William Saroyan, the son of an Armenian immigrant, is born in Fresno on this day in 1908.
Saroyan’s father died when the boy was only three, and he was raised in an orphanage. His mother later reunited the family. To earn extra money for the family, Saroyan started selling newspapers on the streets of Fresno, California, at age eight. Although he left school at 15, he became an avid reader and haunted the public libraries.
Saroyan published his first collection of stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, in 1934, followed by Inhale and Exhale in 1936. His first play, My Heart’s in the Highlands, was produced in 1939. His play The Time of Your Life, about a group of lonely drifters in a San Francisco bar, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. Saroyan rejected the award, saying the play was no better than anything else he had written.
In his novels, Saroyan portrayed a fundamental goodness in all of his characters. His work was frequently based on his own childhood, and boys are often his main characters. The central figure in the stories of My Name Is Aram is a young Armenian-American boy, and his 1943 novel, The Human Comedy, featured a 14-year-old boy whose older brother has left to fight in World War II. Saroyan also wrote several memoirs in the 1960s and 1970s. Saroyan married Carol Marcus, and the couple had two children, a son and a daughter. The couple divorced, remarried, then divorced again. Saroyan fell into deep debt in the 1960s and was plagued by tax problems. He wrote as much as possible to regain his financial footing, and much of his later work received mixed reviews. He died in Fresno in 1981.