I approached John Leggett's biography of William Saroyan, A Daring Young Man, with considerable enthusiasm. I met Saroyan when I was a young instructor at Purdue University and became reacquainted with him toward the end of his life. I had long admired his writing, especially the plays--My Heart's in the Highlands, The Time of Your Life (both 1939)--which had been produced by the Theatre Guild in New York where I later worked as a producer in the 1980s. So I was unprepared, to say the least, for the vituperative diminishment of his life and work in Leggett's book.
For more than 400 pages, Leggett can only seem to recall, in vivid detail, Saroyan's "failings," accusations continually stressed throughout the text: (1) Saroyan was hubristic and arrogant; (2) he was a bad husband and parent; and (3) he was a poor citizen. These three repeated accusations do not in any way illuminate certain realities in Saroyan's history.
An "uneducated" man (he never finished high school), Saroyan masked his defensiveness with aggressive self-promotion. Far from being hubristic, this was a survival technique (something Armenians have been forced to employ throughout history). As for his failures as a family man, Saroyan spent some formative years in an orphanage, never himself having experienced affection from his father, who died early, or his difficult mother, who abandoned him. He had no model for being loving and familial with his own family, something Leggett ignores.
The third accusation is founded on Saroyan's discomfort in the army during World War II. He chafed under the army not just because he resented authority but because he grew to oppose the war as a pacifist. This is hardly the "bad American" that Leggett presents.
Through all this, Leggett negates the fact that Saroyan wrote successfully in three different disciplines. As a short-story writer, he elucidated (with great warmth) stories of outcasts from society who managed to retain their optimism in spite of their circumstances. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, he created a play, The Time of Your Life, that features prominently in the American canon. He went on to win an Academy Award for screenwriting for The Human Comedy (1943), a film he later disowned. Saroyan published 50 works and had another 50 available for publication. He kept a journal and "doodled and drew" (see Bibliofile, page 53) up until the last months of his life in 1981.
Leggett's lack of empathy for Saroyan is clear in his introduction: "We can feel pity and fear for him, and the catharsis these are said to bring--in gratitude for being spared ourselves." Why bother to continue on for 400 pages if this is his premature conclusion about the life and work of a man who, even today, is so revered that writing instructors use the adjective "Saroyanesque" as an encomium applied to students' work? Saroyan deserves better.
By John Leggett (Knopf, 436 pages, $30)
"Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?"