I’ve been aware for years that William Saroyan was a well-known author, but I’d never read any of his work, and until I began putting this web site together I didn’t realize he was second-generation Armenian-American. He lived from 1908 to 1981, and was a prolific writer of short stories, novels, and plays. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for his play The Time of Your Life, but he refused to accept it.
I chose to read the linked short-story collection My Name Is Aram(published 1940) because, first of all, it is considered Saroyan’s best work, and second of all, I was captivated from the first line of the first story, “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse”: “One day back there in the good old days when I was nine and the world was full of every imaginable kind of magnificence, and life was still a delightful and mysterious dream, my cousin Mourad, who was considered crazy by everybody who knew him except me, came to my house at four in the morning and woke me up by tapping on the window of my room.”
Each story features the child Aram as narrator and protagonist. The stories are light and funny for the most part, following Aram as he helps an uncle plant pomegranate trees in the desert, and is bribed into singing in the Presbyterian church (although he is Catholic), and attempts to escape the truant officer in order to hang out at the circus.
These stories don’t dwell on the kind of cultural angst that we might expect from a second-generation writer of today. Instead, details such as the fact that Aram speaks Armenian at home, that he has dusky skin and black hair, and that he and his family are poor, are woven into the stories without a lot of fanfare.
Occasionally a story hints at the sorrows and regrets of the adult world, as in “The Poor and Burning Arab,” about a silent Arab who hangs out at Aram’s house, presumably because he misses his family back home, and Armenians are as close to Arabs as he could find.
I enjoyed every one of the 14 stories in this collection.
Thank you for the review, Jyotsna. It makes me want to read the book again.
William Saroyan lived in San Francisco for a while, not far from where I live now. I grew up reading and loving several of his books, which were part of the large collection of books in my home (in Milwaukee, WI.) We were not Armenian, but my parents were second generation and I think these books spoke to the immigrant experience. Also, they were wonderful books.
It’s been several years since I read My Name is Aram. But I’ve reread The Human Comedy several times; it is one of my favorite books. And 15 years ago or so, I was shocked to find out that the edition the middle school students who used my branch were reading was not the one I read. The original was published in 1942, I believe. But the edition that goes in and out of print, and is sometimes on school reading lists, was a rewrite, from approximately 1960.
It is a very different book, and IMO an inferior one. My theory is that either the publisher or Saroyan or both felt it could be better marketed to young readers in this edition and I hate to say it, but I think what Saroyan did was dumb it down.
This has been something I have tried to explore off and on (and perhaps rectify) since I discovered it. I spoke with Saroyan’s niece, who used to live in my neighborhood and lecture about her beloved uncle. I tried to reach people who might deal with his archives at Stanford University. I think I tried to reach Saroyan’s son Aram as well. I hit stone walls each time.
You can tell the different editions by their chapter headings. The original has fanciful, intriguing, poetic chapter headings (an example: “All the World will be Jealous of Me”). The chapter headings in the rewrite are far more prosaic (“Mrs. Brown”). If you are able to find an original, read it. You won’t be sorry. If you can find both editions and care to read and compare, let me know if you agree with me. I so wish the original edition of The Human Comedy would come back into print. I don’t know if middle school kids reading it today would love it as much as I did when I was 12 or 13, but I like to think some of them would.
San Francisco Public Library
Children’s and Teen Collection Development