Saroyan Offers a Compelling Story of Hope in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

William Saroyan’s novel The Human Comedy offered the heartwarming tale of a fatherless fourteen-year-old boy, Homer Macauley, who feels compelled to be take care of his family while his older brother serves at war. A tale of family life during the uncertainties of the war years, the novel has an infectious message of hope that prompted Hollywood to produce what would become an Academy Award-winning film of the same name.

Summary of Event

Through stories such as “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” (1934) and plays like My Heart’s In The Highlands (pr., pb. 1939) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Time of Your Life (pr., pb. 1939), William Saroyan caught the attention of Arthur Freed Freed, Arthur , the head of production for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[Metro Goldwyn Mayer] (MGM) studios. In late 1941, Freed lured Saroyan into working at MGM in return for an office and $300 per week for expenses in the hope that Saroyan could produce and direct a story for MGM. Saroyan gave himself a crash course in film technique by watching as many movies as he could. In the process, he learned that film producer Louis B. Mayer’s Mayer, Louis B. distinction as a filmmaker was his vision of small-town America—as in the Andy Hardy movies with Mickey Rooney Rooney, Mickey . Saroyan (the son of Armenian immigrants) shared this vision, for he had risen to national prominence in mid-Depression America as a chronicler of human abilities in the face of oppression. Human Comedy, The (Saroyan) Human Comedy, The (Brown) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Human Comedy[Human Comedy] [kw]Saroyan Offers a Compelling Story of Hope in The Human Comedy (1943) [kw]Human Comedy, Saroyan Offers a Compelling Story of Hope in The (1943) [kw]Hope in The Human Comedy, Saroyan Offers a Compelling Story of (1943) Human Comedy, The (Saroyan) Human Comedy, The (Brown) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Human Comedy[Human Comedy] [g]North America;1943: Saroyan Offers a Compelling Story of Hope in The Human Comedy[00700] [g]United States;1943: Saroyan Offers a Compelling Story of Hope in The Human Comedy[00700] [c]Literature;1943: Saroyan Offers a Compelling Story of Hope in The Human Comedy[00700] [c]Motion pictures and video;1943: Saroyan Offers a Compelling Story of Hope in The Human Comedy[00700] Saroyan, William

Saroyan, who dreamed of a story with Rooney as its young hero, turned out a three-page outline about adolescent Homer Macauley, who learned keen lessons about life and death on the home front during wartime. Knowing that Mayer liked a good cry, Saroyan filled his story with sentimental scenes depicting Homer’s loss of innocence in Ithaca, California, an imaginary small town, likely based on Saroyan’s hometown Fresno, in the San Joaquin Valley. Saroyan intended an epic about the human family, using a modest American family as its representatives. However, he found himself unable to develop the outline at the studio, so he traveled to San Francisco, where (under pressure from gambling debts and threat of legal action by MGM) he produced a story (without camera instructions) amounting to about four-and-a-half hours of movie time. MGM agreed to pay him $60,000, with an additional $1,000 a week to serve as a “consultant” and, in the meantime, write and direct a short-subject film.

After viewing Saroyan’s short film, The Good Job Good Job, The (Saroyan) (1942), Mayer decided to produce a feature based on the author’s lengthy screenplay. He hired Clarence Brown Brown, Clarence (who had directed Greta Garbo in her first sound film and Clark Gable in his movie debut), signed writer Howard Estabrook Estabrook, Howard (who had scripted Oscar-winner Cimarron), and engaged a solid cast, including Rooney, Fay Bainter, Frank Morgan (of The Wizard of Oz), Donna Reed, Van Johnson, and Robert Mitchum. After Estabrook completely rewrote Saroyan’s story, Saroyan took his original draft and reworked it into a novel, The Human Comedy(1943), which was published by Harcourt, Brace the same year the movie was released. The novel was a best seller and a Book-of-the-Month choice, just like his joyful 1940 portrait of American immigrant life, My Name Is Aram.

The Human Comedy’s hero Homer is a fourteen-year-old boy, the surrogate “man of the house,” whose father is dead and whose older brother Marcus is with the Army overseas. Homer has a four-year-old brother named Ulysses (another Homeric reference) who seems to like everyone he encounters—from the black man on the passing freight train to an older peer (Lionel Cabot) who is rejected by other boys. Homer’s older sister Bess attends a state college but does not play a big role in the story. She is relegated mainly to domestic scenes with their mother, a hardworking, patient woman who works in packinghouses in the summer and who is the voice of maternal wisdom and decency. Homer works part-time as a messenger for the local telegraph company, where he receives moral and emotional guidance from his boss Spangler and from Willie Grogan, the weary night-shift operator who turns to a bottle of booze for comfort.

The book captures the Macauley family’s struggles and dreams, which often parallel those of America’s children of immigrants. The many episodes combine the severe with the lighthearted, the sad with the joyous, and cumulatively chart Homer’s education in the facts of life and death. Homer learns from his mother that the world has always been full of loneliness and fear. He learns from his history teacher, Miss Hicks, the meaning of civilization and of respect for others. Ara, the bitter grocery-store owner, exemplifies American discontent, while little Ulysses teaches his bigger brother universal acceptance. Though there is an almost formulaic quality to these chapters, the book has undeniable charm and humor, especially as it records Homer’s exploits, little Ulysses’s entrapment in a bear-cage, and Homer’s attempt to be the class clown.

The novel is overly sentimental, but Saroyan does shy from moments of genuine pain, as when Homer tries to comfort Mrs. Sandoval—who has just learned her son was killed in action—or when Homer is grief stricken and bitterly angry when he reads the telegram confirming his brother’s death overseas as well. The novel concludes with a scene where Marcus’s soldier-buddy, Tobey, is welcomed into the Macauley family as if he were a replacement for Marcus. This is consistent with Saroyan’s belief in brotherliness and universal oneness.

The film depicts much sentimentality as well, superimposing, for example, the face of Homer’s dead father over clouds, while using the dead man’s voice for narration. The film reveled in the use of music, from the black vagrant’s singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” on the passing train to a scene where Mrs. Macauley and Bess are shown playing piano and harp in their home; from Grogan’s singing “Rock of Ages” after typing up a War Department telegram announcing a military death to a sentimental ballad in the barracks with Marcus playing the accordion. Among other embellishments, a romance is expanded into several scenes—becoming a social subplot—and the final scene, in which Tobey limps up to the Macauley home and sees the ladies singing, is something out of a Norman Rockwell painting or a Hallmark card. Saroyan detested the film version and wanted to sue MGM, even though it won him an Oscar Academy Awards;Best Original Story for Best Original Story and won four other nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Rooney), Best Director, and Best Cinematography (Harry Stradling).

Significance

The Human Comedy broke with the nineteenth century American narrative tradition of Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris, and Jack London. Like the stories of Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, and John Steinbeck, it instead showed a struggle with skepticism and disillusionment, mainly through the figure of Homer, a young dreamer with a rich imagination and warm sympathies. Homer, being as teenager, is prone to doubt and disenchantment, and his trust in the world is threatened when his older brother faces death in the war abroad. However, the moral impetus of the book ends Homer’s autonomy as an adolescent.

The novel, very much like Saroyan’s plays and short stories, which display a special emphasis on humor and the importance of family life, counters the predominant critical taste of Saroyan’s time. It never apologizes for its sentimentality; indeed, it luxuriates in it—perhaps out of an implicit confidence in its own epical and allegorical ambition. The novel’s title invokes nineteenth century French novelist Honore de Balzac, and some of the characters and incidents echo Homer of classical antiquity. However, the story is also very “American.” Ithaca is Saroyan’s microcosm of the human family, and it is rendered as palpably as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or John Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley and Dust Bowl.

Written at the end of the Great Depression, the novel allows its readers an escape from memories of immense trials and tribulations. It lets readers dream, with Homer, of a better world, one where every person can seek to be like little Ulysses—open to any new experience, ever welcoming of new friends—and one where it was not unreasonable to believe in the innate goodness of humans and their impulses. Human Comedy, The (Saroyan) Human Comedy, The (Brown) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Human Comedy[Human Comedy]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Balakian, Nona. The World of William Saroyan. Lewisburg, Ohio: Bucknell University Press, 1998. Balakian, formerly a staff writer for The New York Times Book Review, knew Saroyan personally in his last years. She resurrects his reputation and restores him among the finest of twentieth century American writers. Traces his evolution from ethnic writer to master of the short story, to playwright, and finally to existentialist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Floan, Howard R. William Saroyan. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1966. Argues that Saroyan is outside the mainstream of American culture because of his focus on the “good guy” or “happy guy” and that he is also against the tide of “high” seriousness and pessimism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keyishian, Harry, ed. Critical Essays on William Saroyan. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995. Anthology that includes reviews, essays, and thematic analyses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Lawrence, and Barry Gifford. Saroyan: A Biography. 1984. New ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Reveals Saroyan’s “dark side,” using firsthand testimony from Saroyan’s wife, son, and daughter, as well as authors, actors, and writers who knew him.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leggett, John. A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Leggett relies heavily on Saroyan’s journals to produce a sustained glimpse of the author that is neither admiring nor forgiving.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saroyan, William. Essential Saroyan. Edited with an introduction by William E. Justice. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2005. Includes several excerpted works by Saroyan, including The Human Comedy and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Part of the California Legacy series.

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