A Saroyanesque Story
In the late 1930s, a young couple, Jean and Bruce Ariss, were living on Huckleberry Hill in Monterey, California. Jean, a writer, and Bruce, an artist, had arrived a few years earlier from the San Francisco Bay Area. It didn’t take the charming and talented couple long to establish a presence in Monterey, which teemed with writers, artists, and poets. The Arisses had just begun publishing a literary newspaper, The Beacon, when one summer evening, they heard a knock at the door. It was John Steinbeck and William Saroyan.
The Arisses are now deceased, but several years ago Jean (who wrote a forgotten but fine novel, The Shattered Glass) remembered that evening with clarity. Saroyan, on his way from San Francisco to Los Angeles, had stopped to see Steinbeck, who lived in nearby Pacific Grove. Steinbeck decided to bring Saroyan to meet his friends the Arisses.
“John was kind of rumpled, as if Saroyan had woken him up,” Jean recalled. “And he probably had. Saroyan was dapper in a gray suit and fedora, and he had this big smile on his face. We invited them in—of course!—and had drinks. We’d read many of Bill’s stories, and ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’ was probably the most famous short story of its time.”
Saroyan’s short stories were in huge demand, and a few years later he would show himself to be an innovative and compelling playwright. Both he and Steinbeck were young writers of considerable fame from California farm towns—Saroyan from Fresno; Steinbeck, Salinas. Both would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1940; Steinbeck accepted his for The Grapes of Wrath, but Saroyan turned down his for the play The Time of Your Life because he felt his play My Heart's in the Highlands should have won the award in 1939."
At the time of his visit to the Arisses, Saroyan was easily selling his stories for hundreds of dollars each. Many of them had the strange, compelling quality of joyous experience layered over melancholy. “Daring Young Man,” for instance, is about a struggling young writer who hallucinates that he is flying magnificently through the air on a trapeze ... as he dies of starvation. The literary world and general public learned to describe this uniquely joyous/sad voice with one word: Saroyanesque.
There were reasons for Saroyan’s veiled sorrow. His father had died when he was three, and his mother put Bill and his brother and two sisters in an orphanage until, after some years, she got a job that paid enough to allow her to reclaim them. Also, the Armenian Genocide of the 1910s haunted Saroyan and thousands of Armenians around the world. It surfaced in powerful Saroyan pieces such as “Seventy Thousand Assyrians,” part story, part essay, part bitter race memory, and completely Saroyanesque.
But that particular evening was light and happy, even heady. The writers and the young couple talked and laughed for an hour or so before Steinbeck excused himself and left.
“We were having such a good time, we asked Saroyan if he could stay a little longer, and I fixed us a meal,” Jean said. “Over dinner we discussed The Beacon, and Saroyan was very encouraging.
“When it got late, Saroyan said that maybe he shouldn’t drive through to Los Angeles. We invited him to stay over, but he said he’d find a room in Monterey or Pacific Grove. He said goodbye and left. We thought we’d probably never see him again.”
The next morning the Arisses awoke to another knock on the door. It was Saroyan, looking tired, his eyes dark. He was holding a half-dozen typewritten pages.
“He had that big smile on his face again,” Jean said. “He said, ‘Kids, this is for your literary newspaper. I wrote a new story last night. That will be two dollars, cash money.’ I think he probably stayed up most of the night writing it. He could have sold that story to an important magazine for who knows what, but here he was giving it to us and our little paper.
“From then on, Bruce and I had nothing but love for that man.”
Unfortunately, not all editions of The Beacon have been accounted for, so that Saroyan short story is still waiting to be rediscovered.
–Steve Hauk is the author of two award-winning documentary films, numerous catalogue and book essays on California art and literature, including This Side of Eden: Images of Steinbeck's California, and two recently completed plays.