William Saroyan: The Painted Word

From August 1st through September 30th, 2022, Forever Saroyan, LLC, presented a very special exhibit: William Saroyan - The Painted Word. This exhibition, hosted at the Saratoga Library, featured paintings, posters, and awards from the remarkable life of William Saroyan, covering his time as an author, playwright, painter, and composer. The works featured included pieces that had previously not been shown publically from the Forever Saroyan collection, including these drawings from the early 1930s created on the stationary of Vanity Faire Florists in San Francisco.

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The exhibit featured more than a dozen giclees of Saroyan's paintings from the early 1960s, a period of incredible productivity for Saroyan, who sometimes created a dozen or more of these works in a single day. These pieces, Saroyan's best-known, demonstrate his awareness of lyrical abstraction and Abstract Expressionism, as well as remarkable control of line and color. His work can be seen expressing many of the same ideas as expressed by artists Mark Tobey and Cy Twombly, both working in similar arenas at the same time.

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Saroyan's musical contributions were also celebrated. His best-known piece of musical composition, Come On-a My House, was honored by Broadcast Music, Inc, with a special Citation of Achievement in 1951. The song, first a massive hit for Rosemary Clooney, was later recorded dozens of times by artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Louis Prima to Eartha Kitt performing the song in Japanese. 



William Saroyan is widely-considered a leading light of American theater during the 1940s. His plays My Heart's in the Highlands, The Time of Your Life, and Love's Old Sweet Song ran on Broadway during one of the periods of incredible growth for American theater. Saroyan's works often opened while plays from the likes of Lillian Hellman, Thorton Wilder, and George Bernard Shaw ran at neighboring Broadway theaters.  His play The Time of Your Life was adapted for film, starring James Cagney, one of the biggest box office draws of the time. 

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On August 6th, Forever Saroyan hosted Echoes of Saroyan, a talk by author and journalist Mark Arax, winner of both the 2004 California Book Award and the 2005 William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Arax read from both Saroyan's work, as well as his own, before being joined by fellow Fresno author Aris Janigian. Their conversation ranged from the view of Armenians in Fresno during Saroyan's time, the influence Saroyan had on their individual works, to their views of the importance of Saroyan's work through to today. 


William Saroyan - The Painted Word was curated by Chris Garcia and Dori Myer. Forever Saroyan, LLC would like to thank Bonnie Stone and the staff of the Saratoga public library for all their assistance and for allowing us to bring these remarkable materials to the community. 


Audio - Forever Saroyan Presents: Three Times Three - "The Question"

Transcription by Otter.Ai

Christopher Garcia 

ThreeTImes TheQuestionWelcome to Forever Saroyan Presents - Three Times Three. I'm your host, Chris Garcia.

Today we're looking at a very interesting story called “The Question.”

I will now read from the introductory note - “The question was asked Sunday, May 17’ 1936.”

That's it.

The introduction really just tells you a date, but also plays with the idea of the story in a very interesting way. The entire page just being one sentence, the underlined phrase ‘introductory note,’ and the title, “The Question,” but the sentence makes a promise.

The question was asked Sunday, May 17 1936.

What does that mean? It seems to indicate that there is a promise that a question will be asked, and that actually flies in the face of the story.

The story itself isn't so much a story as it is a set of circumstances, somewhat flying in a stream of consciousness. Initially, there are some talks about HG Wells and Hollywood moves on to a brief discussion of French painters, including Van Gogh, and to lucid trek. There's some discussion of Charlie Chaplin, there's some Karl Marx discussion Dreiser, but it's not seemingly leading towards a solid question. And I think the interesting aspect of this is that he's giving a point of view and a point of place. There's a wonderful exchange about HG Wells -  

“He went into the art gallery and looked at a lot of paintings by one of the most famous of French painters,. Local man, he asked the girl, he was serious.

That was one of the ones we laughed about a great deal. Local man, we used to ask about everybody. Karl Marx. local boy?”

640px H.G. Wells by BeresfordIt's interesting that he rejects HG Wells, largely because of his fame and money, and the fact that he was a genre writer definitely comes into comes into play. The bit about painting is interesting, but what's really interesting here is we don't ever get the question.

Oh, there are questions asked throughout this piece. But they're all of the ‘what are they doing?’ ‘Who's it for?’ ‘What's it for?’ ‘How's it going?’ ‘What's happened?’ ‘Who's fooling and who's been fooled?’ variety. There are dozens of questions, but none of them are substantive. In fact, looking at the whole thing, it begins to feel as if there is a greater question that isn't specifically asked. And that possibly points to what a lot of Saroyan’s writing is about. Perhaps it is the idea that there is a question waiting to be asked and potentially answered.

And in fact, in the last bit of the piece, it definitely does address this.

“And of course, he didn't know the answer at all. He thought it was pretty smart to know the question. I know the question, and I asked it gentleman.”

Where we see a very interesting connection between the text of the question and the overall work of William Saroyan is in the idea that perhaps what he is doing is sussing out the question that nestles in this work, which is peppered with questions. None of them are the actual question that are the heart of the matter. You can boil it down to a number of things. One, ‘what is man's role in the universe?’ He's made some quotes that seem to lean in that direction, but it seems a bit trite for how Saroyan has actually approached it. It could be ‘what is one's application of self within the world around them?’ That's an interesting concept. And you can definitely see that play out in the plays The Time of Your Life, even The Man with his Heart in the Highlands. The Human Comedy definitely has that as a theme. My Name is Aram as well. What I think, though, I believe that the question is, ‘what is the purpose of all these nice things?’

And that's not just physical things. It's what is the purpose of art within our lives? What is the purpose of morality? What is it for?

Because of Karl Marx, this is peppered with economics talk. He sort of rejects HG Wells, because of his business acumen.

I hear the boy is very clever and a magnificent businessman. I hear he cleans up every year.

He does a similar thing about Van Gogh.

Why is a piece of canvas with a little yellow paint on it worth $67,000 in 1936, that Van Gogh in two hours, many years ago cause to be instead of a piece of canvas and little yellow paint a picture a painting? And if you please, a work of art, how come it's worth money? And where does van Gogh come in?

This idea of rejecting people who are making money off of their art, could be asking a question that Elvis Costello most pointedly asked, What's the point of all this useless beauty? That could be? He seems to be indicating that success isn't necessarily an important aspect in art. Saroyan himself was successful, and particularly at this point in his career, was making a fair bit of money. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Inhale and Exhale, were both selling very well. But why then? Does he seem to be rejecting artists who are successful? Is it simply the green eyed monster of envy? I'm not sure.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1865:  Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher and German politician.  (Photo by Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images)Is it a socialistic desire for all people to be increased? Well, there's something there, too. He definitely is talking about Marx, the great socialist. He, of course, made many mentions of wanting to live long enough to see everyone be rich, and comfortable in the introduction to the book. That's a socialist take. And is the question ‘is the enemy the world?’ That's a big question, but also, it's not asked as a firm assertion of anything.

Again, this is very stream of consciousness. This is, in a way, someone whose mind is running fast and just continually going. I think one of the most interesting aspects of that is that at the end, he claimed to know the question, and he asks it, but he doesn't ask it on the page. I think perhaps he's asking it throughout his work and applied to his entire work. I think that question becomes ‘what value is humanity to humanity?’ but at this point in his work, where that theme is just starting to suss itself out, I don't know if that's the question. Perhaps the question is, ‘why all this?’

This is one of the most ponderous stories in the entire collection, and it does bring up some points that are very thoughtful, but at the same time, this is the type of story that a lot of Saroyan’s critics were pointing to, when they said that he wasn't exactly writing short stories. The St. Louis Post Dispatch made that very pointedly in the review of Three Times Three.

“It's ponderous. It's well written, but at the same time, I don't know what the average reader would walk away from it with.”

Thanks for listening to Forever Saroyan presents Three Times Three. It is produced, presented and edited by Christopher J. Garcia. Forever Saroyan’s archivists are Chris Garcia, and Dory Meyer. Forever Saroyan was founded by Charles Janigian. Stay tuned for next week, the story, “The Living and the Dead.”

Audio - Forever Saroyan Presents - Three Times Three: The Man with the Heart in the Highlands

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

3 times 3 coverToday we're going to look at a story that is one of William Saroyan's most famous, most beloved, and by far, most adapted: “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands.” It first appeared in Three Times Three, but was reprinted several times, not only in Saroyan’s own collections, but in collections of great American literature, and even textbooks. It's been adapted widely, not only in English, but in languages such as Dutch, Danish and Czech. It's a popular adaptation target particularly for Eastern European film and television producers. One of the reasons may have to do with the universality of the story and its deep connection with a traditional story that is known worldwide. But first, let's look at the introduction.

The introduction opens with the phrase, “this one was written on Saturday, September 14 1935. Two days before I went to the hospital in a cab and got operated on and through some miracle didn't die.”

He goes on to tell the story of a bout of appendicitis, when an emergency surgery removed his appendix. This must have been a massively traumatic experience for Saroyan, whose own father had died when he was very young due to a burst appendix. He talks about the experience in very, very dark terms,

“And then greater pain than ever and a roar ,and then a lessening of the pain, and a pathetic whisper, My God, my God. In the morning, I knew it was not ended. I knew it was still one way or another, I would either live or die. I bathed and shaved and dressed and decided to go for a walk. Only I couldn't walk. I got into a cab and went to the hospital. 20 or 30 minutes after I reached the hospital, the doctor operated on me, it was a very bad appendix, very swollen, very close to bursting. And when I awakened from the ether sleep, the doctor said very casually, If you had gotten here 10 minutes later, it would have bursted, and that would have been too bad.”

This moment obviously stood out to Saroyan enough so that the introduction to the story doesn't actually deal with the story at all but with the circumstances of the days following its creation. Perhaps it's merely the time aspect where he can attach so near a time as to the event with the creation of this story. It does, however, end with a slight hint as to the tone of the story itself.

I was very glad I hadn't died. Very grateful to my God. I said many thanks. I've got a lot of writing to do. I'll take it if I've got to take it. And I'll take it with a laugh, but many thanks just the same. I'd like to live to be 100. If it's all the same to you, I'd like to stay in this world until they figure out a way to give everybody enough to be able to be easygoing about everything. I'd like to stay in this world until they figure out some way to let everybody be a millionaire.

Perhaps that statement more than anything expresses the idea of Saroyanesque writing. This idea of achieving a lighter, easier life, as he said in the preface to the entire collection. He's not interested in work, but in play. And here it seems to be a declaration that play or at least ease should be the goal of society.

Covers136“The Man with the Heart in the Highlands” centers around Johnny, his father, a roving musician called Jasper McGregor and Mr. Kosack, a local store owner. Each of these four characters plays a different role, and in many ways they represent four archetypes of Saroyan’s writing. Johnny is a young boy, perhaps modeled on Saroyan himself. He's inquisitive, but also not entirely trusting. This is in contrast to how children are often shown as exceptionally open and trusting. But here, Johnny is actually a bit weary of trusting Jasper McGregor. When he encountered him playing his bugle, coming towards his house, he initially denies him water, but when his father interjects, he invites Mr. McGregor into the house.

And Saroyan goes from there through an often read about children. One of his more famous stories, “The Parsley Garden” has a character who is very similar to Johnny in temperament, but perhaps slightly more accepting of his position, and decidedly less accepting of the world around him. You can also see this in some of the younger characters in ways that aren't seen by society at that point to be completely open and acceptable. I'm thinking of characters in The Human Comedy, as well as My Name is Aram. If Johnny is William Saroyan as a child, Johnny's father is William Saroyan at the period he wrote this story. Well, perhaps, a period slightly before when he was still a writer but struggling to find publication.

Johnny's father is a poet but he is unpublished, thus, there is no income. This is a fascinating idea, Because the main goal of a poet is to express his idea and view of the world, but that also requires publication. Some would say he's loafing and certainly Saroyan himself was accused of this in his early days before he found significant publication in 1928. Johnny's father is much more accepting of Mr. McGregor, possibly because of their connection through the arts, but also possibly because of their need of external assistance. Johnny's father cannot provide for the family but relies on Johnny to actually gain food and favor from Mr. Kosack. A bit more on that in a minute.

Mr. McGregor is a fascinatingly beautiful character who falls into a number of different ideas that are traditional in stories, particularly in Eastern Europe. He is a wandering troubadour of a form, who wanders around playing his bugle, entertaining those he comes across. He says his heart is in the Highlands of Scotland, though we're not entirely certain if he is Scottish, or it's merely an affectation. That said he's apparently a very good bugler, and this performance allows him to draw people to him. Though initially, Johnny, as I mentioned, was leary and not exactly accepting. Once he actually turns on his special ability, he draws all to him, and eventually it turns out that he was in use with an old folks home to do the Old Folks’ Follies of 1914.

A character who is highly important to both the story and to a larger meaning with Saroyan’s writing is Mr. Kosack, Mr. Kosack, an Eastern European (perhaps Polish, Russian, or Czechoslovakian) owns a local store. He's been offering credit to Johnny and Johnny's father, but he's never been paid back. Thus, he is exceptionally hesitant to offer credit again when Johnny goes to ask so we can get a loaf of bread, a pound of cheese, and a bottle of beer. The owner of a store being an immigrant is not at all unknown, though it's unclear whether or not Johnny and his father are of a similar immigrant population.

In the early part of the 20th century. Often, communities such as Slavs, Russians, Armenians, Germans, Poles, and others would live in similar areas. But we're never indicated whether or not Johnny and his father are of an immigrant population. In fact, in a form, we're told they are not. As Johnny attempts to convince Mr. Kosack to give him credit, we have this somewhat problematic passage.

How much money you got, said Mr. Kosack.

It ain't a question of money, Mr. Kosack, I said, I'm talking about being in China and needing the help of the white race.

I don't know nothing about nothing, said Mr. Kosack.

How would you feel in China that way? I said.

I don't know. Mr. Kosack said, what would I be doing in China?

Well, I said you'd be visiting there and you'd be hungry and not a friend in the world. You wouldn't expect a good Christian to turn you away even without a pound of rice, would you Mr. Kosack?

I guess not Mr. Kosack, but you ain't in China, Johnny and neither is your Pa.

This is a really interesting passage, because at this time you would rarely see Anglo-Saxon populations living in areas that were typically immigrant population centers. Fresno’s Armeniatown wasn't exactly as much of a melting pot as we might think. In a way, ghettoization with strict lines as to who could live where, made that less likely. But Mr. Kosack is higher in the power structure. He is the owner of a shop, who, for Johnny and his father to be able to eat, has to extend credit to them. This dynamic may actually speak to one of Saroyan's bigger ideas, that distinctions between race and ethnicity and national origin are less stark than those between class.

 Eventually, Johnny convinces Mr. Kosack to give them cheese and bread, but not the beer, by appealing to his family, bringing up how interested he is in their well-being, and how wonderful they are. This is an effective technique that anyone who has had to ask for credit will tell you is usually highly effective.

Covers046One interesting aspect of the story and perhaps its widescale international success is its connection to a classic story called Stone Soup, sometimes also called Button Soup. The idea is relatively simple - an outsider comes into a small town, and as initially rejected. He's looking for food, but when he finds none, he mentions that he could make a wonderful soup out of a stone. The town is fascinated by this claim, and thus, he asks for a pot and some water. They give him the pot and the water and he puts this stone in, stirs it tastes it and says, ‘Oh, this is very good. It would be better if we had some …’ salt, some pepper, a chicken, and on and on and on. Each time he says this would be better with some addition, a local claims, ‘oh, I have some’ and goes and gets it and puts it in the stew. Thus at the end, a large stew is gathered, not from anything that the stranger brought, but from the generosity of the others wishing to participate in the special moment. When Mr. McGregor begins to play the bugle, after having some bread and cheese, people come from around the neighborhood, and he asked him to bring some small bit with them at a massive party breaks out. This is a clear analogue to stone soup, a story that Saroyan could not have been unfamiliar with at that time. The difference here is not only the updating in time, but this idea that it is the performance of Jasper McGregor that brings the people in instead of his claiming that he can make a stone soup. It is still this idea of the gathering of the commons that makes this possible. In essence, he crowdsourced his feast.

Cover418One of the reasons why this story stands out so firmly from Saroyan’s oeuvre is that it was the source for his first Broadway play, My Heart’s in the Highlands. The play was pretty darn successful, including getting votes for the New York Drama Circle’s Critics Award, which he would win the following year for The Time of Your Life. In 1939, there was a massive split of votes and none was awarded. It was also considered for the Pulitzer though did not win.

Television productions latched on to it relatively quickly, largely because its compact nature made it possible to do it with few actors and with a small set. Also, its runtime could be clipped down to as little as 15 minutes, thus making it great for television in the 1950s.

All in all, this story fits in as one of the most important stories of Saroyan’s career. Its perfection in writing, as well as its universal themes, make it easily adaptable, and one of the prime examples of Saroyanesque writing from his early period. This led to an outpour of interest in the work and is a fine introduction to the stories of this book, largely because of those themes. It certainly sets the table for an exciting compilation.

Thanks for listening to Forever Saroyan presents Three Times Three. Forever Saroyan LLC was founded by Charles Janigian. This episode was produced, performed and edited by Christopher J. Garcia. Forever Saroyan’s archivists are Chris Garcia and Dori Meier

Stay tuned for our next episode - "The Question"


Transcription by Otter.Ai

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