Study Guide - The Man with the Heart in the Highlands

Cover418The Man with the Heart in the Highlands – Study Guide

“The Man with the Heart in the Highlands" is one of William Saroyan’s most beloved, and re-printed, works. First appearing in a 1937 collection, Three Times Three, it has appeared in dozens of anthologies and collections, and has been adapted into short films, television episodes, a Broadway play, and an opera.

The story of young Johnny, his father, and the traveling actor and musician Jasper MacGregor, draws on many themes from across Saroyan’s lifetime of work, and also traditional stories from Europe and beyond.


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One day, Johnny sees an old man walking down the street, playing a bugle. The man approaches Johnny, introduces himself as Jasper MacGregor, and asks Johnny for a glass of water and tells him that his "heart is not here, but in the highlands” of Scotland, thousands of miles away. Johnny, who wants him to play his bugle more, is suspicious of Mr. MacGregor, but his father convinces him to give comfort to the wandering musician. Johnny’s father then orders Johnny to go to the local market, run by Mr. Kosak, and convince the owner to give them food on credit. Johnny tries to convince his father not to force him to make the trip, but his father insists.

Johnny manipulates Mr. Kosak into giving him bread and cheese after denying him several times knowing that they will never have the money necessary to pay him back.

Back at Johnny’s home, Mr. MacGregor begins to play his bugle, attracting many from the neighborhood to gather. He begins asking them each to bring some small bit of food to share, and ends up the focus of a long feast. Mr. MacGregor is eventually asked to return to the old folks’ home where he has put on the play for many years.


Cover512 360480Writing and Publishing “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands”

William Saroyan wrote “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands” in 1935 after he returned from a trip to New York and Europe. He became very sick two days later, and then returned to the story and found it entertaining, saying “It amused me very much. It was goofy and tragic and comic and classic.”

Saroyan used the story to begin the collection Three Times Three, published by the Conference Press. Saroyan had met a group of UCLA students and immediately formed the new Press. Saroyan and the others were all named Vice-Presidents (there was no President) of the new publishing firm, though Saroyan did not take part in any of the publishing done after Three Times Three.

The story was included in several other collections, including The Saroyan Special, The William Saroyan Reader, My Kind of Crazy Wonderful People, several English textbooks in the 1950s through the 1980s, and alongside the published version of the play My Heart’s in the Highlands.



The story is presumably set in Saroyan’s hometown, Fresno, California, though it is never named. This presumption is made because the street that Johnny and his father live on is noted as San Benito Avenue, the same street that Saroyan himself lived on as a child. The year is 1914, when Saroyan himself would have been 6 years old, though at that time he would have been in the Fred Finch orphanage in Oakland, California.

            The area of San Benito Ave. at the time was known as a poor part of town, where the majority of the residents were Armenian. This is certainly reflected in the characters depicted in “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands” and their economic circumstances.




Johnny is a six-year-old boy growing up on San Benito Avenue. He is a curious, smart, and somewhat reserved child. He lives with his father, an unpublished poet, and grandmother.

Johnny is the point of view character for the story, and we understand all the characters in it through Johnny’s view of them.

Although Johnny is only six, he has become the primary provider for the family because his father doesn’t work. He is often required to use his intellect and charm to convince Mr. Kosak to give him food for the family to eat. He has developed a form of manipulation that allows him to convince Mr. Kosak to give him food, even if he knows that Johnny’s father will never be able to pay him back.

It is likely that Saroyan projected how he wished his own childhood would have been, living at home with family instead of at the orphanage. Like Johnny, Saroyan’s father was an unpublished poet. After being retrieved from the orphanage by his mother, Saroyan grew up on San Benito Ave.

Jasper MacGregor

Jasper MacGregor is an aged, but talented musician and actor. He arrives at the house on San Benito playing his bugle to get attention, then asks Johnny for a pitcher of water, though he does not receive it until Johnny’s father intervenes.

Mr. MacGregor is a talented musician and actor, but seems to be penniless and nomadic, moving from place to place when not at the old persons’ home where he is a major part of the annual show.

Mr. MacGregor uses his talent to gather the residents of the neighborhood and charms them to bring food and drink to create a feast while he plays. He is portrayed as charming and endearing from that point forward.

There are many ways Jasper MacGregor could be described. Some might call him a beggar, and others might see him as a showman, or perhaps even a bard or troubadour. Traveling entertainers were common in the early 20th century, and it would not be unusual for lesser-known performers to get from town to town by walking between them.

Johnny’s Father

Johnny’s father is a poet who has not had his poetry published. This mirrors Saroyan’s own father, Armenak, who wrote poetry and never found publication in his lifetime. Saroyan barely knew his father, so it’s likely that he projected some of his thoughts on the character to mirror his own beliefs of what his father would have been like had he lived.

Johnny’s father is jobless, and he makes Johnny go and get them food from Mr. Kosak. This should make him a questionable figure in the story, though Saroyan seems to play him as a more comical figure. Johnny’s father is unnamed in the story, and is friendly to Mr. MacGregor, perhaps seeing him as some sort of kindred spirit in the arts.

Johnny’s father is viewed as lazy by Mr. Kosak, whom he owes a fair bit of money to for food that he’s convinced Johnny to get on credit without ever intending to re-pay.

Mr. Kosak

Mr. Kosak owns the store where Johnny is forced to acquire food on credit. The store seems to be a very typical small town grocery that would have been found in Fresno at the time.

Mr. Kosak is said to be an immigrant from a Slavic country, quite possibly the area now known as Croatia. He is a father of several children and has a seemingly complicated relationship with Johnny’s family. He seems to tolerate Johnny, which allows Johnny to engage in mental and emotional trickery to secure food for his family. We’re also told that the scenes we see of Johnny and Mr. Kosak in the story are not the first times that Johnny has used these techniques to secure sustenance. Mr. Kosak is openly dismissive of Johnny’s father because he doesn’t work and allows his son to do his dirty work.



The immigrant experience

One of Saroyan’s most significant repeated themes is about the immigrant experience in America. Here, we’re presented with an interesting form of it in the way Jasper MacGregor continually says that his “heart is in the Highlands” and the ways in which Johnny and Mr. Kosak interact.

The idea of one’s heart being left behind in the old country is echoed in many of Saroyan’s works, and in many pieces written by members of various immigrant populations in general. The idea that one feels a deep connection to a place they are no longer physically in, or possibly never have set foot in, is an old one. The populations that are forced out of their country, and the generations born to them, are called “diaspora.” Fresno, California, the birthplace of William Saroyan, is home to several groups in diaspora: Armenian, Hmong, and Vietnamese people, among others. The concept of generational trauma caused by separation from a community’s homeland has become a significant part of the study of immigrant and minority communities in recent years, but even in the 1930s, we can see that members of those communities, which included William Saroyan, were addressing the issue in their own ways. Jasper MacGregor’s constant repetition of his heart being in the Highlands of Scotland is the simplest form of that idea. Saroyan would tackle this idea again in the story “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse” in the character of uncle Khosrove, often believed to be inspired by Saroyan’s uncle Aram.

In many ways, the Immigrant Experience in America is one of isolation. Immigrant communities are often physically separate from other communities in their cities, usually placed into undesirable areas where cities put few resources. This is sometimes referred to as ”ghettoization.” Fresno was a segregated town, with specific areas where Armenians and other groups could buy property. These distinctions would often see racial and ethnic groups lumped together, even if in their own homelands had unfriendly relationships. This can be seen in the inclusion of Mr. Kosak in Johnny’s neighborhood.

We know Mr. Kosak was an immigrant, and like many members of immigrant communities, it appears that he has made attempts to fit in with the dominant communities of his new neighborhood The names of his children are not Slavic.Even Saroyan himself, the son of Armenian immigrants but born in America, was named William instead of an Armenian name. It is unclear if Mr. MacGregor was born in the Highlands of Scotland, or if he was using the idea to play off the sympathies of Johnny and his father. The name MacGregor is a Scottish name, though it’s unclear, likely intentionally, about his true origin. Saroyan certainly wanted that theme to come to the forefront of the work.

Saroyan also left open the question of whether or not Johnny was Armenian. The fact that he lived on San Benito avenue is a clue, though, as it would have been the heart of Armenian Town in Fresno at the time. We are never given Johnny’s father’s name, or the family’s last name, and if we are supposed to believe that Johnny is a stand-in for Saroyan, it may well have been an Armenian name. In at least one of the plays based on the story, the family is explicitly said to be Armenian, but that is an addition.


Earning /Abusing Trust

Immigrant communities often question the intentions of those who enter their midst. This can easily be seen when Johnny encounters Jasper MacGregor and at first refuses him even water, a clear sign of mistrust. He is eventually convinced to provide water by his father, the unpublished poet, perhaps fueled by the idea that he himself is penniless, and thus often finds himself to be in need of the kindness of strangers.

Johnny is sent to Mr. Kosak’s store to acquire food, but he is not given any money. The only way that Johnny can get the food is to play on Mr. Kosak’s vulnerabilities. This is clearly a violation of trust, as Johnny knows he will never be able to pay Mr. Kosak back, but he still works on what could be seen as a confidence scheme, or ”con game” to get Mr. Kosak to give him the food. This is an interesting take on immigrant relations with non-immigrant populations. Often, immigrants are portrayed as thieves who steal from the non-immigrant populations. Johnny is not overtly portrayed as Armenian and Johnny taking advantage of Mr. Kosak, who is noted as being of an immigrant population, would be the reverse of the typical pattern portrayed in mass media, particularly in the 1930s.


Growing Up Poor

A significant theme in this story is that Johnny is a young boy who is growing up poor, and that requires him to grow up fast and learn certain survival techniques.

One part of the immigrant experience that is often presented is economic inequality. In “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands” we see different sides of this concept. Johnny and his father are clearly poor, with his father not working so that he can focus on being a poet. Mr. MacGregor, presumably an immigrant from Scotland, is also poor, though seemingly itinerant in his lifestyle. Mr. Kosak, the only character certainly confirmed to be an immigrant, is the owner of the local store, putting him on a higher economic plane than Johnny’s family or Mr. MacGregor. It is interesting that Johnny uses a stereotype of immigrant populations to to get Mr. Kosak to give him food. Though ultimately unsuccessful, he lays out a scenario where Mr. Kosak should support him because they are alike in being separated from their homeland, though only theoretically.

Johnny is required to do the work that would traditionally be performed by his parents. This idea is very often shown in writing about immigrant and lower-income populations. We are also presented with a family where there is, most likely, a missing parent, as we hear nothing of Johnny’s mother. Using Johnny to secure food makes his father appear to be shirking his assumed duties as the breadwinner for the family. Viewed another way, this could be Saroyan saying that even more important than supplying money to the family is supplying art to the world, at least potentially. This would certainly be a theory that Saroyan would have espoused about himself prior to his success with The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories. One exchange between Johnny and Mr. Kosak is very revealing:

            “My father writes poetry, Mr. Kosak, I said. That’s the only work my father does. He is one of the greatest writers of poetry in the world.”

            “When does he get any money? Said Mr. Kosak.

            “He never gets any money, I said. You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

Stone Soup

There are few stories with as wide a reach across time and cultures as what has come to be known as Stone Soup. The story was first published in France in the early 18th century, though is likely a great deal older in oral tradition. A wanderer, often a soldier returning from a campaign or a traveling religious man, arrives in a town, tired and hungry. He asks for food, but the poor residents shut him out. The traveler then says he can make a glorious soup using just a stone, or sometimes a button or nail. The townsfolk come to see the miracle, and he plops the stone in water and tastes it, saying ”It’s good, but it would be better if it had some onions.” And someone will say they have some onions, and brings them, which the stranger then adds to the soup. He’ll repeat the trick until the pot is a full stew. The town, and the visitor, then enjoy a feast.

This is clearly represented in the last quarter of “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands” when Mr. MacGregor begins to play his bugle and draws people from all over the neighborhood to come and bring something small to eat with them. This leads to a long and prosperous party, with music and lots of food!

Stone Soup itself is of the “Stranger comes to town” type of story that has been popular as long as there have been written stories. Themes in those kinds of stories include how to treat guests and visitors, the role of generosity in building communities, and how individuals can bring a sense of the fantastic with them.



Saroyan is known for writing in a somewhat minimalist style. Legendary science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut said of Saroyan, "William Saroyan was the first and still the greatest of all the American minimalists." That clearly shows in “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands.”

Saroyan uses much dialogue in the story, though he does not use quotation marks. This makes it seem more like a story being told instead of a traditional written short story.

Saroyan doesn’t use many descriptive words, and his sentences tend to be somewhat short. We are not given much backstory to events we are seeing play out. We get some of the thoughts of Johnny, but not much, as Saroyan prefers to allow the activity to speak for the entirety of most of his characters.

One key element Saroyan is trying to present is a world where the best in people is possible and all you have to do to bring it to life is draw it out through some sort of positive contribution. Mr. MacGregor does this by playing his horn and drawing the neighborhood over to enjoy the music and bring food for all to enjoy. Saroyan’s stories and plays often had this sort of optimism, even when mixed with a cynical view of authority and systems. This optimistic form of writing came to be known as “Saroyanesque.”



“The Man with the Heart in the Highlands” has been adapted many times, and in many forms, mostly under the name My Heart’s in the Highlands. The first version was a one-act play written by Saroyan in 1938 that nearly exactly mirrored the plot and dialogue of the original short story. Saroyan re-worked that play by adding a second act in which Mr. MacGregor returns from the old folks home, and at the end of the play, dies. This version first appeared on Broadway in 1939, and has been revived several times, both on Broadway and off.

The first filmed adaptation appears to be an episode of the television program Play of the Week in 1960. This was an adaptation of the one-act version from 1938 and starred Walter Matthau.

The story became a popular one to adapt in Europe, and between 1967 and 1979, versions were made in Yugoslavia, The Netherlands, Russia, and Finland. These included feature-length films, television episodes, and short films.

Composer Jack Beeson adapted several pieces of Saroyan’s work into operas, including My Hearts in the Highlands. The opera was shown on National Education Television, later called PBS. The 90 minute production was based on the 1939 play, with dialogue that closely matched the original.

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