My Name is Aram: William Saroyan, An Armenian Native Son

Ani Boyadjian, Principal Librarian, Research & Special Collections

This year marks the 110th birthday of Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winning author, maverick, playwright, uncommon storyteller, and humanist William Saroyan.

William Stonehill Saroyan was born in Fresno, CA, to Armenian immigrants Armenag and Takoohi Saroyan on August 31, 1908. At age 26, the publication of his first book, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934), made him a literary sensation. The country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and Saroyan’s unabashedly sentimental style was an antidote to a solemn, often humorless time.

His first major play, My Heart’s in the Highlands, debuted on Broadway in 1939. A year later, his play The Time of Your Life, about a group of lonely drifters in a San Francisco bar, which he had written in only six days, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was the first writer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for the same work. Saroyan rejected the Pulitzer—he railed against the commercialization of art, abhorring pomp and circumstance—arguing that “it is no more great or good than anything else I have written.” But the accolades would still come: his novel The Human Comedy (1943), which he dedicated to his mother, was made into an MGM film and won him an Academy Award for Best Original Screen Play.

Saroyan’s themes are timeless and universal: He extolled the innate goodness and equality of all people, celebrating their good humor in the face of abject poverty with steadfast messages of hope and resiliency. In the work Inhale and Exhale, Saroyan writes about his national identity, “I love Armenia and I love America and I belong to both, but I am only this: an inhabitant of the earth, and so are you, whoever you are.”

Saroyan was fiercely proud of his Armenian heritage. His first trip to what was then Soviet Armenia was in 1935 when he was a bright new light on the American literary landscape. In 1976 and 1978, Saroyan, his legacy now cemented, traveled to Armenia for the third and fourth (and final) time. He was accompanied on both trips by local photographer Boghos Boghossian, who took over a thousand black-and-white photographs with fast film, capturing the expressive wonder and awe of a man discovering his homeland again and again as if it were the first time. Boghossian’s photographs capture the impressions of the everyman as he visits ancient Armenian churches and villages. They reveal Saroyan just as at ease breaking bread with the villagers as he is meeting with the foremost authors of the time. He is simultaneously a diasporan outsider and at home in his Armenian heritage, defining and experiencing the world on his own terms in true iconoclast fashion.

William Saroyan died in Fresno, about a mile from where he was born, at the age of 72. His ashes were interred in Fresno, his home, and in Yerevan, Armenia, his homeland, just as he had requested. Five days before he passed away, he issued a statement to the Associated Press in true Saroyan style: “Everybody has got to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”

The following is a selection of images from the exhibit to mark the 110th anniversary of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Saroyan’s birth, featuring images taken by photographer Boghos Boghossian during the author’s visit to Armenia shortly before his death in 1981. This exhibit is in conjunction with a program in the Taper auditorium on September 15, where a play featuring Saroyan’s unpublished works—written and produced by Elly award-winning playwright Aram Kouyoumdjian, and made possible with the permission of Stanford University Libraries—will make its LA Made debut.

Exhibition made possible by the Armenian Museum of Fresno and sponsored by Councilmember Paul Krekorian.

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Unknown Photographer. Armenag and Takoohi Saroyan with their son William in Fresno, 1910. Courtesy Varoujan Der Simonian
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Unknown Photographer. Eleven-year-old William Saroyan in Fresno, CA, 1919. Courtesy Varoujan Der Simonian
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Unknown Photographer. A young William Saroyan on a Bike, Fresno, CA, no date. Courtesy Varoujan Der Simonian
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Unknown Photographer. William Saroyan with Typewriter, no date.
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Unknown Photographer. William Saroyan with James Cagney, ca. 1947
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Unknown Photographer. William Saroyan with his Wife Carol Marcus, mother of his two children Lucy and Aram, no date.
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Unknown Photographer. With his children Aram and Lucy on a Tractor in Fresno, CA, no date.
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Unknown Photographer. Hat and Glasses Study in a Photo Booth, no date.
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Boghos Boghossian. Saroyan with Mt. Ararat in the Background, 1976 or 1978. Courtesy Varoujan Der Simonian
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Boghos Boghossian. In the Highlands of Armenia, 1976 or 1978. Courtesy Varoujan Der Simonian
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Boghos Boghossian. Saroyan Riding a Bicycle in Talin, Armenia, 1976 or 1978. Courtesy Varoujan Der Simonian
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Boghos Boghossian. William Saroyan Poses in Front of a Stone Formation in Armenia, 1978. Courtesy Varoujan Der Simonian
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Boghos Boghossian. William Saroyan Pays his Respects at the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. During his Fourth and Final Visit, 1978. Courtesy Varoujan Der Simonian
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Photographer Unknown. Portrait of Photographer Boghos Boghossian, no date. Courtesy Varoujan Der Simonian