American Literature and the Dream

By Frederic I. Carpenter | Go to book overview

19. THE TIME OF WILLIAM SAROYAN'S LIFE

OF ALL American authors who have achieved fame since 1930, William Saroyan is perhaps the most original, the most versatile, and closest to the mood of the common people. His stories, his plays, and his novels have not only achieved popularity with the reading public, but have appealed vividly to that public which does not usually read. Some professional book reviewers also have acclaimed him. But at the same time, other professional reviewers have expressed a hearty disapproval. And, strikingly, every serious literary critic who has discussed his writing in book or in essay form has enthusiastically damned William Saroyan. The abyss in America between popular opinion on the one hand, and critical judgment on the other, has never been illustrated more graphically.

Of course there are good reasons for the critics' disapproval. Even Saroyan's best work is faulty, and very little of his work is "best." The bulk of his writing, although vivid, is careless and formless. His many volumes of stories contain few masterpieces, and much thirdrate material. His plays are amorphous; and many of his prefaces are bumptious. He has produced, I think, only two really first-rate things: The Human Comedy, and a one-page preface to The Time of Your Life. Judged by purely literary and artistic standards, the formal critics are often right in condemning him.

But Saroyan's obvious artistic faults do not explain the hostility of the formal critics. All of them have specifically attacked his "morality' or his "philosophy." Grouping him with "The Boys in the Back Room," Edmund Wilson deprecated his "barroom philosophy." Philip Rahv used his writing to illustrate the "decay of values and taste,"1 in modern literature. Edwin Berry Burgum--certainly no reactionary--described him as evidencing a "flight from maturity and responsibility."2 And Joseph Remenyi characterized Saroyan as "a sentimental romanticist."3 If these critics grudgingly admitted the vitality of his work, they had little good to say of its intellectual or moral qualities.

Yet it is just these intellectual and moral qualities which make Saroyan's work most interesting and most important. If he were merely a romantic and sensationalist, we might dismiss him as a second- or third-rater. But the fact that he arouses such enthusiasm

-176-

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American Literature and the Dream
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Part I 3
  • 1 - Introduction 3
  • 2 - The American Dream 5
  • Part II 11
  • 3 - The Transcendental Dream 11
  • 4 - Emerson 19
  • 5 - Bronson Alcott:Genteel Transcendentalist 30
  • 6 - Walt Whitman''s Eidolon 40
  • Part III 51
  • 7 - The Genteel Tradition:A Re-Interpretation 51
  • 8 - Scarlet a Minus 63
  • 9 - Melville and the Men-Of-War 73
  • Part IV 83
  • 10 - The Pragmatic Realization 83
  • 11 - Charles Sanders Peirce:Pragmatic Transcendentalist 94
  • 12 - William James and Emerson 105
  • 13 - Sinclair Lewis and the Fortress of Reality 116
  • Part V 126
  • 14 - The Romantic Confusion- The Devil in America 126
  • 15 - The Romantic Tragedy of Eugene O''Neill 133
  • 16 - Death Comes for Robinson Jeffers 144
  • Part VI 155
  • 17 - Thomas Wolfe- The Autobiography of an Idea 155
  • 18 - John Steinbeck- The Philosophical Joads 167
  • 19 - The Time of William Saroyan''s Life 176
  • 20 - Hemingway Achieves the Fifth Dimension 185
  • Part VII 194
  • 21 - The Good and the Bad 194
  • 22 - The Logic of American Literature 199
  • Notes 208
  • Index 217
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