Forever Saroyan Presents - Three Times Three: Introduction

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Welcome to Forever Saroyan Presents: Three Times Three, with your host, Christopher J. Garcia.

In this 10-part series, we'll look at Three Times Three, William Saroyan's 1936 collection published by the Conference Press in 10 episodes, nine on the individual stories and their introductions, and this episode which will look at the book Introduction and preface, as well as how the book came to be.

To really understand Three Times Three, we have to understand where William Saroyan was in 1936, and that also requires us to look at where literature was. Let's go back to roughly 1900.

The turn of the 20th century led to growth in magazine publishing. While the short form had been popular dating back to the earliest days of American writing, by 1900, magazine publication had become much cheaper. New types of paper, printing, as well as a large number of people trained to do so, meant that publication was less expensive, meaning that smaller magazines and smaller teams could actually publish. This led to the rise of the 'littles' magazines that were usually run by one or two people on very low budgets. Since they had low budgets, they often had to rely on new and young writers. This led to some of the earliest writings of some of the major important figures in American modernism, including Hemingway and Faulkner, both published in the Double Dealer.

American Mercury001Modernism had flashed across first England, later, France, Russia and elsewhere, but eventually came to the US with authors such as Carl Sandburg, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway Faulkner, and of course, Sherwood Anderson, a major influence on Saroyan. The rise of magazines that were coming out at that time, both 'littles' and more traditional happened in several different phases. Literary magazines such as The Criterion and Reader's Digest gave more sources and sites for authors to publish. The American Mercury, The Atlantic, Harper's, and especially The New Yorker opened up the world to the short story which was a very popular form. The New Yorker in particular influenced a generation of magazines focused on providing a view of a specific city or region. Magazines such as Inland Topics, out of Chicago, and The Coast where Saroyan published several pieces, attempted to bring The New Yorker concept to new areas and give a regional flavor to their publication. All this meant that there were more places to publish short fiction, and when you have a greater abundance of places where things can be published, you find new writers who need to fill those gaps.

William Saroyan began writing in the 1920s, including attempting to publish a novel-length work called Follow, which wouldn't be published until almost 80 years later. He found his first publications in 1928, starting with The San Franciscan, another regional magazine based in San Francisco. He later appeared in boulevardier and then most famously, in Overland Magazine, overland had been founded by Bret Harte in the 1870s and published many of the most important writers of California. Saroyan’s most important work of that period was “Portrait of a Bum” which appeared in Overland. This established him as a rising literary star and allowed him to get more work published in more publications.

By the early 1930s, he was regularly publishing in some of the top and midstream magazines. The publication of “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” in Story Magazine, led to the most important breakthrough of his career, the publication of his first collection, The Daring You Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories in 1934. This collection was an absolute eye-opener as to what Saroyan would be doing with the rest of his career. Here you can see the early form of what it's called ‘Saroyanesque’ writing. It is writing that is both ultimately hopeful, with a positive view of humanity at the same time as being rather cynical about the role of society. This fit in beautifully with the ideas of modernism while at the same time going against the rather dour view that most people had about modernism at the time. This was followed by his second collection, Inhale and Exhale, published by Random House. This massive collection published many of the most important works of Saroyan’s career and certainly established him as one of the biggest stars in writing. This collection was so large when it was published by Faber and Faber in the UK, it had to be broken into two parts.

When 1936 came, Saroyan was a big enough star that he could work in Hollywood, and he went to write for the pictures. It was in 1936 when the first important step towards Three Times Three would take place.

There are two origin stories that are out there about the Conference Press. This is the one that is published in Three Times Three, written by William Saroyan –

“Four young men, Edward Babigian, a countryman of mine, Gilbert Harrison, William Okie and Howie Levy from the University of California, Los Angeles came to visit me one afternoon in November 1936, at Ben Schulberg’s, in Hollywood, where I was writing stuff for possible use in motion pictures. And one of them wondered what if American publishers suddenly decided not to publish my stuff. I said, I would bust out laughing and publish the stuff myself. I said, There's nothing magic about writers or writing and nothing magic about anything else, including publishers and publishing. All you do no matter what you do, is do what you figure you want to do. This is a big world, and more than half of everything is phony. Who the hell are publishers? I'm a publisher myself. I'm in the mood. The students thought about this for a moment. Then one of them said, How about letting us publish something of yours? And I said, Fine. I'll give you a story tonight. We hemmed and hawed little, and well, we were hemming and hawing. My subconscious mind, which is one of the swiftest moving subconscious minds of our time, came to the conclusion that this was an excellent thing to do. First, we thought of printing only one piece, I kept thinking of the unpublished pieces I had lying around. Then we decided to print one fairly long piece and several shorter pieces, I thought it'd be a pity to leave out such and such a piece and then I remembered another piece and thought it would be a pity to leave it out. In less than six minutes, we decided to publish a book, we selected a color, black, for the cover. We founded a company, Conference Press, and we decided on a publication date - December 10, 1936. On and off, I wondered if I shouldn't win a prize with a book the William Saroyan Memorial Prize for 1936 $50,000, perhaps $500,000. Just for color, red. Several days later, my associates had stationery printed and wrote their fall catalog, and I found a title for the book, Three Times Three, and as much as there would probably be nine pieces in the book. Three times three is nine.”

This almost magical story is perhaps a slightly more colorful version of what was published in a 1940 prospectus from the Conference Press.

“Once upon a time there were three young college boys who liked the way Williams Saroyan wrote. One day they left the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles and drove across town to a Hollywood studio, where Saroyan was writing for pictures. Saroyan was very cordial, and for half an hour, the four young men, Saroyan was but a couple of years older than his admirers, talked about William Saroyan and writing in general and the prospects for the UCLA football team. Soon the talk switched to publishing and before anyone was quite sure what had happened, the three college boys had formed a publishing house and Saroyan had agreed to give them enough stories to make a book. The Conference Press was born and Saroyan, bored with Hollywood, was getting to have another book published. A few hectic weeks followed Saroyan as the first of four conference press vice presidents, there was no president, helped read galley proofs in the print shop, ate ice cream pie at the nearby drugstore, and sing baritone and the quartet of embryonic publishers that drove in the early mornings. The three college boy publishers starting from scratch with absolutely no knowledge of the publishing business soon found themselves learning by the fast and sometimes bitter method of firsthand first-time experience. That first meeting in Saroyan's office was on November 12. On December 12, the book was in bookstores ready to be sold. The first book was really a collegiate Lark. Now we are out of college working on our second book and planning the ones to follow.”

The basic elements of both stories are the same. The minor exceptions, of course, being Babigian completely excluded from the later note, as well as some of the back and forth that seemed to have happened with the group. Certainly, Saroyan was presented as a major part of the company, although it does not seem to have been very active after this first initial work of Three Times Three. For certain, one interesting aspect is that the 1940 prospectus, four years after the release of Three Times Three, mentioned their second book, which would be the Gertrude Stein book that they published. Four years without publishing anything isn't a great rate for most groups, but these three college boys were trying to get through In college.

The introduction largely deals with the book itself, and the contents of the book are highly important. One note is about what he wanted to include a play called Subway Circus. From the introduction -  

Harrison said that's what we'd like to talk to you about. We'd prefer if you leave Subway Circus, too. You mean the play or the title, I said. The play, he said. It's a great play, I said, it's got to be in the book. I don't think it's great. He said, I think it's lousy. Everyone who's read it thinks it's lousy, I said, Are you sure? Yes. He said, I always thought it was a great play. I said, maybe it is he said, I think it's lousy. The only part in it that's great is the part where the society lady says Naples stinks. I felt pretty badly about subway circuits not being a great play to anyone who read it except me. But I am willing to be mistaken. Nevertheless, as second vice president of the firm, I demanded a vote. I voted yes. Gil Harrison voted no. Bill Okie voted no. Hal Levy said he hadn't read the play. That's all right. I said, take my word for it, It's great, vote yes. He wouldn't do it. He's only fourth vice president, but he said he wouldn't vote yes until he had read the play. I asked George Auerbach if he wouldn't vote yes. He wasn't a member of the firm and he hadn't read the play, but I thought he might say yes anyhow. The other vice presidents of the firm said that George couldn't vote because he wasn't a member of the firm. So the play was voted out of the book. Levy then mentioned that there would be a second Conference Press book entitled The Collected Worst Works of William Saroyan, which would include Subway Circus.

The introduction was about the creation of the book itself, while the preface deals with Saroyan expressing what it means to be William Saroyan. And at this point, Saroyan may see himself as more of a writer that has a person. Some have even gone so far as to think that perhaps he saw himself as one of his own characters. Strikingly postmodern if you think about it.

The goal of this preface is immediately stated by Saroyan -

In this little preface, all I want to do is explain everything to everybody.

And in a way he does.

He certainly goes into the aspects of how he writes, without going into the technicalities of how he writes, partly because he rejects the technical aspects of his writing, in order to view it as a form of play.

I have never enjoyed working, I do not believe in work. I believe no man in the world enjoys working. I believe no man in the world should work. To work meaning to do something you do not want to do. This reason, the organizing of workers internationally strikes me as being one of the most pathetic tragic and comic event in the history of man. The activities of man on Earth by nature were meant to be activities of play, of ease and improvisation. Geniuses play and man's capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and man may achieve genius only through play. To me, the activity of writing is, has been and always will be the most efficient means by which to be able to laugh at about anything.

This statement stands in stark contrast to how writing has been viewed traditionally, and even today, you're seeing writers whose writing about their works, particularly blogging, podcasting and so forth, reflects the idea that writing as a job is equal in measures to working any job and that idea is somewhat controversial still, because most writers don't spend all day lifting logs for example, but it does come across that Saroyan was more interested in writing as a way of enjoying himself on the page. This comes across very, very obviously, in most of his writing, particularly in his early writings.

Saroyan was always looking for a way to express what he felt or he saw in the world through his stories. Often this took the place of first-person narratives. This also led to one of the often asked questions about Ryan's work. Did this really happen? Is the main character William Saroyan? These questions are far more difficult to answer. In many cases, yes, the character is 100% William Saroyan, even stated to be in the stories. Other times it's a gray area. It's fair to say that many of the things he wrote happened to him in a way. The comparison between the two origin stories for the book sort of showing how Saroyan might go into slightly more narrative focus ways of telling a story that actually happened. He addresses this also in the preface.

I'm aware as anyone else in the world that what we have here is not exactly the short story, but something else. I knew this when I was writing these pieces, and I wrote them, I believed it might be all right. And if it were not all right, it would be all right. Anyway. I know also, that many of the pieces in this books are about myself, I wrote every piece in this book, and was there every minute of that time, I regret that unlike many other American producers of commodities, I cannot guarantee my product. I can guarantee, however, that what we have here is loosely speaking a book, and that the pieces of this book are written in the American version of the English tongue, I cannot guarantee that this book will not bore anybody.

SubwayCircus001That comes in a very interesting point for William Saroyan. At this point, he was still an immediately rising star who'd been in the business for roughly eight years, but really only had three years of significant success. His view is to attempt to bring voice to an idea of what he saw as the common man, who in this case was himself, to the rest of the world, always hoping to find a new way to latch on to the view of the reader, but he also realized, as with his view of Subway Circus and how it was taken by the rest of the Conference Press vice presidents, that his view was not necessarily universal. This strange back and forth between his understanding that he is writing work that is applicable to everyone in the world, while at the same time being separated from it by his own view of his own work, writes a tension that shows throughout his later writing, when he was doing memoir.

By the end of his career, Saroyan would become one of the most famous Americans, period. His writing evolved like all writing does, and at times some would say he evolved as well, but here in Three Times Three, we see a selection of stories that express a very particular time in his career. And while the stories are varied and apply varying degrees of Saroyanesque writing, they all express something that is very clear -he has much more to say, including the individual stories included.

As we go through these nine stories and their introductions, we'll be looking at how those stories tied to later stories in his career, how the moment in time that they're capturing capture something larger than the story itself, and most especially the techniques that William storing employees that at first may seem rather simple, but when viewed fully, are incredibly deep, complex and surprising.

Forever Saroyan Presents Three Times Three is written, performed and produced by Christopher J. Garcia. Forever Saroyan, LLC, was founded by Charles Janigian.  Archivists are Chris Garcia, and Dori Myer. You can find more information on William Saroyan and the Saroyan-Minasian families on the Forever Saroyan website

Stay tuned for the next episode, The Man with the Heart in the Highlands. Thanks for listening.


Chris Garcia, Archivist - Forever Saroyan, LLC, September 13th, 2022, San Jose, CA

Place of Places: 74 Rue Taitbout & The Champs-Elysees, Paris


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,

rue“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.

sagHe 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.”

Soroyan Science LowRes

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.

Covers062In 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.”

Ph37 MIhran William 1947Saroyan’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.

wc 02 Soroyan A Million Years LowRes 2Like 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.


The Place of Places - Flower Shop, Geary Street, San Francisco, 1930 blog


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 stroll to the Flower Shop, Geary Street, San Francisco, 1930.

“One has one’s chair, or one’s favorite chair, and I had mine. It was one of six cane chairs bought in 1911 by my father, three or four months before he died. And when I learned that these chairs were the last purchase by my father I made up my mind to have them, always” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

chairIn this chapter, things are places - the things that define us during certain periods of our lives. Sometimes the things are big, sometimes small, sometimes symbolic, sometimes just something we really liked at a certain time. These are mementos of who we used to be. Here, Saroyan takes us on a journey through four things that are places to him, beginning with the chairs his father bought just before falling ill and dying.

Saroyan rescued these chairs at a time in his life when he was exploring the loss of his father, yearning to understand the man he never knew and could barely remember. Saroyan addressed this in many chapters in this book and others, and we know that going to New York in 1928 was in part a way to follow in the footsteps of Armenak. Even just knowing that it was Armenak’s choice to buy these six cane chairs was important to Saroyan, another tiny detail to help him reassemble the puzzle of his father.  

He took five of the chairs to a carpenter to be restored and the last, in the most disrepair, to rattan workers in San Francisco. He explains that for years that one chair, in the most disrepair, had been situated at the far end of the breakfast table at 348 Carl Street in San Francisco. This was his chair, at his regular place at the table – a relatable detail for any reader who has their routines and habits.

One day in 1932, his cousin Chesley, aged 14, was visiting. Chesley sat in William’s chair and refused to move, causing a dispute that ultimately ended in the elder Saroyan regaining his chair. Saroyan writes, “I thought he was very stupid not to understand that the place was mine and the chair was mine, and that it would not do for him to remain in the place on the chair in my presence. If I were out of the house, he was welcome to both, of course. He was a good boy, but had an odd mind and spirit – by turns kindly and mean” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

Chesley was the son of Uncle Aram. In Chapter 4 we saw that Chesley and his wife visited with William in Paris in 1949. Chesley was in search of some advice about professional writing that William was reluctant to give. Chesley hadn’t succeeded as a writer and moved on to other professions, eventually dying in a car crash in 1965 at age 44. Though relationships in the extended Saroyan family were often complicated, they were a tightly knit bunch, often living near each other either in Fresno or San Francisco; they remained lifelines to each other even when they didn’t get along. Getting annoyed at an impetuous teenager is understandable, but it’s also interesting that Chesley was the son of Aram, who was at times a surrogate father to William and at other times a bitter enemy. In this scenario, William is holding onto the remnants of his father that he doesn’t want to share with Chesley this time. The chair was his father and his father was a place.


Saroyan moves on, explaining that he made a lift-top desk in Manual Training class at Longfellow Junior High, stained to a dark mahogany. He kept the desk despite the fact that he considered it poorly made and pointless because it had a slanting top that wasn’t good for writing on. “But I do have the table which I consider mine –from the beginning – and this table is one of the places of importance to me” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). The table is symbolic of independence; we all have those first things that we either made or bought with our own money, the things that our parents or siblings couldn’t claim ownership of.

This may have been especially significant to the Saroyan children, who spent many years in an orphanage sharing everything with many other children. Growing up poor in a large family would have also limited their senses of individuality. For William, who cherished his independence, having this desk be unequivocally his, no matter its quality, was meaningful. The desk was independence and independence was a place.

mihranNext up he tells us that Uncle Mihran, his father’s kid brother, went to San Francisco in 1930 and opened a makeshift flower shop, which William worked at. Saroyan bought a table on McAllister Street for four dollars, a surface for them to work with the wholesale flowers on. The shop lasted until Easter, about six weeks, then closed, and they were left with this table. William had it sent to the front room of 348 Carl, where he did his writing. “The table has served me well these many years – almost forty. I have written many works at the table, including, perhaps most important of all, the stories in my first book” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

Mihran was the youngest of Hripsime Saroyan’s children and another surrogate father and friend to William and also to Archie Minasian, whose father had also died young. There was a quiet sweetness in the paternal Saroyans, overshadowed by Lucine’s louder and more aggressive Saroyan clan on the maternal side. Recall that there was no biological relation between William’s paternal and maternal Saroyan’s sides, though they shared a last name.

It was Mihran who found William lost in Los Angeles and brought him home; it was he who lent William train fare to travel to New York in 1928; years later Mihran lent William $10,000 for a house, and there were many more loans Mihran made to Bill. Though he was always there to lend money, Mihran had a much larger role as a supporter of William from the start, cheerleading him in his endeavors.

The uncles Mihran and Aram were polar opposites, as is noted in multiple Saroyan biographies. Lee Lawrence, in his book Saroyan: A Biography, wrote, “Mihran was as warm and kind as Aram could be cold and mean-spirited.” William and Archie both wrote of Aram’s cruelty, and yet they were also amused by him. With Mihran they felt more protective.

In Letters from 74 Rue Taitbout, Saroyan writes, “Mihran always had a kind of earnestness and simplicity that put him to asking questions that were very funny to others.” In a letter to Bill in 1961, Archie wrote, “I won’t pollute this page, having mentioned Mihran, to tell you of Aram.”

scans505Both men fascinated William. Many of his family members would be represented in the book My Name is Aram, and Mihran is drawn as the stoic, dedicated uncle who attempted to grow pomegranate trees in Fresno, though they would not grow. In reality, Mihran was briefly a farmer before hard times shut him down. He went on to own a women’s dress shop in Fresno, the Mona Lisa, which he ran with his niece. Though he was a bachelor with no children, he was everyone’s favorite uncle.

Aram and Mihran were contemporaries and spent time together as extended family. Lee Lawrence, when interviewing the Saroyan family for his biography, writes, “Mihran was frank in expressing his complaints about Aram to the boys. ‘He has no nobility,’ he would say” (Saroyan: A Biography). Armenak’s poetic heart was alive in Mihran, and it butt heads with the uncouth Aram.

In the essay, “The Last of the Armenian Plays,” Dikran Kouymjian writes, “An even earlier unpublished play was considered by Saroyan himself as part of his statement on being Armenian. One day he called to say he wanted me to read another work of his. It was Is There Going to Be a Wedding? a one-act play of forty-eight scenes written in 1970-71. It takes place in various locations in Fresno between 1919 and 1923 when Saroyan was entering his early teens. The main characters are himself and his older brother Henry, his mother, and two opposing uncles, Mihran, the idealistic and intellectual tailor, and Aram, the materialistic and pragmatic lawyer. The play creates the Armenian environment the young writer grew up in while at the same time exposing the opposing forces after his soul.” These dual influences appeared frequently in Saroyan’s writing and in how he perceived the world around him.

The table from the flower shop was Uncle Mihran’s gentle encouragement and support, and that support was a place.

bedLastly, Saroyan describes the pipe bed that he had as a young child and liked very much. Or, if not a pipe bed, he clarifies, a bed with a headrest and footrest, old-fashioned metal parts, and a spring for the mattress. “The Head and Foot were of iron, not pipes, and they were designed in a decorative manner. Such beds were common, and I liked mine, but after we moved from 2226 San Benito Avenue it got lost in the shuffle, and hasn’t been seen since” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). Domestic iron bed production stopped in 1914 when the US entered World War I. Afterward, they weren’t considered cost effective and largely disappeared. Saroyan’s bed would have been older, maybe even from the 1800s, old furniture that the family had gathered inexpensively as they struggled to make money to live.

Like the lift-top desk, the bed would have been a place of one’s own. It was in this bed on San Benito Avenue that young William could sleep and dream vividly, that place between life and death. San Benito was the first house the Saroyans settled in after returning from the orphanage, so again it was importantly a bed he could call his own after experiencing several years of communal living at the orphanage. And it was iron - sturdy and permanent, another comfort after Fred Finch. The fact that it was decorative probably also held it apart from the presumably plain orphanage beds. The bed was security and security was a place.

Like his other late chapters in Places Where I’ve Done Time, Saroyan is playing with the definition of “place.” At first it was locations, and then it moved onto states of being, and now it has become things. All of these connect to his emotions. And while Saroyan wasn’t too open about his feelings, he had ways of expressing them in perhaps unconventional ways, as we see throughout this book.

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