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The Lonesome Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

For some months “The Human Comedy” was on the best seller lists for books and double checked by the movie reviewers. William Saroyan has reached the top of the ladder scarcely ten years after his first steps in learning to please the public. His achievement has not been the triumph of a vulgar opportunism. One can be sure (from reading “Sweeney in the Trees”) that money has meant little to him; and if he has been tempted by fame, as his frequent references to his genius suggest, it is only that fame has seemed the proof of his being a likeable person. Writing has been the decoy by which he has sought to bring people closer to him. It has been the medium through which he could make more people the more intimately aware of his friendly spirit.

The mellowness of success has long since tranquillized his style, which had originally been less confident and more demanding. But it was clear from the start that he was a born writer. His first published pieces were the letters he wrote the editor of Story Magazine informing him of his genius and his plans as a possible new contributor. Their impulsive mingling of truth and fantasy about himself whetted appetites that had been dulled by a surfeit of sophistication. Their request for recognition was an ingenuous and flattering assumption that the reader possessed both the good nature and the moral integrity to recognize and to further merit. It was obvious that a new comet had appeared on the literary horizon. At the same time it was agreeable to note that this rare personality was not portentous, as Thomas Wolfe had earlier proved, uncastrated and impossible to corral, but a whimsical animal, one eye already cocked on the halter. There were piquant and comforting signs of his not demanding to remain one of the eccentrics of literature. The note of desperation in his appeal was nothing more than a prayer for escape from such an isolation. Saroyan wrote about himself because his competence as a writer was the first problem to be gotten rid of. Until he had the assurance of being accepted, it hardly paid to bother with any more objective theme.

For the time being he felt very lonely. But because he was absorbed by his own depression, he could hardly realize how typical he was. For it was the era of the great depression. Other youths felt down and out because they wanted to work and could find no jobs. Saroyan felt friendless because his job was writing and nobody yet knew it since he had not yet started to publish. Like any other worker without experience, he had only the potentialities of his personality to offer. And he offered them boldly, because he was desperate, hesitantly because he was still unsure of himself, but winsomely because that was the way he was made.

But that was the way the average young American was reacting in the early thirties, when we were for the first time shaken loose from the certainties Americans had taken for granted since the founding of the Republic. The girls might turn to reading “Gone with the Wind” in every leisure hour for at least one winter, and fancy themselves back in the boom of the Reconstruction period. Boys like Saroyan failed to get beyond the title. They were beginning to doubt the promise of American life. Individual initiative, pell-mell for the pot of gold, was useless when the rainbow itself had disappeared. For the first time they were not sure of anything. Instead of the stable ground of the American way, they found themselves to their consternation on the flying trapeze. And it was revealed to them that that was where most Americans had always been without knowing it, only now it was swinging more wildly than ever. They were very anxious and lonely there, pitched this way and that by the changing course of events, the sudden closing of the banks and the unexpected opening of the WPA. They oscillated between depression and hope as belief spluttered out like a defective electric bulb. Such was the world of the young Saroyan. He was one of the crowd that had suddenly become aware of the helplessness of individualism and began groping for attachments they had not missed before. But all they found was a common frustration through which they could not break even to reach one another.

Saroyan’s best expression of this profound change in the national temper bears the awkward title of “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8.” A young man is working for the telegraph company. It is a cruel, impersonal corporation, the employees of which are forbidden to use the wires for their personal consolation. Nevertheless, this youth on one dull Sunday does get a “hello” message from the main office where it turns out there is a girl as lonely as he. Previously, in the empty hours off duty, he had played Brahms on a squeaky portable Vic-trola in his rooming house, and escaped into the maternal embrace of art. But he had really enjoyed most a trifling dance hall tune of the day, which was so satisfactory an opium of the senses that he often hummed its theme to himself as “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8.” Indeed that was the best way to hear it, since his landlady objected to the racket set up by the machine, even though he always turned it off by eleven. Now, fortunately, he need no longer sing his tune. He can go walking in his spare time with this girl. And they fall in love because they are both so lonely working for the telegraph company. They plan the inevitable little house. But they love each other too much to admit they are only singing a new version of “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8.” They love each other too much for frankness. And so one Sunday when the telegraph machine fails to spin its usual message, the youth does not fear a breakdown in the efficient equipment of the company, but knows that his girl is no longer there. She has been unable to torment herself any longer with a bliss that can promise no fulfillment. So the youth discards his broken fantasy by giving his portable Victrola to his landlady, and seeks to keep in spiritual communion with his girl’s demand for reality by leaving his job also and moving out of town into the certainty of the unknown.

So distraught was this youth that in telling his story he oscillates between the first and the third persons. Clearly he (or his creator who is identical with himself though the name is Romano) is trying to objectify his own unhappi-ness. He must project it from him into the third person because he cannot bear to carry it around with him and squarely acknowledge it as his own. The moving style of the story (which is, I think, the best Saroyan has written) is the esthetic reward of this psychological situation. Its nuance in expressing very real emotional conflicts results from the need to give them at least a superficial control. When Romano walks away from his conflicts by leaving the town behind, he also secures their temporary purgation.

For Saroyan the real purgation came with the success of his stories. From now on he writes habitually in the third person. If he uses the first, he is no longer conscious of describing himself, but only of following a customary device to make other people come more alive. In his later stories he is more objective than Hemingway. He feels no need to force inner conflicts to an issue, and project case-hardened words like bullets in a slow-motion film. Saroyan’s words were well oiled even in his misery. Now they flow as smoothly as though one of his Greek waiters were saying, “That’s life,” over a bottle of beer off duty. He tells his stories as such a waiter would tell them for himself, if he were more articulate, had an ear for the vivid sentence, and knew when to stop repeating himself. Such an artistry charms the respectable white-collar reader. It takes him into that hazardous land beyond the limits of his experience, and shows taim he has nothing to be afraid of there. It permits his democratic idealism to resume its innocent play. For these new people of Saroyan’s, who are unaware of being inspected, seem quite reconciled to their station, admirably frugal in making the best of anything. The stories of Saroyan, in his middle period, draw apart the curtain on the lower classes and show them to be no menace at all.

A deeper insight might demur that Saroyan’s is a superficial view of our underprivileged masses, or that he presents them as they used to be before the CIO, or that he is concerned with only the detritus of the labor movement. But Saroyan has become a success, and the immediate response of his emotions, like a benevolent octopus, colors the world about him. His vision is reversed, and he sees that other people are really as good-natured as he has become. Since there must be some distinction between genius and the commonplace, he doubtless would agree with us that his new people are shallow. But that is a minor matter. They are well-intentioned, though sometimes stupid and generally happy-go-lucky. They may be reckless, but they have little of either money or surplus energy to spend. They are not material for either tragedy or psychoanalysis. With amazement (through one of those unexpected associations the analysts are fond of) one realizes that Saroyan has resurrected a less boisterous, a paler, version of the “good nigger” of Joel Harris and the old vaudeville stage in his easy-going, unskilled, white-faced workers, from the lower strata of our foreign born, Armenian, Greek, Italian. It turns out (from the point of view of theme as opposed to style) not to have been Wolfe who has been gelded, but Farrell and Maltz and proletarian literature generally. Even the fringe of racketeers is not fearsome as in Hemingway. They are only a little careless like the Mexicans in early Steinbeck. Their heart is not in the business, which, after all, is little more than a harmless game, played with the negligible small change of capitalism.

Formerly Saroyan’s characters knew that they were lonely and homeless, and rebelled. Now they no longer know it because they have got used to substitutes for home and friendship in the casual habitual idle hours at the neighborhood bar or the chance acquaintances in the familiar diner. They are the “rejected children” of our psychologists, who compensate by making acquaintances easily and who come to feel at home in the instability of drift. If they lose one job, they will probably get another. If they fail to get another, they will probably find some similarly jobless girl to commiserate with them. If they squabble or blow off their mouths, the offense is tempered by its being the customary diction of their class and by the certainty that quarrels evaporate as quickly as they form. They take life as it comes, indifferent to our official codes of respectability (by which they seem never to have been infected in their grammar school education), believing tenderly in a romantic love they never see comsummated, disciplined indeed by finding it to be another of life’s failures, cultivating the simple garden in which they for the time being find themselves, as Voltaire advised. If they have their dreams, they are reconciled to knowing in advance that they will not come true. But they do not understand that what they take for reality (arms around some girl whose last name they do not know) is little more than a dream in relation to the destiny of the country. That greater world of ideals and advancement, caught from Sunday sermons and tabloid newspapers, has left no mark upon their consciousness. They accept it as another world from theirs. But its remoteness has deprived them of ambition and self-confidence. The apathy that cushions their good humor measures their vague awareness of their inability to grasp the traditional ideals of American manhood.

Yet it is this disillusionment on the periphery of consciousness that determines the mood of every one of these stories. It is what makes all the characters so talkative. They talk to keep the truth from themselves. It is what leads one story to spin a design of mock ecstasy out of the cliches of idealism in “Ah Life, Ah Death, Ah Music, Ah France,” and another to rekindle the flash in the pan of 0. Henry’s trick conclusions. It is what leaves most of the stories up in the air, concluded by a mere verbalism of hope (“Somehow or other she knew that he would get a piano someday, and everything else too.”), or by a verbalism of pathos (“Go ahead and laugh. What else can you do.”) in a world where everything changes and nothing concludes. Rarely, as in “The La Salle Hotel in Chicago,” the buried resentments break through the defenses that had become habitual. Saroyan’s style then becomes hysterical, his emergent thoughts anarchistic, but the end is the same. The anarchist, like a true Saroyan character, walks away from the difficult situation, and the other men ask, “What the hell was he shouting about anyway?” If one must think, it is better to forget the future, leave the present, and remember “The Warm Quiet Valley of Home.” With a little beer and an old Ford, it can sometimes be done. Once there, the irresponsible joy and the unconfirmed dreams of childhood return to wipe out any possibility of mature perception. And one loses there, too, even the dubious perspective of irony when the old folks reconstruct once more their old illusion of the warmer, more distant home in Armenia. Veneration for the dead dim heroes of medieval Armenia distills a peace which passes the feeble compensations of daily life. It is something from which one is not forced to walk away.

The plays of this period, for the most part, are astonishingly different from the stories. In the latter the presence of the printed page between the author and his audience seems to have imposed the restraint of distance upon Saroyan. But a playwright talks directly to people while his personal identity is concealed behind the protection of a whole series of dramatis personae. Saroyan forgot entirely the existence of the proscenium arch, which guarantees that much of critical aloofness on the part of an audience which is implied in consciousness of their being in a public place and listening to persons not themselves talking to one another. Most of his plays have been failures despite the plausibility of his other assumptions. For a spirit of fantasy has hovered over the Broadway stage in recent years. There had been a turn away from the annoyance and the crudity of realism. A delicate sort of banter after the manner of Noel Coward had become the single standard of “truth to life.” And Saroyan might have become a proletarian Noel Coward bringing to the stage without gaucherie the “truth to life” of his short stories. But the temptation was too strong to let himself go, to become the half dozen personages he could freely imagine himself to be when talking within the walls of a private room, to which he compared the shelter of the apparent objectivity of the dramatic form. Indeed, the theater liked symbolism even better than Noel Coward, respected it as a higher form of art; and it was certainly a more fool-proof protective device. Saroyan let himself go without restraint. Unlike the short story, the stage was all talk, anyway. So much the better if it could be talk to a higher purpose.

But the most careful study of Saroyan’s plays fails to trap any coherent meanings. Not even so much of coherent meaning as high-minded theater-goers ride home with after an evening of Maxwell Anderson rewarded the most acute attention. Whether one searched with the aid of medieval allegory, which demands a logical sequence of ideas, or utilized the more delicate techniques of surrealism, where the coherence is at best an emotional one, the net came up empty. One looked carefully (if of the intelligentsia) for the symptoms of an abnormal personality, hoping for the sake of art that Saroyan might have become our local Kafka, a neurotic personality of great value as symbolic of the interesting decadence of American society. But the incoherence was of no greater moment than the sputterings of someone on a moral holiday, revelling in the childish freedom of saying whatever came into his mind, hoping in an arriere-pensee that something brilliant might be turning up, hoping mischievously that whatever turned up might be taken seriously by the amusing people who find allegory significant, and all the time believing in a belated Dadaism that whatever a genius says must somehow be wisdom. But the clue is there for one who listens patiently. “Come down,” says Miss Eliza to Sweeney who has jumped up into the tree; “you fit poorly in a tree.” But Sweeney Saroyan answers: “Not nearly as poorly as in the world.” For the time being, to play the lunatic anonymously seemed like eating one’s cake and keeping it too.

For one cannot say that these plays were Saroyan’s recklessly contemptuous conception of what Broadway liked. Otherwise he would not have proffered a change of mood to the same audience. Occasionally, instead of playing the lunatic in a crazy world where living up a tree is not too conspicuous, Saroyan turns to meditate upon the world as love. “The Beautiful People” runs from his pen, dipped in a more serious color. We look for its meaning, which the accompaniment of music cannot save from the maudlin. To have every character equally sentimental and differing only in the loquacity of their sententiousness may achieve an emotional congruity, but it proves too bland a stew for most tastes. Elsewhere Saroyan has always managed to catch enough of a hold on the world as it is to afford a degree of plausibility. Here nothing is probable. One of the beautiful people is the stereotype of Saroyan’s habitual drunkards, whom one does not entirely reject because he makes no overt pleas to be taken for Christlike. Another is a man who lives, following principles of equity rather than law, by cashing the annuity of a dead man whose house and mail he has taken over. His is perhaps an instance of humanitarian sharing (without the taint of a doctrinaire communism) and it is perhaps the inspiration of his daughter’s compulsion to be nice to the mice in the house. Doubtless the spectacle of these people’s mutual admiration should not be corrupted by too much action, and only the most innocent nibbling at its complacency is permitted. Sometimes a mouse gets away, and the girl has to go chasing after. A young man plagues her by placing a mouse-trap in the living room, but there is no cheese for it. The insurance agent, sent to investigate, proves as saintly as the rest, and decides the company can afford to continue paying the annuity to the wrong person. One can conceive of a more mature world, even of make-believe.

This is the world Saroyan is trying to escape to, the tree in which he hopes we shall feel at home. He has entered upon a third period, the most satisfactory record of which is not one of his plays, but his full-length novel, “The Human Comedy.” It is not enough to say that he recovers a sense of form when he returns to fiction. He is writing under the stress of war, when the need for conviction, for some principle to guide one’s thinking, becomes imperative, especially for those who stay at home. The situation is too obscure to be treated objectively, and too serious to be passed off with either flippancy or irony. It demands the rallying of whatever has been significant in Saroyan’s experience, of everything he has learned from living and writing. Two ideals rise into his consciousness for him to cling to. The telegraph company, once a forbidding impersonal corporation, he now discovers to possess a calm maternal heart. The people who work for it feel they have security in their jobs; and the evidence seems to prove them right, since both the men in the office, who are habitual drinkers, suffer neither rebuke nor dismissal. But Saroyan’s central source of trust is less materialistic. It is the natural affection of human beings for one another. He does not mean anything so mechanical as that the telegraph company is one big family, or even the whole town of Ithaca, California; it is the human race itself. The boys are now delivering sad messages of the death of soldiers, but mutual sorrow only brings people closer together. The soldier dies, but his buddy, who had been an orphan, returns to his home in place of him, and two miseries unite to make one happiness. The Pippa of the narrative is a boy of fourteen, immature and timid for his age; and the book is the dream world he manufactures out of his pre-adolescent need to trust those older and more experienced. He goes about not so much spreading cheer to others as searching constantly for the kindly act and the friendly support at home to compensate for the rumble of guns in distant places.

But “The Human Comedy” cannot be so easily dismissed. To paraphrase its plot would disclose the shallowness of its solution, its affinity with Buchmanism and Christian Science. It takes the war as too many Americans accept it, as a duty to their country, which has called them to die for a cause unknown. One may infer, perhaps, from the single instance of notnice conduct in the book, the episode of race prejudice when Homer was a schoolboy, that the war is against that sort of thing. But it is the dying that obsesses the author, not the cause worth dying for. The classical names suggest that Saroyan is justifying his indifference to the precise nature of this present war against fascism, by assuming a concern with more universal emotions and more timeless activities. Men will always be leaving for some Trojan War, to return home late and weary, or never. Our human affection is but the compensation for the continuing pathos of human existence. Such a mood brews an apathy as to particular justifications in the knowledge that some greater force than the individual is always imposing obedience upon him. The war is only another job that has opened up for these little men of the street corners. The compulsion is new, but their response is the old one of doing what they are not interested in because they have to make a living, even though the living now comes more into question.

Dangerous as this attitude may be from a social point of view, Saroyan has made it insidiously attractive by a flawless execution. One accepts or rejects the book in its totality according to the attitude towards the war he brings to it. It contains no gross inconsistencies of tone, no errors in the selection of incongruous material, that might warn the unwary. On the contrary, the easy flow of its narration acts as a sedative to troubled spirits, cushions the reality of war for those who cannot squarely face it. “The Human Comedy” provides a refuge from the responsibilities of maturity for the flabby fibred who feel thrust by events back into the helpless trusting period of boyhood’s first real job in the wide, wide world. Its success proves how many Americans on the home front need to see the war through the eyes of the faltering inexperience of childhood, how many of us need to identify ourselves with this overprotected boy of fourteen, for the first time on his own, in his man’s job of messenger boy. For this conclusive enlightenment, so perfectly achieved, we need not begrudge Saroyan his embarrassing niche in the fabric of our national history.


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