The Magazine

Saroyan Turns 100

The writer who asked, What does it mean to be alive?

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By ANN STAPLETON
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Prizing spontaneity and distrustful of too much revision, he wrote swiftly: two stories in a day, a play in one week, and once, three books in a month. The man who could consume an entire watermelon at one sitting lived to write, and wrote voraciously, "to save [his] life." He wanted to learn to write the way the snow was falling on the streets of New York, "the finest style" he'd ever seen, and the best of his work comes closer than the efforts of any other American writer to evoking the strange improvisational genius, the exuberance and despair, at the heart of an ordinary, lived life on earth.

In Obituaries, the last book he published in his lifetime, Saroyan expresses fascination with "a strange man in New York in the late thirties who at the opening of the opera season would go into the lobby with all of the rich and social people and suddenly stand on his head while the cameras flashed." The next day the newspapers would show the man, a kind of innocent who appeared to have no profit motive for his behavior, "standing on his head surrounded by astonished dowagers and dandies." Saroyan is very much the headstand-man of American letters, reminding us to discard the dark-suited formalities that deaden our responses to the world and invite the life force in.

"I am not afraid to make a fool of myself," Saroyan insisted, and this headlong audacity shows itself not only in his ahead-of-their-time, tenderly ranting, dark-adapted experimental stories, but also in his daredevil choice of subjects familiarly symbolic and emotion-laden and dear to the human imagination, and then breaking the seal of our accustomed blindness to expose the original depth and eccentricity, the brief, strong flash of light, beneath.

A case in point is his short story "The Hummingbird That Lived Through Winter," in which an elderly blind man and a young boy revive, with a teaspoonful of warmed honey, an ailing hummingbird trapped in the wrong season. The tale is life-affirming, yes, but only in a narrowly qualified way that depends heavily for its impact on the hovering presence of death. Like the unnerving background sound of the demolition crew coming closer and closer in his play The Cave Dwellers, in Saroyan, the knowledge that things end is never very far away.

The two figures and the tiny flicker of intensity that is the hummingbird are made present to us for only a moment within a minor bubble of daylight poised against the blackness of eternity. It is winter to which the bird must return. The man is aged and mortal. And the boy, too, must choose to act blindly, without ever knowing whether his love will save anything at all.

Yet life relentlessly presents itself to us, here in the form of "this wonderful little creature of the summertime," dying "in the big rough hand of the old peasant" who, in his blindness, must ask the boy just learning to discern the world, "What is this in my hand?" As we, too, look down into the tender but only temporary nest the old man's palm makes of itself in the air, Saroyan forces us to see the imperiled being there, "not suspended in a shaft of summer light," and "not the most alive thing in the world" anymore, but "the most helpless and heartbreaking."

In the wild throbbing of this smallest heart, we can feel our own pulse beat, and by extension, the whole world's. What is this thing called life? How can it possibly be? And knowing it will someday perish, what do we do with it now? Despite all our helplessness, so much of the world is left up to us. A terrifying responsibility, in its way, about which Saroyan is wholly unsentimental, yet wholly encouraging: We must live.

When the boy later asks the old man whether their hummingbird survived the winter, his answer is the only one he can give: That the hummingbirds the boy watches in the summer air are the one they saved.

"Each of them is our bird. Each of them, each of them," he said swiftly and gently.

In "Why I Write," Saroyan clearly lays out this notion of immortality: "One of a kind couldn't stay, and couldn't apparently be made to." But "something did stay, something was constant, or appeared to be. It was the kind that stayed." For Saroyan, the only thing that can "halt the action" of our disappearance is art, "the putting of limits upon the limitless, and thereby holding something fast and making it seem constant, indestructible, unstoppable, unkillable, deathless." By abetting the escape of the hummingbird into the imagination of the reader, Saroyan wins the little hand-to-hand combat with death which is this story. He knew that we need such victories to help us bear our lives.