Places: The Human Comedy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1943

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Sentimental

Time of work: Twentieth century

Places DiscussedIthaca

Ithaca. Human Comedy, TheCalifornia town in which the novel is set. The fictional Ithaca has two models. The first is from classical Greek literature–the Ionian island kingdom of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.). In that epic, Ithaca is a home that is painfully attained by the hero of the Trojan War after a long and difficult journey. Both “Homer” and “Ulysses” are names of characters in Saroyan’s story.

Saroyan’s second model for Ithaca is his own boyhood hometown in central California. Growing up in the “Little Armenia” section of Fresno, Saroyan knew at first hand small-town America, with its bakery (selling day-old pies), its grocery store (run by a clerk who fetched goods for customers), the train depot (where young boys waved to engineers as great trains sped by), the butcher shop, the newspaper office, the bus station, the telegraph office, the library, and so on. Ithaca’s high school is modeled on Saroyan’s own Emerson High School, with his own painful memories of studying ancient history and of athletic competitions on the race track with the hurdles (again the imagery of ancient Greece intrudes).

In Saroyan’s mind the two Ithacas merge to become one, not only an archetypal Norman Rockwell small town, but one recognizably real and representative of real American towns during the 1940’s.

Macauley house

Macauley house. Ithaca home of the Macauley family, headed by the widowed Katey Macauley. The modest house stands on a tree-lined street; it has a large, inviting front porch, complete with swing, and friends and neighbors pause, while walking, to chat up those outside the house. Singing is a part of the family’s daily life, as are the long heart-to-heart chats in the kitchen, which was often the center of life in working-class American homes during the period in which this novel is set. The household follows regular hours: the hour when children eat breakfast and dash off to school, the hour when the mail arrives, the afternoon break between school and work, the return, late at night, for a cup of coffee before retiring for the day. It is very much a 1940’s routine, set in a pre-media era, when entertainment was largely self-generated and interpersonal, and interaction was the norm. The Macauley house is more than merely a place in Ithaca; it represents America to soldiers uprooted and sent overseas by the war.

Telegraph office

Telegraph office. Part of Saroyan’s genius was to set the dramatic against the prosaic. While Ithaca symbolizes tranquillity, and the Macauley home represents security, the local telegraph office is the door to the wider, more dangerous world beyond rural California. Through it comes the daily news that often transforms the town, as when reports of its sons killed in the war arrive. It is thus not surprising that the telegraph clerk, Mr. Grogan, drinks and takes heart medicine and eventually has a fatal heart attack. His death is symbolic of the frequent bad news that enters tiny Ithaca.

BibliographyCalonne, David Stephen. William Saroyan: My Real Work Is Being. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. The first major study after William Saroyan’s death in 1981. Treats The Human Comedy as a discussion of the family of humanity, as a portrayal of the journey from boyhood to manhood, and as an illustration of the triumph of love over death.Floan, Howard R. William Saroyan. New York: Twayne, 1966. Traces William Saroyan’s literary career from 1934 to 1964 in four phases, the third phase being started by The Human Comedy. Still useful as an introduction to Saroyan’s works. Chronology and annotated bibliography.Hamalian, Leo, ed. William Saroyan: The Man and the Writer Remembered. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987. Articles by acquaintances and friends of William Saroyan. Largely anecdotal and sometimes poorly written, the accounts nevertheless give glimpses of the author’s daily life.Lee, Lawrence, and Barry Gifford. Saroyan: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Reveals William Saroyan’s achievements and failures as a writer and as a person. Useful for placing The Human Comedy in its historical and cultural context.Leggett, John. A Daring Young Man. 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.Saroyan, Aram. William Saroyan. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. A review of William Saroyan’s life by his son, himself a poet, essayist, and novelist. Well illustrated with photographs and includes a bibliography of works by William Saroyan. Especially useful for exploring the autobiographical elements in The Human Comedy.
Categories: Places