“Wherever you go, always shout “Hayastan””: This was the message of the world-famous Armenian writer William Saroyan, born and living in the United States. He did not write in Armenian, but he was Armenian at heart, and the world-famous heroes of his works were Armenians.

William Saroyan was born into an Armenian family that immigrated to Fresno from Bagesh Bitlis in Western Armenia.

The great writer later wrote the following: “I am William Saroyan, the fourth child of Armenak and Taguhi Saroyan. I was born in Fresno, California, but my family is from Bitlis… Even though we lived far away from the Armenian lands, Armenia was within us and Bitlis was within us. At the same time, we were in Bitlis with our thoughts, our discussions, our memories. We sang our old songs, we told the stories of Bitlis…”.

He lost his father at the age of four and spent some time in an orphanage. Then his mother took him out of the orphanage and sent him to school. In order to provide for his family, the young boy had to leave school to sell newspapers on the streets and then work as a courier in a telegraph office.

“From the age of seven, I started selling newspapers on the sidewalks and at intersections. One day, the neighborhood kids invited me to play baseball, and even though I knew very well that I had to sell the remaining newspapers, I couldn’t refuse the offer and joined my friends. Suddenly I heard my mother’s voice: “What are you doing?” “I’m playing, Mom,” I said. One look from my mother was enough for me to go back to work. After that day, I realized that I had to be like other children,” she wrote.

But work did not stop him from reading, he even wrote short stories.

His first story was published in the weekly newspaper “Hayrenik” in Boston in 1933 under the signature Sirak Goryan.

Saroyan’s first book of stories was published in 1934 under the title “The Brave Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” and immediately made the young writer known.

In 1939, Saroyan won the Pulitzer Prize for his play “The Hours of His Life”, but he refused the prize on the grounds that commerce had no right to patronize the arts and that the state should not interfere in literary affairs. In this case, the Pulitzer Prize amounted to 10,000 dollars, a very large sum for the time, and Saroyan’s family was in financial difficulties.

Saroyan said, “Life is art, not accounting. One has to try many plays to find oneself,” he wrote.

In 1942 Saroyan went to do his military service. For him, war was the greatest evil against humanity. This was reflected in his novel “The Human Comedy”. In 1944, the American Film Academy awarded Saroyan an Oscar for the screenplay of the same name based on it.

Most of Saroyan’s heroes are Armenians who represent the Armenian environment with its national customs and traditions, the historical memory of the homeland. The theme of the homeland, the original characters of people who preserve their centuries-old traditions are contrasted with the flattening standards of the American way of life. Saroyan’s heroes, especially the expressive characters of children and young people, have entered the world literature as symbols of purity of spirit and sincerity.

Saroyan wrote, “Look for the good everywhere and as soon as you find it, bring it out of hiding into the light of day, let goodness be at ease and not ashamed of itself. Hold it like the apple of your eye, nourish even the smallest traces of humanity, for it resists death, even if it is transient.  Find in everything what is bright, what cannot be tarnished,” he wrote.

The world’s leading periodicals wrote articles about Saroyan’s boundless humanity and his ability to raise universal issues in simple language. 

“I study life. I am a researcher. I study everything around me. Everything. And the moment I find a bit of beauty in a person’s soul or in something where apparently only evil and death dwell, I realize that our life is full of inexhaustible goodness.”

From the very beginning of Saroyan’s foray into literature, critics have likened his literary style to Steinbeck and Faulkner. Many drew parallels with Hemingway. The latter, by the way, did not appreciate this fact. This may be because in the story of his first published book, “Seventy Thousand Assyrians”, Saroyan, with his characteristic cruel irony, mentioned Hemingway next to Sherwood Anderson’s name. On that occasion, Hemingway’s response in “Esquire” magazine was not delayed.  He described Saroyan as a novice writer who “barely fit in the palm of his hand” and looked as if he could make some changes. However, the cynical opinion of this writer, who has an important place in the field of literature, did not prevent Saroyan from entering literature with glory.

There is even a story of the Saroyan-Hemingway feud, which many believe to be fabricated. According to the story, during a literary gathering in one of the famous bohemian bars in the United States, a beautiful Armenian woman walked in and Hemingway exclaimed, “What a body this Armenian street woman has.” And after that, Saroyan is said to have started punching Hemingway.

Actually, this story is unlikely, because Hemingway did not attend the meeting, as he was in Paris with his wife at the time. However, in one of the interviews given in Armenia, Saroyan admitted that he once hit Hemingway in a bar, knocking the sturdy and physically very strong man to the ground. “He insulted my national honor,” Saroyan said of hitting Hemingway, and then added, “but he was drunk.” It is also said that one of the cafes in Paris still has a sign that reads “Hemingway and Saroyan argued here”.

Saroyan managed to visit his hometown four times. Each of his visits became a holiday.

William Saroyan died in Fresno in 1981. According to his will, some of his remains were buried in his hometown, in the pantheon named after Komitas.

Armenians love Saroyan not only for his simple language and profound, universal writing, but also because he wrote in Armenian with English letters and words. “I know Armenian, which helps me write in English,” he wrote.

Saroyan understood how to be a true American while remaining a true Armenian. No matter where he was, in San Francisco, Hollywood or New York, Saroyan’s heart was always in his homeland.

Ashken Virabyan

journalist-analyst westernarmeniatv