The First Daddy-o of Fiction
“It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time.”
If I told you this was written by William Saroyan, would you believe me? Does it have the same rhythm, the same sentiment as early Saroyan works? It’s not Saroyan, but rather Jack Kerouac, famous Beat writer, excerpted from On The Road. Although Kerouac and Saroyan apparently never exchanged correspondences, Kerouac was a big fan, about one generation removed from Saroyan. There is ample evidence in Kerouac’s collected writings that he read Saroyan and was influenced by him, especially in Kerouac’s impressionable teen years. Apart from Kerouac simply liking Saroyan’s offbeat style, there were many similarities between the two that may have laid the groundwork for the affinity.
Jack Kerouac was born March 12, 1922, in Massachusetts. His family hailed from French Canada and spoke French at home. When he was four, his older brother died, deeply affecting young Jack. He came to rely emotionally on his mother, as his father distanced himself from the family with drinking and gambling. In many ways this mirrors Saroyan’s own background, the first generation to be born in America, speaking a foreign language, and suffering from the powerful loss of his father when he was young.
Kerouac, however, attended college briefly, while Saroyan dropped out of high school. They both served in the military as well, but didn’t thrive there. Saroyan hated the Army and made it clear, saying it damaged him beyond repair. In Obituaries, he wrote, “I swear to Christ the whole rigamarole of lunch bores the bajesus out of me, and yet if you are in a rotten situation of daily work, as being in the stupid Army first in America and then in Europe, man, lunch can be something like your best chance not to flip your goon at last, for sure, postponed as that probability has been for the whole two years you have been the captive of the people and machines of cleverness and corruption in the Army.”
Kerouac was honorably discharged from the Navy on psychiatric grounds with a diagnosis of schizoid personality after only ten days of active duty service. In an undated letter, he said of his time there, “I just can’t stand it; I like to be myself…[I]t was clearly and simply a matter of maladjustment to military life. On this, the psychiatrist and I seemed to be agreed in silence. I believe that if his queries had ended at that point, my diagnosis would have been psychoneurosis—a convenient conclusion which could have explained any number of idiosyncrasies in a protean personality…I see no reason for being ashamed of my maladjustment.” In Gerald Nicosia’s biography of Kerouac, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, he writes, “Jack also feared madness, and it was Allen [Ginsberg] who forced him to see that what seemed unreal was 'the only thing, the inevitable – the one. There is no evasion of it.'” Saroyan’s memoirs are filled with references to madness, as he worked through his own demons. In Here Comes There Goes You Know Who, he wrote, “I suppose I might say that as a writer I have been a little afraid of money in the bank, as other writers are said to be afraid of losing their ability to write, or of madness, or of indifference, or of ridicule, or of death…And I don't believe that I am afraid of madness, because madness is also myself, I have always had it, I don't think I would give up my paranoia for anything in the world.” For both writers, the concept of Madness loomed large in their life and writings.
Kerouac also came from a working class family who struggled financially and discouraged his writing, favoring work at a local mill instead, just as Saroyan was encouraged to work in agriculture, the industry in his hometown, and was discouraged from writing by his family. Later, they even shared editor Bob Giroux, whose first best-seller was The Human Comedy, before he found his way to editing Kerouac’s works.
As a young man, Kerouac was highly influenced by Saroyan’s writing, as well as by Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. In fact, it was common for fans of Saroyan to be influenced by these three authors, who each had uniquely American styles. While the European authors of the 19th century were mostly formal and often stodgy, American authors in the first half of the 20th century broke open the fiction genre, introducing a casualness and rhythm that flowed like the spoken word without bothering too much with traditional stylistics.
In a famous Paris Review interview in 1968, shortly before Kerouac’s death, Ted Berrigan with friends Aram Saroyan and Duncan McNaughton sat down with Jack to discuss his career. He said, “As for Saroyan, yes I loved him as a teenager, he really got me out of the nineteenth century rut I was trying to study, not only with his funny tone but also with his neat Armenian poetic – I don’t know what…he just got me…Hemingway was fascinating, the pearls of words on a white page giving you an exact picture…but Wolfe was a torrent of American heaven and hell that opened my eyes to America as a subject in itself.” Nicosia’s biography notes that Jack described his own collection of short stories, Atop the Underwood, as "in the Saroyan-Hemingway-Wolfe style.” In Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, Vol. 1, 1940-1956, Kerouac wrote, “At 18 I read Hemingway and Saroyan and began writing little terse short stories in that general style.” Every young writer emulates their idols at first, after all. There are multiple mentions of Saroyan in the two volumes of letters compiled by Ann Charters.
Kerouac appreciated the lean sentences of Saroyan and Hemingway, and his first novel, The Town and the City, published in 1950, was a semi-autobiographical novel reminiscing about his small town childhood in a way that feels more like Saroyan than his later, more experimental works. In Understanding Kerouac, Matt Theodo describes this early period of writing as especially influenced by Saroyan: “[The character] Peter tries to illustrate that people of the world are real and sincere, a point Kerouac, like William Saroyan, spent his career trying to prove.”
All of Kerouac’s biographers attribute his introduction to Saroyan to his friend Sebastian “Sammy” Sampas in their teen years. And in the introduction to his book Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac said of himself, “Decided to become writer at age 17 under influence of Sebastian Sampas, local young poet who later died on Anzio beach head; read the life of Jack London at 18 and decided to be an adventurer, a lonesome traveler; early influences Saroyan and Hemingway; later Wolfe.”
While Kerouac’s writing became even more non-traditional as his career progressed, himself becoming an influencer of future generations, his foundational love for Saroyan shone through. On February 28, 1940, Kerouac wrote in his journal: “Time for action, time for a new life, for my real life. I’ll be 28 in two weeks…a goodly age….Much traveling. No stagnation. No more formal sorrows! No more metaphysical awe! Action…production speed…grace…turn the world into an early-Saroyan story, with mature purposes & absorptions. Go!” (Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954). You can see from this journal entry that Kerouac was concerned with moving, progress, action, just like Saroyan.
Kerouac wrote often about injecting jazz into his writing, being majorly influenced by musician Charlie Parker. He allegedly wrote that he wanted “to be considered as a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jazz session on Sunday.” Saroyan was also known for his punctuated, rhythmic sentences, and wrote, "The thing I knew in 1934 was that it was necessary to write a story every day…Some of the stories were jazz, pure and simple, but jazz in writing” (After Thirty Years). Saroyan and Kerouac were both influenced by music, and Saroyan perhaps gave Kerouac at least part of the blueprint to incorporate that into his fiction. In David Calonne’s well-researched essay on the connection between Kerouac and Saroyan, Bebop Buddhist Ecstasy: Saroyan’s Influence on Kerouac and the Beats, he delves into this jazz writing: “What Ginsberg was to later call ‘spontaneous bop prosody’ was actually the original invention of the Armenian genius from Fresno. Saroyan’s early stories are bursting with a hip, casual, direct, autobiographical sound new to American literature.” Allen Ginsberg was no stranger to Saroyan’s work and also teased Kerouac about his childhood attachment to it. In Nicosia’s biography, he explains that Ginsberg, one of Kerouac’s many surrogate brothers, “enjoyed mocking Jack’s sacred cows. Signing one letter ‘Sebastian,’ Allen told Jack he would meet him ‘carrying a volume of Saroyan in my hair.’”
Under Ginsberg’s influence, and others of the Beat Generation, Kerouac’s writing did become more playful and mystical, but the rhythm stayed Saroyanesque. These excerpts feel like literary family, one generation informing the next:
“Fog over San Francisco and a sky that is mad with mist and the splashings of high electric lights: a sense of being out of time, a sense of despair mingled with mockery; wet pavements, the usual people walking.” - “Sleep in Unheavenly Peace,” The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, 1934.
“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments…and just at that moment a locomotive howled, and I said to myself, Yes, yes, Saroyan’s town.” -On the Road, 1957
Though Saroyan’s name may have faded from American curriculum and the celebrated literary canon, his influence spread to other 20th century writers, whose influence passed on to younger writers and on and on, which may be his most enduring and important legacy.
Academy of American Poets. “About Jack Kerouac | Academy of American Poets.” Poets.org, 2014, poets.org/poet/jack-kerouac.
Berrigan, Ted. “Jack Kerouac: The Art of Fiction No. 41.” The Paris Review, 1968, www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4260/the-art-of-fiction-no-41-jack-kerouac.
Calonne, David Stephen, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Bebop Buddhist Ecstasy : Saroyan’s Influence on Kerouac and the Beats. San Fransisco, Sore Dove Press, 2010.
Dale, Rick. “THE DAILY BEAT: Today in History: Jack Kerouac and William Saroyan.” THE DAILY BEAT, 13 Apr. 2019, thedailybeatblog.blogspot.com/2019/04/today-in-history-william-saroyan-and.html.
Kerouac, Jack. Lonesome Traveler. London Paladin, 1990.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. London, Penguin Book, 1957.
Kerouac, Jack, and Ann Charters. Selected Letters : 1940-1956. New York, Ny Penguin, 1996.
Kerouac, Jack, and Douglas Brinkley. Windblown World : The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954. New York, Penguin Books, 2006.
Kleiman, Miriam. “Hit the Road, Jack!” National Archives, 15 Aug. 2016, www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2011/fall/kerouac.html.
Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe : Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Penguin, 1992.
Saroyan, William. After Thirty Years : The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. New York, Harcourt, 1964.
Saroyan, William. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, by William Saroyan. New York, Random House, 1934.
Saroyan, William. Here Comes-There Goes-You Know Who. [an Autobiography.]. London, Peter Davies, 1962.
Saroyan, William. Obituaries. Berkeley, Calif., Creative Arts Book Co, 1979.
Theado, Matt. Understanding Jack Kerouac. Columbia, University Of South Carolina Press, 2009.
This article was written by Dori Myer, Archivist, Forever Saroyan, LLC, San Jose, August 2021