William Saroyan was, without discussion, the most important name of Armenian origin in American literature and, in the 1930s and 1940s, one of its dominant names. For this reason, he became an indisputable name of iconic stature among Armenians in America and throughout the world.
His parents, Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, had come to New York in 1905 and after a short stint in Paterson, New Jersey, they settled in Fresno, California, where William was born. His father died in 1911, and Saroyan, along with his brother and sister, was placed in an orphanage in Oakland. In 1916 the family reunited in Fresno, where his mother Takoohi had already secured work at a cannery. He continued his education on his own, supporting himself with various odd jobs.
Saroyan’s first stories appeared in the 1930s, in the English page of Hairenik Daily and then in the Hairenik Weekly (today The Armenian Weekly). He made his breakthrough with the story “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” in Story magazine (1934), which lent its title to his first book in 1935. Several collections followed; by 1939 he had published seven books and the optimist strain of his “Saroyanesque” prose, among the tribulations and trials of the Depression age, had established himself as a leading writer. Many of Saroyan's stories were based on his childhood experiences among the Armenian American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley. My Name is Aram (1940) became an international bestseller and was translated into many languages. His play “The Time of His Life” won him the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award, which he accepted, and the Pulitzer Prize, which he rejected on the grounds that commerce should not judge the arts. It was adapted into a movie in 1948, starring James Cagney.
He had worked on the screenplay for the film “The Human Comedy,” but he was dismissed from the project. He then turned the script into a novel, which he published before the movie’s release, in 1943. The movie won him an Academy Award for Best Story in the same year. It turns out, then, that the movie was the source for the novel and not vice versa. The novel was the source for the homonymous musical of 1983.
Saroyan served in the Army during World War II and was posted to London in 1942. He narrowly avoided a court martial when his novel, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, was seen as advocating pacifism.
Saroyan worked rapidly, hardly editing his text, and drinking and gambling away much of his earnings. This took a toll on his marriage with actress Carol Marcus (1924–2003), whom he married twice, from 1943-1949 and 1951-1952. They had two children, writer Aram Saroyan (1943) and actress Lucy Saroyan (1946-2003). After their divorce, Carol Marcus married actor Walter Matthau.
Interest in Saroyan’s novels declined after the war; their sentimentalism was harshly criticized. From 1958 onwards, Saroyan mainly resided in Paris. Since the 1950s he mainly published several volumes of memoirs and continued writing plays.
He visited Soviet Armenia for the first time in 1934. His interest for his roots never ceased, as evidenced in his writing. He visited Armenia two more times, in 1960 and 1978, and even visited the birthplace of his parents, Bitlis, in Western Armenia (1964).
Saroyan died in Fresno, of cancer, on May 18, 1981. Half of his ashes were buried in California and the other half was taken to Armenia, according to his will, and buried at Komitas Pantheon in Yerevan. To celebrate his 100th anniversary, a statue of Saroyan was placed in downtown Yerevan.