Saroyan Is Your Voice
An Appreciation of William Saroyan and James H. Tashjian
By Stuart Hyde
The Armenian Weekly
January 27, 2007
Last week, I went to my Washington Mutual Branch in Bon Air to deposit some checks. After waiting in line, my turn came so I approached the available cashier and handed her my checks and deposit slip. I then looked at her face, and then her name plate to verify what my eyes saw.
“Then you know Saroyan.”
“Is he a customer?”
“No, he was a…”
(Cutting me off) “I’m sure I’ve never met this person…”
“No, William Saroyan, the famous writer.”
“Never heard of him.”
“William Saroyan is your voice, but have you heard it? Have you read his words?”
“He’s not my voice! I’m sure of that!”
“But he is, and you must find him. You need to be embraced by his visions of Fresno, of San Francisco, of Armenia. His voice will help you find deeper meaning to your Armenian-ness. Once you find him, you’ll want to share him with everyone! I found him years ago, but only recently did I really discover him.”
She looked at me as though I was crazy, perhaps the way Saroyan was looked at by literal-minded rubes who didn’t know a wild, but gentle genius when they saw one.
I used the back of a deposit slip to write down “William Saroyan.” I told her to check out My Name is Aram, The Human Comedy, and Peace, it’s Wonderful. I added my name and e-mail address because I was sure that when she found her Armenian voice, she’d want to know more.
She never contacted me.
Does a man who has no Armenian blood in him have the right to tell an Armenian woman that she will not become fully human until she learns to see the world through the eyes and heart of a man, now gone, who left us with thousands of words centering around him, his Uncle Aram, his mother Takoohi, his birthplace Fresno, and whose stories live on in those whose sensitivities he nurtured, whose compassion he inspired, and whose love of Armenia, Armenians and the Armenian language lived in him until his last breath?
Yes, I think I have a right to do this. It took an Englishman, Lord Elgin, to see and save the magical Parthenon frieze, neglected by Greeks for 2,000 years; and it was a Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion, who unlocked the mystery of the hieroglyphs to give us the history and wisdom of the ancient Egyptians.
I have no right to advise Armenians on any other subject, but William Saroyan is special case. Earlier I said, “only recently did I really discover him.” Before I get to that, let me explain my connection with Saroyan.
When I was a teenager, I discovered the writings of William Saroyan while a student at Fresno High School. He was 15-years-old when I was born, so when he was 30, I was ready to read his stories. If I’d known at the time that an acquaintance, Cheslie Saroyan, two years ahead of me in school, was related to him, I would have done almost anything to cultivate his friendship. Through Cheslie, I would perhaps even meet the man who gave voice to my warm quiet valley of home—the writer who turned me on to reading, to studying, to writing, and most importantly, to living freely if somewhat wildly.
As an adolescent in Fresno, I was one of many high school kids who became addicted to Saroyan early on. We couldn’t wait for each of his books to be published. We had little money, so we shared his stories (money was very scarce for us in those days), passed them around, and discussed them at great length, dissecting them in meticulous detail. Eventually, we realized that by our analyses we were treating the living Saroyan as a cadaver in a forensics class: we could see all the pieces, but they explained nothing. If we couldn’t “get” Saroyan through our feelings, our emotions, our guts, we would never get inside the magic world of this giant. So, we gave up de-anatomizing Saroyan, and let him enter our hearts.
But, I didn’t seek Cheslie out. So, I missed my first chance to meet Saroyan.
Many years later, after living through the Great Depression, World War II, the disillusionments of the ‘60s—JFK, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Robert Kennedy, Gandhi—and after more years of studying and teaching, marriage, children and their offspring, and much, much more, I came across a dog-eared copy of Peace, It’s Wonderful and decided I’d revisit William Saroyan. I didn’t start with this book, but with a biography, A Daring Young Man.
After finishing this book, I felt the need to see if my teenage addiction to Saroyan would hold up, so I read the two books of short stories I’d saved and carried on my ship throughout the war, and again to college and grad school, treasuring them but never finding time (or perhaps the motivation) to dip into them again until now. In re-reading his stories, I was awakened to the wonder of a Fresno I’d failed to sense or appreciate growing up—a wonderment that did not escape this sensitive artist.
During this time, I was aware that Saroyan was again living in Fresno, just 200 miles south of San Francisco. It would have been easy for me to drive there, contact him, and, I’m sure, spend some time with him.
But, I didn’t. Too busy. Can’t leave right now, maybe next month. I’m needed at work. My family needs me. And so on.
On May 18, 1981, William Saroyan died. So, I missed my last chance to touch him.
I thought that was it. But this man would not let me go. One Sunday, several months ago, I went to Fort Mason, a decommissioned old military base in San Francisco Bay, to visit the Friends of the Library shop of used books, but was diverted when I saw a large sign: TODAY ONLY: BIG USED BOOK SALE, PIER 5.
I browsed through the $1.00 book tables, saw many titles I found appealing, but not enough so to bite on and, when I was just about to leave, Saroyan struck again: I saw a hard cover book I never knew existed: My Name is Saroyan.
I grabbed it, paid my buck, and left.
The book turned out to be a revelation, more than 100 stories, letters, poems and plays that Saroyan sent to the Hairenik papers in Boston over the years, beginning in 1933 and ending in 1954. Of the 97 stories, 68 had never been published aside from their appearance in the Armenian periodicals! My Name is Saroyan was edited and annotated by James H. Tashjian, who was for more than 30 years editor of the Hairenik Weekly (later the Armenian Weekly) and the Armenian Review.
In reading My Name is Saroyan, I was taken back to those Fresno days and to memories of my friends, Bob Kuyumjian (best buddy), Aurora Vartikian (I had a crush on her!), Mike Keshishian and Senor Saghatelian (outstanding football players), Arpie Ohanian, Bobbie Kevorkian (class clown), and so many more! And to the streets where I walked and rode my bike—like Saroyan, the one with no rubber on the peddles. And to the nearby small towns of Clovis, Fowler, Selma, Kingsburg, Kerman, Mendota...
I photographically relived the night Bob Kuyumjian and I snuck into Memorial Auditorium to see the original New York touring cast performance of Saroyan’s play “The Time of Your Life,” which was truly the time of my life, for I never escaped its magic, and knew from that moment on that I had to do something in the theatre. (I wound up teaching drama, and then radio and television.)
This adventure was immediately tarnished by one of my father’s co-workers. My dad came home in a stew, and came right to the point: “Did you sneak into the auditorium last night to see a play?” “Yes, Dad, I did.” I expected him to punish me for this minor crime, but that wasn’t the cause of his anger. “Dan Bradley told me he saw you sneaking into the show with an Armenian kid.” “Yeah, Dad, it was Bob Kuyumjian…” He cut me off, and went into a tirade against his co-worker because, you see, he had immense respect for the Armenians who had come to Fresno after the Turkish holocaust. So I wasn’t the target of his rage. I felt more respect for my Dad at that moment than I ever thought I could or would.
My Name is Saroyan also brought back the day in 1944, that I spent with the Saroyan clan in Long Beach, where the extended family encamped for several weeks to escape the blistering hot summer of Fresno. I was in San Pedro with my ship, getting ready to head out into the Pacific, but when I was invited to the Saroyan get-together by my friend, Dudley St. John, who was stationed at an army base nearby, I received a pass and was on my way. One of the many memorable events that day was shish kebab made in their penthouse apartment in a large galvanized metal tub!
My strongest memories of that day, though, were dozens of short but evocative stories told by the patriarch of the family—I may be wrong, but I’ve always remembered him as Uncle Aram. Most of his tales were fables or parables from the Old Country. But at one point he became very sober as he recounted memories of his family rushing ahead of armed Turkish troops on horseback, who were cutting down thousands of Armenians who only wanted to reach Musa Dagh and safety.
As much as I was enjoying the day, I was keyed up, waiting for William Saroyan’s appearance, but Dudley was wrong: Saroyan didn’t show up…
So, I missed another opportunity to meet him.
The deeper I got into My Name is Saroyan, the more I needed to contact Mr. Tashjian, to tell him how much I appreciated his assembling and annotating a book which—had he not had custody of the Saroyan papers and dedicated himself to bringing them to the public—most likely would have remained in the Armenian Weekly archives, unread, until some compulsive “neat-freak” sent them to the recycling bin to make more storage space.
My Name is Saroyan brings to life an enigmatic genius, a man who revealed himself in every word he wrote, yet one who remained a mystery in many ways when he lived and when he died. In this book, touching indications of his insecurities show up that are never found in his cocky, arrogant public stance. The Saroyan most people thought they knew, but didn’t, is revealed in these pages.
In A Fistfight for Armenia, written in 1933, he gives a furious picture of a child who wants only to live in peace, yet can’t escape the pervasive contempt shown to Armenians by many of “Fresno’s finest.” The story is told by “Caspar,” obviously the alter ego of Saroyan himself.
“One evening he and Reuben Paul sat on the porch of his home talking when a group of six or seven boys came up, running and shouting they had been insulted. Roy Sommers, who had boxed in the ring of the American Legion, had insulted them. ‘He called us dirty Armenians,’ said Ara George, a boy of eight, who began to tremble and burst into tears.”
Later, as Caspar and Sommers fight, a girl in the small crowd yells, “We’ll massacre you like the Turks,” she said. “You just watch. We’ll cut you to pieces the way the Turks did.”
As far as I know, Saroyan never in his stories revealed the ache that must have lived in him every day, growing up in Fresno. The public knows only of his deep love for his home town: “We drank the beer and my cousin cranked the car and we got in and drove out of the hills into the warm, quiet, valley that was our home in the world, in time, in the time of living.”
The world knows William Saroyan as the brilliant writer who became suddenly famous with the publication of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. After that, people think, everything was roses. But, in My Name is Saroyan, we learn about his subsequent struggles. Perhaps his story most revered by the multitudes is The Human Comedy. Here is what he wrote to the editor of the Hairenik Weekly in Jan. 1942:
“I took the manuscript to Metro and they read it without talking about money. A couple of days later one of Hollywood’s greatest authorities called me in and said, ‘Saroyan, we’ll give you $25,000 for that ream of junk, even though we don’t know what we’ll do with it; we’re doing you this favor since we called you, you didn’t call us.’ I was not at all impressed at his generosity. I asked ‘what’s your next best offer?’ ‘Not a sou more’ he said (educated Hollywood people always use ‘sou’ for ‘cent.’”
Were it not for editor James Tashjian, the world would never have been told about his constant struggle to preserve his income and his integrity.
These are but two examples of the many revelations in My Name is Saroyan. The millions of readers whose lives were enriched by his words and his wisdom will never see Saroyan in all his dimensions without reading this gift from James Tashjian.
On Nov. 21, 2006, I sent this e-mail to the Armenian Weekly:
Hello. I am writing to learn more about Mr. Tashjian. I recently came across “My Name is Saroyan,” and am incredibly grateful for this book and for the vision of Mr. Tashjian who made it possible.
I grew up in Fresno, and was one of many high school kids who discovered Saroyan early on. We couldn’t wait for each of his books to be published; we read them, shared them, and discussed them at great length and dissected them in amazing detail.
Anyway, I hope Mr. Tashjian is alive and well, and if so I’d like to hear from him.
San Francisco State University
On Nov. 30, I received this response:
Dear Professor Stuart Hyde,
I am sorry to inform you that James Tashjian has just passed away. I wanted to visit him as well to wish him well and also printed your email so that he got a chance to read it, but he passed away before we had a chance to visit him. I do not know Mr. Tashjian in person—I moved to the U.S. a few months ago—but all those who knew James Tashjian and worked with him only have good words about the man.
Editor, The Armenian Weekly
So, once again, I missed an opportunity—not to touch William Saroyan, because I’d already lost that chance—but to at least get nearer to him through the man who expanded and deepened my knowledge and understanding of this great author, the editor who made William Saroyan a more complete figure in the Pantheon of great storytellers.
I end by paraphrasing what I said to that teller at the Washington Mutual Branch, but what I say now to readers of the Armenian Weekly:
William Saroyan is your voice, but have you heard it? Have you read his words? You may need to be embraced by his visions of Fresno, of San Francisco, of Armenia. His voice may even help you find deeper meaning to your Armenian-ness. Once you find him, you’ll want to share him with everyone! I found him years ago, but only recently did I really discover him.”
Thank you, James H. Tashjian.