In hindsight, Saroyan's emergence onto the California literary plain
was epochal. The tradition of 19th century naturalism exemplified by Ambrose
Bierce, Frank Norris and Jack London was eclipsed by Saroyan's sensibilities.
In San Francisco in the 1930s, a variant of that naturalist strain was prominent
in the work of Dashiell Hammett, the city's then-foremost author. The dark,
sinister cast of Hammett's world was challenged by the light, playful garrulousness
and optimism of Saroyan. It presaged a new attitude which would would prevail
in the literature of the state and the region for the next six decades.
I'm reminded of the incident in the early 1950s when a suddenly-timorous Jack Kerouac reportedly met Saroyan and exclaimed, "So you're the man who wrote 'The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse.' I've never forgotten that story!" That meeting, one could suggest, was inevitable. All the ingredients the Beats would incorporate into their canon had a germinal precedent in Saroyan's work: Rexroth's and Ferlinghetti's recognition of San Francisco's cultural civility and bohemian possibilities; Kerouac's interior monologues, frenzied energy and catch-all structureless narratives; and the Beat poets' looking toward the collected wisdom of Asia and its intermixed infusion of philosophical acceptance, respect for the earth and simplicity of style. The wondrous California immigrant experience Saroyan detailed was a departure from the hardscrabble, menacing accounts of his literary predecessors. The notion of a welcoming new land open to individual experimentation was given a necessary new spin by Saroyan, an interpretation which proclaimed that a dazzling, lightsome place existed just over the horizon. It's this sense of a region of vast and dramatic perspectives existing in geological time -- the "Voyald," Saroyan called it -- which he has bequeathed to the writers who have since trekked west.
In turn, those beholden to Saroyan left their mark on the next batch
of literary emigrants. I once remarked to the uncommunicative Richard Brautigan
that his work was awash with Saroyanesque capriciousness. (I intended it
as a compliment and he took it as such, thanking me in three full sentences
-- two more than I had ever heard him utter in one sitting about anything.)
It is difficult to conceive of the hippie phenomenon coming about without
a Saroyan-like oeuvre as precursor, as well the cumulative ethos
of the ecology movement demonstrated by poets like Gary Snyder. Moreover,
what Saroyan added to the crucible of the writer defining his place upon
the landscape was a remarkable insight into the creative process: Always
walking the streets as if for the first time, noting nothing as insignificant
and everything as meaningless, relishing the feel of the typewriter keyboard,
crafting his words and himself as both a defiant and an absurd cackle at
the universe. To our good fortune, unlike his California contemporaries
Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers (and John Muir before them), Saroyan brought
the city into that field of vision, initiating the onset of San Francisco's
I phoned him for an interview 25 years ago for a piece I was writing. "Well, hel-lo there," he boomed, "and how the hell are you!" I later sent him a copy of the article, adding a postscript consistent with puerile admiration, to the effect that I hoped he would go on forever. Obviously he has, and I guess it's my turn to say so.