By LEVON AVDOYAN
The 14th Annual Vardanants Day Armenian Lecture, sponsored by the Near East Section of the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division, featured an afternoon dedicated to the life and works of the Armenian American author, artist and composer William Saroyan (1908-1981) on Sept. 15.
“It is only right that America’s de facto national library should recognize William Saroyan’s achievements in celebration of his birth,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “Though he was quite proud of his Armenian background, through his novels, short stories, scripts and essays Saroyan always spoke for humanity in general.”
The program featured a lecture by Dickran Kouymjian titled “The Unknown Saroyan,” which covered many aspects of Saroyan’s career.
Kouymjian, the Haig and Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies, emeritus, at California State University, was a friend and confidant to Saroyan during his final years. He instituted courses at Fresno State on the author’s life and works. In 1996, he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to inventory Saroyan’s manuscripts, papers, correspondence and effects. He was subsequently appointed the second William Saroyan Visiting Professor of Armenian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote the introduction for a 2009 compilation of previously unpublished Saroyan works, including his first novel, “Young Saroyan: Follow and Other Early Writings,” edited by William B. Secrest Jr. He has taken part in many of the activities associated with the 2008 Saroyan centennial in Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, and Paris, where Kouymjian resides.
Kouymjian first spoke on “William Saroyan the Artist,” accompanying his talk with examples of Saroyan’s drawings and paintings. In his writings, Saroyan reveals that he had seriously considered art as a career.
“Long before Jackson Pollock, for instance, had begun his magnificent experiments and made his magnificent achievement in painting,” Saroyan wrote, ‘I had already been there …
I hadn’t made anything of them because writing was my life, and, if I may say so, my business.”
“Saroyan painted as he wrote: rapidly, profusely, and regularly, often in spurts,” said Kouymjian. “Excessive analysis is not necessary. It is through the free association of color and form that Saroyan’s paintings are to be enjoyed.”
In the process of inventorying Saroyan’s art after his death, Kouymjian recorded 700 paintings, plus hundreds of drawings on the flyleaves of books in his personal library. Kouymijian described Saroyan’s extensive archives, now housed at Stanford University.
As Koumjian read Saroyan’s amusing letter “To the Only One,” in which he described his life in Paris at 74 Rue Taitbout, images from the author’s apartment were shown.
Wrote Saroyan, “I also like having a second table to go to from time to time, to stand over, studying rocks, or to sit at and eat and drink, using an old newspaper as table covering, because there is always something interesting on a page, no matter which part of the paper it happens to be.”
Kouymjian discussed Saroyan’s career as a filmmaker. Failing to convince movie mogul Louis B. Mayer that he could direct “The Human Comedy,” Saroyan published his work as a novel before the 1943 film of the same title was released. In 1948, his work, “The Time of Your Life,” was made into a successful film, starring Jimmy Cagney. Saroyan also played a pivotal role in the television series “Omnibus” that ran on CBS from 1952-1961.
The afternoon concluded with the showing of Saroyan’s 1942 film, “The Good Job,” which he wrote and directed. It has the distinction of being the first film in the United States in which Armenian was spoken. Also shown was “A Few Scenes Out of the California Boyhood of William Saroyan,” written by Saroyan for a 1955 episode of “Omnibus.” In the show, Saroyan introduces vignettes from his childhood in Fresno. The young Saroyan is played by the actor Sal Mineo.
A webcast of this event may be viewed on the Library’s website at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.
William Saroyan (1908-1981)
William Saroyan, the youngest of four children of Armenian immigrants, was born in Fresno, Calif., in 1908. The first of the family to be born in the U.S., Saroyan started writing at 13. He dropped out of school and moved to San Francisco, where after 13 more years of writing and submitting his works for publication, he finally became a best-selling author and instant celebrity with his 1934 collection of short stories titled “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”
During the 1938-9 season, he had two plays on Broadway, “My Heart’s in the Highlands” and “The Time of Your Life,” which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. The following year, his collection of stories “My Name is Aram” became a bestseller and was soon followed by a best-selling novel and film “The Human Comedy,” for which he won an Oscar in 1943.
A stint in the army, marriage, divorce and a change in American literary tastes dampened, but did not stop, his career. He kept writing from Paris, where he moved in 1960, and Fresno, to which he returned in 1963, and where he published until shortly before his death in 1981.
During Saroyan’s lifetime, he published more than 60 books, including short stories, novels, plays and a memoir. He left as many unpublished manuscripts, which are part of his extensive archives. Written in 1930, his first novel, “Follow,” was published posthumously, along with two collections of plays titled “The Armenian Trilogy” and “The Warsaw Visitor,” and an autobiographical work, “Where the Bones Go.”
The Vardanants Day lecture series was created in 1996 to explore and present all aspects of Armenian culture and history. It is named after the Armenian holiday that commemorates the battle of Avarayr (A.D. 451), which was waged by Armenian General Vardan Mamikonian and his compatriots against invading Persian troops who were attempting to re-impose Zoroastrianism on the Christian state. As a religious holiday, it also celebrates Armenia’s triumph over forces of assimilation.
Levon Avdoyan is the Armenian and Georgian area specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.