My Name Is Aram

William Saroyan

1940

(An open and curious boy growing up in an Armenian community in California encounters the rich quirkiness of his family and neighbors.)

Crop of Future Master Builder (1972), by Armenian artist Ashot Melkonian (1930-2009). Visible at sputnikimages.com, and along with Melkonian's other paintings at Por amor al arte.

 

Writing from the spirit of memory.

Not a record of specific memories, but effortless intuitive writing that naturally conjures the ethos, tinged with wistfulness, that can accompany the distant remembrance of simpler times.

This was the inspiration of William Saroyan as he sat down, and boom, suddenly there appears what would become his best loved book of stories. With all the intense effort I put into my other books, this one (I’m imagining he thought), the one that practically wrote itself, the one in which I warned readers that nothing extraordinary would happen, this is the one?! In his own incredulous (or perhaps disingenuous) words, he “does not believe this manner of writing is the way to get a message to go high-rolling down the ages”. Its greatest value, he thought (not without satire), would be to disqualify him for membership in prestigious literary societies. One can understand why he was thinking this way. In the second half of the 1930s, having risen to the top of the charts, so to speak, with his debut collection of stories including “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”, all eyes were on William Saroyan. Surrounded by the effervescing produce of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, the pressure was on Saroyan to be likewise that great writer. And he did have such ambitions for himself. Yet, something drove him when starting My Name Is Aram to leave society’s gauntlet where it was thrown… or else maybe to find a different way to pick it up. My hunch (with hardly any evidence to back it up) is that he looked at this literary world he had entered, and decided that one helpful thing he could do right away is to center or root himself—to ask himself what had been important in making him who he is. Then, to search that out, or to convey it, he sat back and reminisced (pen in hand) about his humble early life in the immigrant Armenian fruit-growing community of the San Joaquin Valley, California. His goal was not to expose the suffering of the poor or rail eloquently against social ills, not to decry materialism or the threat of fascism, not to create a work of stylistic genious. Rather, his goal was simply to paint vignettes of the sorts of characters that were his family and neighbors in pre-Depression Fresno—to smile at them, to paint them in a sympathetic light, and to draw gently from them what practical wisdom and wit influenced his own development and might be worth preserving for others. Thus we have the young Aram Garoghlanian. And as the author says of himself, though he might not be Aram, he is certainly not not Aram.

My Name Is Aram feels like a novel because, despite a lack of plot, the series of stories focuses on the experiences of the eponymous character, in the same town; and because through the various anecdotes and characters we increasingly perceive a culture, a lifestyle, and a set of attitudes about the world. In this the stories resemble Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio more than they do, say, Tom Sawyer with its stronger background plots of Injun Joe and Becky Thatcher, although the shenanigans of Saroyan's youthful protagonist probably tip the scales towards resemblance of Twain more than Anderson overall. Perhaps the best way to “place” Saroyan for someone unaccustomed to his stories would be to take the playfulness and humanism of O.Henry, say in his Four Million that is devoted to the idea that everyone is interesting, and mix it with the practical Old World wisdom and self-deprecating wit of Sholom Aleichem, inventor of the Tevye stories from which are derived the Fiddler on the Roof. But then we must bring Twain back into the mix, for My Name Is Aram can be read as children’s literature to better effect than these other authors. Speaking of other storywriters, Saroyan himself tells a story of how he felt shiftless and awkwardly situated in the world as an older child, wondering what the future could have in store for him that would give him a sense of belonging or purpose. He walked up to a random shelf in his local library and pulled down a book, and it was the stories of Guy de Maupassant— he even recalled the story he opened to: “The Bell”. He credits that moment for beginning his literary career. The fact that relating Saroyan to other authors might be helpful to us reflects the unfortunate truth that he is less read and anthologized today than he was in his own day. As early as 1971 he showed an acute awareness of his decline in popularity when, as a guest on the Dick Cavett show, he was surprised at being asked by a few audience members for his autograph.

These stories strongly evoke the virtues and personality of the Armenian immigrant culture that was Saroyan’s home and blood. Much of this can be seen in terms of a pleasant balance or tension. Humor and kindness, for instance, go hand in hand. In several stories Aram’s grandfather, the Old Man, is softly gibed, but always against a compassionate backdrop. In “The Journey to Hanford” his quips are particularly hilarious, as are the exchanges about whether Aram and his brother can cook rice. The characters that make their entrances and exits within individual stories are treated in the same way, whether a store clerk obsessed with languages (“The Three Swimmers and the Grocer from Yale”), a demanding organist (“The Presbyterian Choir Singers”), or a displaced Native American who pretends not to be able to drive (“Locomotive 38, The Ojibway”). All of these people embody a combination of quirkiness and a worthiness of respect. As the boys ask of the grocer, is he crazy? No, he’s probably just a poet. As peculiar as the characters are, the boys who meet them never crack a smile of ridicule nor say a word of discourtesy. All oddities are distinctive individual participations in humanity; and besides, these people are adults, and as such they ought to be heard and esteemed. Even the meanest folks may see the error of their ways, and even nasty treatment might turn out alright in the end (e.g., “A Nice Old-Fashioned Romance, With Love Lyrics and Everything”). This sense of human kindness extends in all directions, including from the adults to the children, as when the principal Dawson gives the boys lighter lashings for truancy in “The Circus”, and when the owner of a temporarily stolen horse maintains the young culprits’ honor in “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse”. The result is a sense of, in Shakespeare’s terms, mercy seasoning justice. A reverence for friendly tolerance pervades the morality of these people. Rigid opinions are accepted with a nod even if there is disagreement; a bit of manipulation or annoyance can be endured without complaint; and everyone is recognized to be a mixture of some wisdom and some foolishness. Individual freedom of thought and action is honored, as when the School Board is lampooned for its pigeonholing of pupils’ futures (“One of our future poets, you might say”), or when a boy’s oration on the value of the Great War and his grandfather’s distaste for it can be presented side by side with mutual charity (“My Cousin Dikran, The Orator”). Religion is precious but should not be narrowed into absolutes (e.g., “A Word to Scoffers”); openness and trust of others is the best policy (e.g., “Old Country Advice to the American Traveler”); and even a smidge of dishonesty is acceptable if it avoids brutality (e.g., “The Journey to Hanford”). The stories never get heavy. Poverty is present, but to these characters a focus on it would be too self-centered and too negative. Hope is essential, although it is saturated with uncertainty and so must be tempered with realism and bolstered with hard work. The fool is one who hopes in the future without striving for it (“The Fifty-Yard Dash”); and we must recognize that even the hardest work may not pay off (“The Pomegranate Trees”). Even the terrible Armenian genocide is left unspoken in these stories—indeed one of Uncle Khosrove’s best friends is a Turk, and they both share a wordless love of the Old Country (“The Poor and Burning Arab”). The strength of these Armenian-Americans will never collapse into self-victimization, and their nobility will never be corrupted into prejudice.

But My Name Is Aram is not really about delivering messages at all—there is not the faintest hint of preachiness or arrogance in the entire book. It is rather a celebration: of family, community, and humane sympathy. Its most powerful evocations are of homey nostalgia, social bonds, and fun, as can be seen in the very first sentence:

“One day back there in the good old days when I was nine and the world was full of every imaginable kind of magnificence, and life was still a delightful and mysterious dream, my cousin Mourad, who was considered crazy by everybody who knew him except me, came to my house at four in the morning and woke me up by tapping on the window of my room.”

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SUMMARIES

  1. The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse - Crazy cousin Mourad borrows a neighbor’s horse without asking, and the two boys ride in glee for days. But their family is known for honesty. They meet the owner and immediately return the horse in shame, but no honor is lost because nobody admits anything, and the owner keeps mum as well. He mentions only that the horse is even better tempered.

 

  1. The Journey to Hanford - Aram is chosen over his brother by his witty, opinionated, cantankerous grandfather to accompany his lazy zither-playing uncle to a town to help with the watermelon harvest. His uncle fails to work. They return home and grandmother has to give them money to give to grandfather to save face.

 

  1. The Pomegranate Trees - A touching story about Aram helping his uncle Melik, who farms for aesthetics. He dreams about planting an orchard covering 680 acres. They arrive at the plot, and at first the uncle is fascinated by the animal life [there is a particularly good sketch about a horned toad]. Then he tries to tame the land, find water, and plant trees. He contents himself with 20 acres of pomegranates to start, but they do poorly in the desert soil and the fruit is too unfamiliar to sell. The uncle is forced to sell the land, and the trees die. His dream has failed, but he and Aram remain silent about it.

 

  1. One of our Future Poets, You Might Say - A playfully satirical look at Aram’s childhood Board of Education, which decided to conduct tests to determine the future of each child. Aram was to be a poet, but turned out a bit too rambunctious and physically fit, throwing a wrench into the Board’s calculations.

 

  1. The Fifty-Yard Dash - Aram thinks he has become pen pals, even friends, with a strongman selling his secrets through the mail. Aram buys the fitness regimen, but eventually abandons it, but still wants to be the most physically powerful man in town. He thinks he can accomplish this simply by lazing around and imagining it. Eventually he enters a fifty-yard dash, supremely confident in his prowess. He comes in last.

 

  1. A Nice Old-Fashioned Romance, With Love Lyrics and Everything - Aram’s violent disciplinarian of a teacher practically beats him up for writing a poem on the board, to the effect that his teacher is in love with the principal. In fact his cousin Arak actually wrote the poem. Nevertheless, Aaram is sent to the principal’s office, where he gets the strap. By the next day, when the mysterious poem appears again, the two faculty members are indeed interested in each other, and Aram’s disciplinary issues make him a strange sort of go-between.

 

  1. My Cousin Dikran, the Orator - Most Armenians around Fresno revere those who can orate, but not Aram’s grandfather the Old Man, who thinks they’re all fools. Young spectacled Dikran is bookish and the old man is not impressed. Dikran gives a great speech about the World War not having been fought in vain, and everyone is blown away except the old man, who says he’d have been horrified if the one who said that wasn’t 11 years old and knows nothing of death.

 

  1. The Presbyterian Choir Singers – Aram is baptized a Catholic, but doesn’t know what he believes. An old Presbyterian lady organist forces him and his friend Pando to sing at her house, and thinks his voice is so beautiful and Christian that he must sing for the boys choir. Pando, who cannot sing, is proficient at bartering, and manages to get the old lady to pay Aram a dollar and a half to sing in the choir each week (and for Pando himself to stand beside him quietly).

 

  1. The Circus – A cute story. Aram is useless for any practical purpose when the circus comes to town. He and his friend Joey skip school, knowing old man Dawson would give them twenty lashes, and even that it’d be upped to thirty once they outran the truant officer. But this time things turn out differently. Dawson goes easy on them: thirty lashes, but they didn’t hurt. And, as always, they are all very courteous about the whole thing.

 

  1. The Three Swimmers and the Grocer from Yale – Aram and two friends dive into a muddy ditch swirling with ice-cold spring water, and then stop to eat on the way home. The grocery where they eat is run by a goofy friendly guy full of odd “well I’ll be” turns of phrase and a curiousity for what language everybody speaks. On the way home the kids discuss whether he was crazy, but then decide he was a poet.

 

  1. Locomotive 38, the Ojibway – A Native American who got to be a millionaire on oil in Oklahoma (but everyone just thought he was poor and crazy) comes to visit Fresno and befriends Aram [their initial conversation about the differences between being an American, an Indian, and an Armenian is charming]. He buys Aram fishing equipment and, on Aram’s advice, buys himself a Packard with cash but insists that Aram will have to be the one to drive because Americans are better with machines. Turns out the Ojibway could drive, however, as he eventually returns to Oklahoma driving the Packard himself; he had just wanted to give the boy the fun experience.

 

  1. Old Country Advice to the American Traveler – Aram’s uncle Melik receives a litany of paranoid advice from his old uncle Garro before traveling to New York on the train. Melik eventually abandons following any of the old man’s rules, and instead goes out of his way to be open and friendly to strangers, and has a wonderful trip. Ironically, by conscientiously doing the opposite of the old uncle’s advice, he benefitted from it.

 

  1. The Poor and Burning Arab - touching vignette of a short quiet Turkish man Khalil who misses the old country [the initial description of him is poignant]. Khalil befriends Aram’s uncle Khosrove, but they just sit together and never speak. But, as Aram’s mother says, they talk plenty without talking. This is revealed as very true when Aram asks one day why Khalil has long since stopped visiting.

 

  1. A Word to Scoffers - Aram takes the bus from Reno to Salt Lake City en route to New York, marveling at the nothingness of the desert and then feeling alienated in Salt Lake City. But as he’s about to board the bus again a missionary gives him a pamphlet called “A Word to Scoffers”, and tells him the secret of being saved: stop trying to figure things out and just believe— in anything, everything and anything at all. Aram ends up, unconsciously at first, taking the religious man’s words to heart and has lived that way ever since.

Back to Section Head

 

TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE

 

…from the time he was seven years old and was beginning to inhabit the world as a specific person…

-Note

 

While no character in this book is a portrait of any real person living or dead, as the saying is, neither is any person in this book a creation of fiction.

-Note

 

It was, as a matter of fact, and probably still is, as good a town as any in the world for a writer to be born into, being neither too large nor too small, too urban or too rural, too progressive or too backward, too athletic or too lame, too intelligent or too stupid, too arid or too lush, but in all these things, as well in all others, and in several unknown anywhere else in the world, so delicately, so nicely, and so delightfully balanced as to give the spirit of the growing writer almost exactly the right proportions of severity and warmth, and firmness and flexibiilty; the mind a critical and yet compassionate understanding; and the impulse to write an abundance of material by nature so rich in the elements of comedy as to require little or no labor to select and chronicle.

-(of Fresno), Note. [A bit reminiscent of the opening to The Hobbit published a couple years earlier; and indeed, Fresno is Saroyan's Shire].

 

As to whether or not the writer himself is Aram Garoghlanian, the writer cannot very well say. He will, however, say that he is not, certainly, not Aram Garoghlanian.

-Note

 

I knew my cousin Mourad enjoyed being alive more than anybody else who had ever fallen into the world by mistake…

-“The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse”

 

A man could be the father of his son’s flesh, but that did not mean that he was also the father of his spirit. The distribution of the various kinds of spirit in our tribe had been from the beginning capricious and vagrant.

-“The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse”

 

When you read in a book with hundreds of pages of small print that a woman is truly a creature of wonder, that writer has turned his face from his wife and is dreaming.

-Aram’s grandfather, “The Journey to Hanford”

 

When you read in a book that a boy answers an old man wisely, that writer is probably a Jew, bent on exaggeration.

-Aram’s grandfather, “The Journey to Hanford”

 

When you read in a book, he said, about some man who falls in love with a girl and marries her, that writer is truly referring to a very young man who has no idea she is going to talk out of turn right up to the time she is ready to go into the ground at the age of ninety-seven. That writer is thinking of a younger type of man.

-Aram’s grandfather, “The Journey to Hanford”

 

When you read in a book that a father loves a foolish son more than his wise sons, that writer is a bachelor.

-Aram’s grandfather, “The Journey to Hanford”

 

My uncle waved at the six hundred and eighty acres of desert he had bought and he said in the most poetic Armenian anybody ever heard, Here in this awful desolation a garden shall flower, fountains of cold water shall bubble out of the earth, and all things of beauty shall come into being.

-Aram’s uncle Melik, “The Pomegranate Trees”

 

The following year I was fifteen. A lot of wonderful things had happened to me. I mean, I had read a number of good writers and I’d grown as tall as my uncle.

-“The Pomegranate Trees”

 

We didn’t say anything because there was such an awful lot to say, and no language to say it in.

-“The Pomegranate Trees”, after his uncle loses his land and his dream of an orchard.

 

When you hear a small man with spectacles on his face shouting from the bottom of his bowels, let me tell you that that man is either a jackass or a liar.

-Aram’s grandfather, “My Cousin Dikran, the Orator”

 

When you look at a man who hides behind his face, the Old Man used to say, let me tell you that that man is no good. He is either a spy or a swindler. On the other hand, if you look at a man whose glance tells you, Brother, I am your brother—watch out. That man carries a knife on his person somewhere.

-Aram’s grandfather, “My Cousin Dikran, the Orator”

 

One of the many curious and delightful things about our country is the ease with which our good people move from one religion to another, or from no particular religion at all to any religion that happens to come along, without experiencing any particular loss or gain, and go right on being innocent anyhow.

-“The Presbyterian Choir Singers”

 

Do you believe now? she shouted. Or do you still have doubts?

I can easily say I believe, I said, but to tell you the truth I don’t know for sure. I want to be a Christian of course.

Well, just believe then, my grandmother said, and go about your business.

-Aram, after being baptized at 13. “The Presbyterian Choir Singers”

 

…the elderly lady sat on the stool, adjusted her feet on the pedals of the organ, and without any instructions to us, began to play a song which, from its dullness, was obviously religious.

-“The Presbyterian Choir Singers”

 

Well, I’ll be harrowed, he said, cultivated, pruned, gathered into a pile, burned, picked off a tree, and let me see what else? Thrown into a box, I think it was, cut off a vine and eaten grape by grape by a girl in her teens. Yes sir.

-the grocer, “The Three Swimmers and the Grocer from Yale”

 

“When he did, he spoke in a voice that seemed to come not so much from himself as from the old country.”

-the Turk Khalil, “The Poor and Burning Arab”

 

Reno is one of those American towns that lives on nothing but the disease of people.

-“A Word to Scoffers”

 

After dinner, I went back to that little room in that little hotel and got in bed without taking off any of my clothes, not even my shoes or my hat. I wanted to be ready to sprint in case of riot, fire, earthquake, flood, pestilence, or any other kind of emergency.

-in Salt Lake City, “A Word to Scoffers”

 

No man is ever much of an enemy of the truth. All them crazy things people do is because they don’t know what they’re after.

-the religious man, “A Word to Scoffers”

 

I’m on my way to New York, I said.

Well, he said, you won’t find any truth there. I been there six times in the last thirty years. You can go hopping around all over the world and never find out anything because that ain’t the way you find out anything. All you got to do is change your attitude.

That ought to be easy, I said.

Easiest thing in the world, he said.

I’m game, I said. I’ve got nothing to lose. How do I change my attitude?

Well, said the religious man, you stop trying to figure things out and you believe.

Believe, I said. Believe what?

Why, everything, he said. Everything you can think of, left, right, north, east, south, west, upstairs, downstairs and all around, inside, out, visible, invisible, good and bad and neither and both. That’s the little secret. Took me fifty years to find out.

Is that all I have to do? I said.

That’s all, son, said the missionary.

-the religious man and Aram, “A Word to Scoffers”

Back to Section Head

 

READ THIS WHEN…

…you want a light read of witty character studies from the perspective of a son of immigrants in America

or,

…you want to run as an adolescent boy, balancing innocence and adventure in a strange world of adults

 

IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’D LIKE:

(for the open-hearted and free-spirited boy in you:)

  • Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1838)
  • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
  • Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book (1894)
  • William Saroyan, The Human Comedy (1943)

(for immersion in the immigrant experience in America:)

  • Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)
  • Willa Cather, My Antonia (1918)
  • Ole Edvart Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth (1927)
  • Bernard Malamud, The Assistant (1957)
 

FIND THIS BOOK

Hardcover

Unfortunately, no hardcover of My Name Is Aram is currently in print! Fortunately used bookstores often have this title.

Paperback

 
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