Heritage

19 April, 2021
Drawing by Aram Saroyan (courtesy of the artist).

To com­mem­o­rate annu­al recog­ni­tion of the Armen­ian Geno­cide on April 24th, TMR is pub­lish­ing two columns, Her­itage by Aram Saroy­an and Armen­ian Eyes by Mis­cha Ger­a­coulis, each of which takes the read­er back through per­son­al mem­o­ries of fam­i­ly and belong­ing, in the Armen­ian and Amer­i­can dias­po­ra. See also our Resource Guide to Armen­ian Cul­ture for a rec­om­mend­ed list of writ­ers, artists, film­mak­ers and more. —Edi­tor

Aram Saroyan

The youngest and only Amer­i­can-born child of an Armen­ian immi­grant fam­i­ly, my father grew up and came of age on the West Coast, a writer out of the loop of the New York lit­er­ary scene that might have giv­en his career a jump-start. Among his cor­re­spon­dence now at Stan­ford’s Spe­cial Col­lec­tions Library is a let­ter from 1928, the year he turned 20, from Clifton Fadi­man, then a young edi­tor at Simon & Schus­ter. Fadi­man prais­es a group of sto­ries he’d received and says he would be very inter­est­ed in see­ing a nov­el. It would be six more years, how­ev­er, before William Saroy­an would make his nation­al break­through with his famous sto­ry “The Dar­ing Young Man on the Fly­ing Trapeze.” It was 1934, the depths of the Depres­sion, and the sto­ry, with its per­son­al as well as its nation­al res­o­nance, tells of a young writer in San Fran­cis­co who over the course of a day suc­cumbs to star­va­tion and dies. At 26, my father had at last hit the note that would bring him not just accep­tance, but nation­al and quick­ly inter­na­tion­al fame. 

By the time the sto­ry appeared — the deferred hour of reck­on­ing in a career that in anoth­er less deter­mined writer might not have dawned at all —he was already a styl­ist, mas­ter of a prose light years beyond all but one or two of his most accom­plished con­tem­po­raries. The final two para­graphs of the sto­ry, about the last moments of the young writer’s life, read: 

He became drowsy and felt a ghast­ly ill­ness com­ing over his blood, a feel­ing of nau­sea and dis­in­te­gra­tion. Bewil­dered, he stood beside his bed, think­ing there is noth­ing to do but sleep. Already he felt him­self mak­ing great strides through the flu­id of the earth, swim­ming away to the begin­ning. He fell face down upon the bed, say­ing, I ought first at least to give the coin to some child. A child could buy any num­ber of things with a penny. 

Then swift­ly, neat­ly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eter­nal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the rep­tile, and man. An ocean of print undu­lat­ed end­less­ly and dark­ly before him. The city burned. The herd­ed crowd riot­ed. The earth cir­cled away, and know­ing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the emp­ty sky and became dream­less, unalive, perfect. 

_________

Here was an Armen­ian Amer­i­can writer — and Arme­ni­ans of his day in Fres­no were looked down on — des­tined to become an inter­na­tion­al lit­er­ary sen­sa­tion, quick­ly eclips­ing the Fres­no fame of his uncle, Aram Saroy­an, the younger broth­er of his moth­er, Takoohi. 

William and Aram Saroyan (photo courtesy William Saroyan House Museum, from the collection of Charles Janigian).

Uncle Aram, as he was wide­ly known with a sort of “God­fa­ther” res­o­nance in the Fres­no Armen­ian com­mu­ni­ty, rep­re­sent­ed the first Amer­i­can suc­cess of the Saroy­an clan. Assim­i­la­tion or not, scorned Armen­ian or not — and hous­es in Fres­no were post­ed with for sale and rental signs that read “no Arme­ni­ans” in small­er print — the man com­mand­ed respect. A crim­i­nal lawyer and the own­er of vine­yards, he was a pow­er­ful phys­i­cal pres­ence, he had mon­ey, he was smart, and he did­n’t take no for an answer. 

What an urgency to assim­i­late may not allow for are those issues and par­tic­u­lar con­cerns iden­ti­fied with a cul­ture. When these were tak­en up in turn by my father, he encoun­tered loud deri­sion from his moth­er’s broth­er, the male role-mod­el in his imme­di­ate orbit, after his father Arme­nak Saroy­an’s death at 37 when my father was not yet three years old. 

“You want to write?” Aram shout­ed at the ado­les­cent Willie Saroy­an after he con­fid­ed his aspi­ra­tion. “Learn to write checks!” 

That my father even­tu­al­ly suc­ceed­ed in his lit­er­ary endeav­or to such an unprece­dent­ed degree that he became the most famous Armen­ian of his time, and per­haps in that day the most famous Armen­ian of all time, had a pow­er­ful effect on his extend­ed fam­i­ly at large. 

From the begin­ning, I was iden­ti­fied as the son of a famous Amer­i­can writer, though hard­ly known that way to myself. I remem­ber one after­noon get­ting on a school bus in Man­hat­tan, where I was going to kinder­garten or the first grade, and hav­ing kids point me out to one anoth­er. At some point it was sug­gest­ed that it had some­thing to do with my par­ents get­ting divorced. I did­n’t know what “divorce” meant, but could see it was news. 

Aram Saroyan (photo Neil A. France).

Fame in effect revers­es the whole assim­i­la­tion sce­nario. Celebri­ty becomes a kind of nation unto itself, one which bestows a spe­cial pass­port on its sub­ject and his fam­i­ly, all of whom know the world a bit dif­fer­ent­ly than it’s known by oth­ers. For my father, a flam­boy­ant lit­er­ary fig­ure of the thir­ties and for­ties, fame involved both licens­es and per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al lia­bil­i­ties. But as he got old­er, hav­ing passed his gold­en moment and become a par­ent and then an ex-hus­band, his per­sona changed, and some of my fond­est mem­o­ries of him have to do with this change. 

At his height, as the new Amer­i­can wiz­ard of the short sto­ry and then quick­ly the enfant ter­ri­ble of the Amer­i­can the­ater, Saroy­an became for the 1930s a lit­er­ary fig­ure com­pa­ra­ble to what F. Scott Fitzger­ald had been for the 1920s. He was, on the tes­ti­mo­ny of many, a social­ly dom­i­nant fig­ure, young, hand­some, loud, fun­ny and, to use one of his favorite words, swift. Even after his glo­ry days had long passed, he retained that accel­er­at­ed temper—he was for­ev­er mov­ing some­where, walk­ing, talk­ing, look­ing, exclaim­ing at things—and he was the father of a son whose own tem­per, while sim­i­lar in cer­tain ways, was gen­er­al­ly a study in con­trast. I don’t have my father’s speed, and my tem­per is less exhi­bi­tion­is­tic, though not immune to the­atrics. What moves me in my mem­o­ries of him are the times at which, I see now, he rec­og­niz­ably low­ered his own nat­ur­al vol­ume to take in his son’s qui­eter reg­is­ter. He was inter­est­ed, in a word, which can’t be said of every father. We spent time togeth­er; we dis­cussed many things. The child of a bro­ken mar­riage that left both par­ties embit­tered, I real­ized rather late in life that, unlike many of my male friends, I actu­al­ly knew my father; I laughed with him, I saw him in good times and bad. If he could be impos­si­ble — and he could be — know­ing him was an incom­pa­ra­ble gift of my life. 

Unlike his imme­di­ate pre­de­ces­sor, Fitzger­ald, who was gone at forty-four, and his suc­ces­sor, Jack Ker­ouac, gone at forty-sev­en — he was a sur­vivor. My father died at 72, and in his lat­er years, while no longer the movie-star fig­ure of his youth, he had recov­ered his lit­er­ary bal­ance in a series of mem­oirs and a late series of sto­ries where he was back at the top of his form. 

The author's parents, Carol and William, early on.

Hav­ing found voca­tion ear­ly on, long before fame found him, he had its sup­port lat­er in his life when much else had been lost, includ­ing that fame, his ill-fat­ed mar­riage, and two chil­dren from whom in his last years he was estranged. Nonethe­less, he went on writ­ing, went on mak­ing his draw­ings and water col­ors, and being William Saroy­an in the larg­er lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ty that nev­er for­got him. It was an imper­ish­able inher­i­tance he had dis­cov­ered, and it stood him in good stead in his lean lat­er years. While he’d known a pub­lic apoth­e­o­sis as a writer that only a hand­ful in his cen­tu­ry achieved, and the pass­ing of which was fatal­ly pun­ish­ing for a seem­ing major­i­ty of them, he lived on, per­haps not so unhap­pi­ly, in the way of an arti­san, ever engaged by his art and craft. 

In time, too, he came to dis­dain the par­tic­u­lars of the soci­ety that had giv­en him such a wild ride. “We live in a bull­shit cul­ture,” he declared in a qui­et, bemused tone after he’d done the round of tele­vi­sion talk shows upon the pub­li­ca­tion of one of his lat­er mem­oirs and seen the sales mul­ti­ply geo­met­ri­cal­ly. He was a ben­e­fi­cia­ry of the Oprah Club, as it were, before it exist­ed, but he had known big­ger sales before the advent of tele­vi­sion and the new wrin­kle was­n’t about to rock his world. 

By the time I came to know him, then, leav­ing aside the bit­ter­ness he har­bored toward my moth­er, he was a sea­soned real­ist who had tough­ened and deep­ened over the years. He impart­ed to me his love for gen­uine art in all its forms, and when we were on good terms, it was some­thing we could return to with pleasure. 

At the same time, his tem­per had been dam­aged by his expe­ri­ence and he turned away from the larg­er life he might have known in his lat­er years, per­haps know­ing that he was con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly unequal to it. While a vir­ile, attrac­tive man vir­tu­al­ly to the end of his life, he did­n’t engage in any seri­ous rela­tion­ship after his dou­ble-mar­riage to and dou­ble-divorce from my moth­er, and now I think of this as a sad but in cer­tain ways admirable real­ism. There may even have been in him a con­cern for the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of any part­ner he might have tak­en on — and there was nev­er a short­age of will­ing women — per­haps now know­ing him­self to be more or less inflex­i­bly a loner.

My moth­er, mean­while, had found anoth­er life, with anoth­er man who sev­en years along in their mar­riage became a movie star, and yet she remained embit­tered, and, I believe, was ulti­mate­ly more engaged by what had hap­pened with my father in her youth than Bill, who had no sig­nif­i­cant new life after­wards, was himself. 

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