The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, has received a spectacular gift of hundreds of books, drawings, correspondence and other personal communications to and from one of America’s best-known writers, the Armenian-American author and playwright William Saroyan.
The rich collection includes approximately 48 cartons with 1,200 books and other archival materials assembled by his niece, Jacqueline Kazarian, of San Francisco, who also is the founder of the William Saroyan Literary Foundation International. A celebration of the gift is set for noon on Friday (May 21) at The Faculty Club on campus.
“UC Berkeley is such an incredible place of learning and growing and intellectual exploration,” said Kazarian, who earned degrees in communication and decorative arts at UC Berkeley in the early 1950s. “I know that my uncle wanted his library, manuscripts and galleys to go to Berkeley. Students will be inspired by the collection.”
Apart from this gift, The Bancroft Library already retains significant holdings of Saroyan’s work that it collected over the course of his life and career, and it continues to add to that collection. Most of the latest materials come from Saroyan’s home on San Francisco’s 15th Avenue that is now a Saroyan museum directed by Kazarian. Those materials were supplemented by Kazarian’s extensive personal collection, as well as by items of Saroyan’s that she acquired through a prominent Boston archivist and via a Saroyan friend.
“Jacqueline Kazarian’s new gift is the largest and most substantial augmentation to the Saroyan collections at Bancroft that we have ever received,” said Peter Hanff, Bancroft’s deputy director.
Saroyan, born in Fresno, Calif., in 1908, drew extensively on his Armenian-American heritage and childhood experiences for his books, plays and short stories. Much of his writing was considered impressionistic and reflected a hearty optimism often hard to find during the gritty Great Depression. He died in 1981 at the age of 72, with his niece at his side.
When Story magazine editors Martha Foley and Whit Burnett printed Saroyan’s “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” in 1934, it was an immediate success, triggering Saroyan’s fame and standing as one of his many literary achievements.
“Uncle Bill’s writing revolutionized the short story,” said Kazarian, adding that she has always found his work “almost spiritual and fable-like.”
His five-act play, “The Time of Your Life,” is the only American play to have won both the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Saroyan’s work as a screenwriter with Hollywood director Louis B. Mayer on the film “The Human Comedy” won an Academy Award in 1943, and Saroyan later wrote a widely acclaimed book with the same title.
Kazarian’s gift to The Bancroft Library includes multiple first editions of Saroyan’s works, such as “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “My Name is Aram” (1940), “The Human Comedy” and “Obituaries” (1979), and many materials personally inscribed by the writer. Also among the new items according to Steven Black, the head of acquisitions for Bancroft, are letters, telegrams and notes written by Saroyan to relatives and others close to him, mostly during the 1930s and 1940s.
“He personalized a lot of what passed through his hands,” Black said, noting that much of the material features marginalia reflecting Saroyan’s thoughts and interests.
There also is a copy of Henry Miller’s “Aller Retour New York,” an 80-page journal about a 1935 visit by Miller to New York City and his journey aboard a Dutch ship back to Europe. It is inscribed by Miller to Saroyan.
And a Saroyan scrapbook in the collection contains press announcements about the Pulitzer Prize for his book, “The Time of Your Life.” He scoffed at the award, contending that the arts should not be judged by commerce.
The new Bancroft collection also contains a pre-publication proof of “Burnt Norton,” the first poem of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” which Black said the publisher may have given to Saroyan “when he crossed the pond” on a trip from his temporary home in France to England.
There also is a wide range of magazines, including issues of Horizon and the Partisan Review, a leading publication of the Anglo-American intelligentsia during the 1930s and ’40s, Black said.
The first major deposit at The Bancroft Library of Saroyan’s papers was recorded in October 1980, and the library agreed to organize the collection and give Saroyan a general description and an index. After Saroyan died in 1981, the Saroyan Foundation paid the library to continue assembling the papers for official archives, which the foundation ultimately decided to place at Stanford University. That happened in 1996.
Kazarian’s donation is in honor of Berkeley antiquarian book dealer Peter Howard, who has provided appraisal assistance to Bancroft on Saroyan materials and other collections for decades. While director of The Bancroft Library, the late James D. Hart also developed strong professional and personal ties to Saroyan over the years, according to Kazarian and Black.
“Now, the Saroyan family materials come to a place that Saroyan himself would have been happy to see accepting them,” Black said, noting that Bancroft is proud to have so much of Saroyan’s “intellectual remains” to be able to share with the public.
Scheduled to speak about the acquisition at Friday’s event are Jacqueline Kazarian; David Calonne, vice president of education for the Saroyan Literary Foundation International and a Saroyan scholar; San Francisco novelist Herbert Gold; theater director Val Hendrickson reading Saroyan’s short story, “Common Prayer,” and the credo to “The Time of Your Life”; and Charles Faulhaber, director of The Bancroft Library.
UC Berkeley already is home to an Armenian Studies Program, which is focused on contemporary Armenian history, politics, language and culture. And Bancroft, a rich, special collections library containing historical and literary documents and other materials relating to California, the West, Mexico and Latin America, is known for its strong collections on California writers, including Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, Bret Harte, Frank Norris and others.
More information about The Bancroft Library is online. Bancroft is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.