By Matthew Maroot
Writers, scholars and distinguished community members gathered the weekend of March 19-20, 1999 to honor and celebrate one of the most magnificent and prolific writers the San Joaquin Valley and the world have ever known. His hundreds of short stories, plays, novels and essays entertained millions and continue to do so today.
His name was William Saroyan.
In celebrating the 90th anniversary of Saroyan’s birth, Dr. Dickran Kouymjian, Haig and Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies at Fresno State and Stephen Barile, president of the William Saroyan Society, organized the event called: Saroyan at Ninety: A Conference and Celebration.
The desire to hold a conference did not come solely from the occasion of Saroyan’s 90th birthday as Dr. Kouymjian pointed out. “The idea of celebrating Saroyan is linked closely with the need to keep his image alive and up-to-date.” Dr. Kouymjian also had a very personal reason for organizing and hosting the conference. “At the end of his life, those last years, he also entrusted me with a good deal of responsibility, and I still feel that I have a mission to carry out in the best way I can,” Dr. Kouymjian said.
In organizing the international weekend conference and celebration, coordinators invited several scholars, professors and relatives of Saroyan, all of whom spoke of Saroyan not only in terms of his literary accomplishments, but in terms of his personal attributes as well.
William Saroyan, the world renowned author, playwright and humanitarian, was born in Fresno on August 31, 1908, and grew up on the streets of old “Armenian Town.” It was Saroyan’s colorful childhood that served as the basis for so many of his best-loved writings.
Fresno State President, Dr. John Welty, opened the conference by speaking of Saroyan as a man of the world whose works have transcended space and time. The morning session consisted of two panels, the first of which was chaired by Stephen Barile, president of the William Saroyan Society. Barile, of Fowler, Calif., has produced and directed eight William Saroyan plays for stage and radio and is currently working on a radio production of Saroyan’s “The Cave Dwellers,” set to air in May, 1999.
Brenda Najimian-Magarity, a Fresno poet and English teacher at Madera High School spoke of her experiences getting to know Saroyan in her presentation titled, “Slow Drive, Sweet Saroyan.” Magarity spoke of her journeys throughout Fresno as Saroyan’s driver, a task she performed for three years.
The next speaker of the first session, Ed Hagopian, was born and raised in Whitinsville, Mass. Hagopian, who studied at the Sorbonne and has worked with such actors as Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Eddie Constantine, wrote a screenplay with William Saroyan titled, “Merry-Go-Round-the-World” for Darryl Zanuck in 1960. In his remembrance of Saroyan titled, “Saroyan in Grief,” Hagopian shared many heartfelt stories of the years he spent with Saroyan both in Paris and in the United States.
Chair of the second panel was Dr. Dickran Kouymjian, who like many others, was first touched by Saroyan through reading his stories in his high school classes in Chicago and in Racine, Wis. Dr. Kouymjian was a close friend to William Saroyan, part of the reason why he has chaired and organized several William Saroyan conferences.
“Though I spoke at a celebration for Saroyan’s 90th birthday in Pasadena last December, I really didn’t think I would be able to once again organize a major event in Fresno. But thanks to the insistence of Stephen Barile I agreed. No one I invited turned me down. People love Saroyan,” Dr. Kouymjian said.
The first speaker of the second panel was Aram Kevorkian, a writer and attorney from Paris who met Saroyan in 1961 and became his lawyer. In his contribution titled, “Saroyan and Paris,” he spoke of Saroyan at a time when he was broke and saddened by a failed marriage and a career that had drifted out of the spotlight. Saroyan eventually pulled himself out of this state of dejection and completed some of his best work.
“Saroyan in Love: Marriage and Divorce,” was the title of the next memoir, given by Roxie Moradian, a lifelong resident of Fresno and the Valley. Moradian shared her experiences in entertaining Saroyan in her home with her husband Frank. She maintained a 40-year relationship with Saroyan through which she closely experienced a personal side of Saroyan seen only by a few of his closest companions.
Perhaps the most poignant memories of time spent with Saroyan came in the recollections offered by Hank Saroyan, son of William’s older brother Henry, in his offering titled, “Saroyan, the Boy Within the Man at Sixty.” Hank Saroyan is an Emmy-award winning producer and director from Los Angeles. Hank Saroyan shared several intimate encounters which he had with his uncle while he visited him in Paris in 1974 and toward the end of his life in Fresno.
In the afternoon conference session dedicated to “Saroyan the Writer,” Professor Barlow Der Mugrdechian of the Fresno State Armenian Studies Program led a discussion by three writers, all of whom have studied Saroyan’s work extensively.
In “Saroyan, Joyce and ëEveryman,'” Michael Kloster, a writer with a degree in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, shared his findings on the similarities between the works of William Saroyan and James Joyce, particularly through the stream-of-consciousness technique that presents the flow of thoughts and images through the minds of the main characters, a pattern common in the work of both writers.
Deanna Garabedian, also a Berkeley graduate, shared the findings of her Master’s thesis titled, “William Saroyan and the Armenian-American Identity.” Garabedian analyzed the ways through which Saroyan dealt with the topics of language and religion in his writing. She found that Saroyan created a new identity in his writing, that of the Armenian-American. She went on to explain how he also demonstrated the conflict of the old-world and the new-world values and their effects on this new identity.
Michael Krekorian, poet and author, shared his interpretations of Saroyan’s writing in “American Trauma and the Summer of the Beautiful White Horse.” In his discussion, Krekorian, who currently teaches Armenian Studies and Armenian literature at Fresno State, examined Saroyan’s short story, “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse,” through what he called, “The point of intersection between the fading influence of the old country values and the evolving realization by the younger immigrant characters that the values of assertiveness, action and motion must be learned in order to emerge from the overwhelming trauma of the Armenian Genocide.”
In the fourth and final panel of the conference, chaired by Dr. Isabel Kaprielian, holder of the Henry S. K. Kazan Professorship of Modern Armenian and Immigration History at Fresno State, three scholars shared their thoughts on Saroyan’s work and its place in the literary world today.
Micah Jendian, who is currently completing a Master’s Degree in English at San Diego State University, shared his findings in a session titled, “Having the Time of Your Life.” Jendian who brings a philosophical approach to Saroyan’s work offered a fresh viewpoint on Saroyan’s writings based on his thesis titled, “You Yourself Are Supposed to Do Your Living: William Saroyan and the Culture Industry.”
According to Jendian, “Saroyan recognized commercial culture as a threat to authentic selfhood because it offers false notions of reality, projects fantastic personalities and lifestyles for emulation, and blunts awareness and imagination.” “Hoping to restore man to himself, Saroyan presents characters whose ëgood performances’ of themselves are thwarted by the commercial culture,” Jendian said. He went on to state that Saroyan’s observations anticipated critiques that emerged in the mid-’40s and are prevalent today.
The second speaker of the final panel, Michael Kovacs, is teaching literature as a lecturer at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Kovacs, also a Berkeley graduate, spoke of “Saroyan’s Expressionist Quest: An Exploration of His Early Writings.”
“Saroyan, like Walt Whitman before him and Jack Kerouac after, uses literature and language as a vehicle that freely exercises human passion and imagination in order to develop a vision and method of composition which liberates human perception, feeling and most importantly expression, from the straightjacket of contemporary society,” Kovacs said. He went on to add, “He searches behind the veil of appearances and writes about the inner and spiritual side of man.””
The final speaker of the afternoon was Dr. Dickran Kouymjian who led a discussion titled, “Who Reads Saroyan Today?” Dr. Kouymjian has worked extensively to keep the work of Saroyan alive, organizing a major international conference in 1981 after Saroyan’s death as part of a three-week Saroyan Celebration held on the Fresno State campus, followed by another gathering in 1993 in celebration of Saroyan’s 85th birthday.
Dr. Kouymjian’s fascination with Saroyan began at an early age. “I was lucky enough to get two of his books dedicated to me when I was a teenager from my California Aunt and Uncle Varsen and Archie Calusdian who knew Saroyan. After meeting Saroyan in Beirut in 1972, I was completely taken by his personality and a sort of relationship developed especially after I came to Fresno in 1977 and found myself coming and going between Paris and Fresno like Saroyan,” Dr. Kouymjian said.
Dr. Kouymjian noted that Saroyan’s work is not often taught in American classrooms, however, he believes there is presently a window of opportunity to reassess Saroyanís true literary achievement. “Recently, evaluations of Saroyan now make clear that he was a performer too, perhaps as much a performer as he was a passionate author. Writing became for him a spontaneous act of creation requiring daily rehearsal,” Dr. Kouymjian said. According to Professor Kouymjian, Saroyan’s work must once again enter the mainstream literary world in order to achieve a revival and once again become fashionable.
“Perhaps in the coming century we will be able to answer the question, ëWho reads Saroyan?’ in the same way it was answered in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, when everybody read Saroyan,” Dr. Kouymjian said.
Those who attended the conference were also treated to a special presentation of Hank Saroyan’s film, The Parsley Garden, based on the William Saroyan story, for which Hank Saroyan won the Best Director Emmy. Dr. Kouymjian also shared a brilliant example of William Saroyanís own directorial talents in the 11-minute film, produced and directed at MGM Studios in 1942, titled, The Good Job.
“He always thought filmmaking would be a perfect medium for him, but he really never got the chance. For a while he thought working at the Armenian Hye Film studio in Erevan would be possible, but he saw that there were hurdles as great in the Soviet bloc as in Hollywood. He had a good eye, clearly proven directing talents and a very engaging way with actors,” Dr. Kouymjian said.
William Saroyan was truly a dynamic character. Through his writing and his being, he gave international recognition not only to the Armenian experience, but to the human experience as well. In the last book published during his lifetime, Obituaries, Saroyan wrote, “My work is writing, but my real work is being.”
William Saroyan died in Fresno on May 18, 1981 at the age of 72. “Everybody has got to die,” Saroyan once said. “But I always believed an exception would be made in my case.”