finally, Mark Arax spoke of his view of Saroyan and having met the man himself, and related stories of Fresno, his family, and the influence of Saroyan on his work. He also read from both Saroyan and his own writing, and called up author Aris Janigian for a conversation about Saroyan, the craft of writing, and the Armenian experience. 

The exhibit will remain available through September 30th, 2022. Hours are Monday - Tuesday, 10am to 8pm, Wednesday - Sunday - 10am to 6pm. Admission is free.



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The Place of Places - Fresno High School, 1922

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 doze off during class at Fresno High School, 1922.


Saroyan struggled with traditional schooling, as many of his stories and memoirs attest to. Instead, he used the public library to understand the world better, at his own pace and according to his own interests. Fiercely independent, he never did well with authority. Specifically, he battled with many of his teachers, who probably didn’t have the training or bandwidth to address the needs of every child who struggled in school.

He begins this chapter, “’Please stop dreaming,’ a teacher at Emerson School once said to me, and I replied, ‘I am not dreaming, I am thinking.’” Saroyan was having trouble staying awake at school. He was aged fourteen and working the night shift at the Postal Telegraph Company, which was 4pm to midnight. He would fall asleep at 1am and have to be up for school in the morning. With only four or five hours of sleep, teenage Saroyan would frequently fall asleep during class. But, he tells us, “I wouldn’t have given up my job at the telegraph office for all the sleep in the world. The job had the first importance in my life. It was everything to me. And I took pride in being the best messenger at the office...”

freesnoPerhaps it was because of this disruptive schedule for a growing boy that he had a special relationship to sleep. He only got a few hours of deep sleep per night, and his days were filled with half-sleeps, which often can bring about the most vivid dreams. Throughout his career we see him address the concept of dreams and the dream-state within sleep. The crux of this chapter is in that first sentence: “I am not dreaming, I am thinking.”

This chapter isn’t really about Fresno High School, but about the “there-ness” of sleep. He explains, “But sleep is a place. It is both a simple and a mysterious place. It is where a good amount of the private or personal experience is lodged and recorded, as well as an even greater amount of family, race, group, or collective experience is stored. When a man goes to sleep, he does go – it is a departure and an arrival.”

He goes on to tell us that the sleeper travels and experiences new things wherever he goes in that state. That as a child, he would dream that he could play the piano only to wake up disappointed that he still didn’t have that skill. This description of sleep as a form of travel pops up in many of his works.

In Rock Wagram, he writes, “A man is a traveler, a dreamer traveling the highways of sleep, a crusader on his way to the grave and the holy grail: around the clock, around the calendar, around the open eye of the wink, around the red-brick church, around the town, around the block, around the world.” Saroyan equates sleeping with traveling on another plane of existence. In this way he can remain swift in any form of consciousness.

In Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, he writes, “At my best I knew whole seasons of great health, such as a full summer, during which my only illness might be said to have been exhaustion, as when I was a telegraph messenger, and worked too hard. Even in sleep, I continued to work, I continued to race my bike all over the city, out to the packing houses and loading sheds from whence the fruit of the valley was packed and shipped to the big cities of the country. And yet in the morning, after perhaps one hour of deep sleep, and three or four of fitful sleep, I would find that I was eager for a big breakfast, and impatient to get back to work.”  In his writings, Saroyan’s sleep is never peaceful, even in his story titled “Sleep in Unheavenly Peace.” He struggled to fall asleep and to get any restorative sleep his whole life. But it is in the moments of restless dozing that he dreamed.

For Saroyan, the dual meaning of dreaming as a form of aspiration and also of unconscious processing were interchangeable. He illustrates this in Rock Wagram, writing, “Day-dreaming on the airplane, morning-dreaming, afternoon-dreaming, night-dreaming, sleep-dreaming, life-dreaming, death-dreaming…” With his characteristic rhythmic style here, he is almost recreating a repetitive breathing cycle akin to alpha brain waves just before falling asleep. But he is also making the point that we are always dreaming in one way or another, our thoughts constantly imagining the past, future, and present. This is also a feature of The Cave Dwellers, where the character of the Queen is always sleeping and experiencing her life in the past rather than facing the present and the future. She also encourages others to sleep as escape.

Like dreaming, he blurs the line of sleep, often describing a half-sleep that joins his interior essence with exteriority around him in a way purer than conscious and purposeful communication. In Short Drive, Sweet Chariot, he writes:

saroyangf“Night-driving is another thing, especially West to the great open lands, especially over a highway with little or no traffic. To begin with, it’s extra driving. In order to be night-driving, the driving must take place after the driver has driven more than enough, after he has known deep tiredness, has forgotten it, and is now exhilarated, and must go on. It isn’t simply driving at night, it is going on, possibly foolishly, to find out what’s out there now, not so much along the highway, in the terrain, under the sky, but in the interior geography of the driver himself. Is he driving out into his sleep, wide awake? Into the sleep of the land? Moving in silence with the sleeping rivers moving, companionate with all sleeping, and all sleepless? Into the sleep within the sleep of the old time, the time of the generations of the animals alone, moving into, through, and out of their cycles of coming, hunting, having, eating, begating, hiding, and going, suddenly caught by the other hunter, the unknown stalker, there goes my soul? The creatures of fang, tooth, talon, paw, tail, and jaw, waiting to catch or be caught but never knowing which is to be?”

The gateway that allows his unconscious to take the wheel and communicate on a more astral plane also leads down a separate road: Death. He ends this chapter, “Death is called the Great Sleep. It is a good idea. But it is probably Life that is the Great Sleep. There is not yet any mortal way to know what Death is. Other than what it seems to be, that is. Sleep is a living thing. It has no connection at all with non-being.” But he also writes about meeting and speaking to his father in his dreams. Again, there is some ambivalence here in Saroyan’s writings, where sleep is both an alternate dimension to be alive and also a gateway to the land of the dead. “The best thing we have is sleep, of course, and what is sleep except the putting aside of everything tentative for another interval of final and everlasting truth? Sleep isn't dying, but it is certainly keeping in touch with it” (Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who).

Interestingly, his father, Armenak, wrote in his journal in 1906, “Like one throwing himself quite senselessly into the bosom of death, I fall asleep. My dreams carry me to my loved ones.” (Armenak Saroyan, August 6, 1906). To read Armenak’s translated journal and poetry next to his son’s writings is an exercise in awe seeing the similarities between the two men who barely knew each other in life.

Dreams and Desires 20x15 LowResSaroyan again makes the connection to an afterlife or spiritual beyondness in Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, writing “But the language of sleep certainly doesn't seem to be connected to the mortal. It certainly isn't language in words, or in numbers, or signs, or conditions, although it is made out of all of these things as well as out of a good many others, most of them unknown, and for which there is no word.” Considerations of the sleep state were present in Saroyan’s early writings, as well. This was also the time that his writing took on its most spiritual dimensions. In the story, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” he writes, “He moved swiftly down the stairs to the street and began to walk, thinking suddenly, It is only in sleep that we may know that we live. There only, in that living death, do we meet ourselves and the far earth, God and the saints, the names of our fathers, the substance of remote moments; it is there that the centuries merge in the moment, that the vast becomes the tiny, tangible atom of eternity.”

Soon after that, in “A Tipped Hat to the Lamp Post,” from Inhale and Exhale, he writes, “In sleep alone shall you find the hidden universe: the place of your reality.” This is the center of Saroyan’s conversations on sleep and dreaming. It is a sort of separate dimension to be yourself totally, straddling the line between the demands of life and death. He is certainly not the first to imagine this spectrum where sleep sits between life and death. It is seen in ancient mythologies, modern stories, and even in scientific studies that have found that people who report having “near death” or “out of body” experiences tend to also have interrupted REM sleep. It’s even possible that Saroyan’s inability to sleep soundly, his sleep cycle dysfunction, throughout his life, led to philosophical feelings about the sleep state.

In Obituaries, a book devoted to the death of others and coming to terms with his own mortality, Saroyan writes, “I asked myself: Is wakefulness a violence upon sleep? How many hours a day of sleep does it take to make us repudiate wakefulness? Why is sleep so attractive when it is time to get up? Well of course these questions are other questions as well, obviously, and especially the one question: Is life some kind of violence? If so, upon what? Absurd, absurd, stupid and ridiculous, how can anybody ask such a question? Unless I have it wrong, and I very frequently do.”

saroyangfseeWith Saroyan’s notorious high energy and penchant for writing deep into the night, it may be surprising to some readers to see the topic of sleep delved into so often throughout his body of work. But as we’ve seen in the latter chapters of Places Where I’ve Done Time, consciousness and the lack of consciousness were subjects that consumed Saroyan’s thoughts. Living, sleeping, and dying were all of the same ilk to him, and this might be considered the major thread of his career. Even his titles, The Time of Your Life, Not Dying, Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, Obituaries, and countless story titles illustrate a top-level interest in these themes.

In these late chapters, as we learn more about his interest in metaphysical themes, we can gain a new appreciation for the rest of his writings, and we can read them with a different angle and in a new way. The gift that keeps on giving.

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