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Snatching Saroyan 

How Stanford University aced out UC Berkeley and acquired the million-dollar archives of San Francisco's most prolific author, William Saroyan -- without paying a dime

Wednesday, Feb 11 1998
In the fourth-floor bar of the exclusive University Club building atop Nob Hill, the Roxburghe Club, a San Francisco organization of rare book aficionados that dates back 70 years, prepares to begin its monthly meeting. Membership in the club is limited to 100 people, many of whom are currently meandering underneath an oar labeled "Harvard/Yale." It is a highbrow crowd of librarians, book dealers, collectors, fine printers, primarily elderly old-money males but a few women, one of whom wears a bright red raincoat.

Against the ever-growing behemoth of electronic media, these true lovers of books steadfastly cling to the centuries-old world of movable type, the feel of an ornate font pressed into thick paper, the way the gold leaf of a first-edition cover glints under the light. Conversation drifts about and around Maxfield Parrish collectibles and estate sales in Hillsborough.

Eventually, guests hobble down a flight of stairs to the dining room, where the Roxburghe Club's George Fox has taken the podium. Standing in front of picture windows that reveal the Financial District dropping away in the misting blackness, the "Master of the Press" offers a toast to a member who recently passed away. Wine glasses raise from all tables. Everyone starts sawing through steak. Fox begins to introduce the scheduled after-dinner speaker, William McPheron, Stanford University's curator for English and American literature. His topic: "Beyond the Headlines: The William Saroyan and Allen Ginsberg Archives at Stanford."

Fox points out that these two recent and prominent additions to Stanford have garnered somewhat sensational news coverage. The media, for instance, have focused on the eccentric items each author kept -- Saroyan's boxfuls of rubber bands, used kleenex, and rocks; Ginsberg's personal stashes of dirty sneakers and pubic hair -- rather than the creative processes they employed. Buttressed in the front row by a table of his Stanford colleagues, McPheron takes the podium to put out this small academic brush fire.

In a quiet voice, he begins a breezy summation of Saroyan's career, recounting minor creative epiphanies ("At 3:25 on the following morning, Saroyan reaches a very different conclusion") and offering quick, digestible nuggets of analysis ("His revisions point to the dedicated modernist, for whom style is vision"). McPheron clicks through the slides, images of typed documents with letters so tiny they are completely invisible from the back of the room.

It doesn't matter, for at least 25 percent of those in attendance at the Roxburghe Club are dozing. Some hide their faces in their hands, others let chins fall to chests, and a few heads sway lazily forward and back, as if bobbing in the ocean of McPheron's cool emotionless connections and conclusions.

McPheron turns to Ginsberg's unity of effect, and the juxtaposition of his poetic concern and his public image, and "the thematic armature on which Ginsberg builds," until one man, a fine printer by trade, suddenly exclaims rather loudly, "Oh, bullshit!"

The Ginsberg and Saroyan collections have something in common other than status as source material for dull lectures. They both recently arrived at Stanford from long-term housing in libraries of other universities. Stanford bought portions of Ginsberg's archives from his alma mater, Columbia University. What was not owned by Columbia outright, Ginsberg sold to Stanford before his death, receiving an estimated $1.4 million.

The situation at Berkeley was more controversial. Portions of Saroyan's papers had been on deposit at UC for nearly 30 years, but in April 1996, Berkeley's Bancroft Library suddenly received a letter from the William Saroyan Foundation, trustee of the writer's estate and owner of the Saroyan collection.

The library, the letter instructed, was to immediately relinquish all Saroyan materials to Stanford. Simultaneously, the foundation signed over all rights to and copyrights of Saroyan's works directly to Stanford University. Included in the archives are several hundred plays and short stories, journals, and correspondence, much of it never published. The book and library communities were abuzz with gossip. The Saroyan papers represented one of the largest single-author literary collections in the United States.

The papers and publication rights connected to them are probably worth millions. The foundation charged with managing the collection all but gave it away to Stanford, which acquired a genuinely prestigious academic feather-in-the-cap -- without paying one red cent.

Born in Fresno to Armenian immigrant parents in 1908, William Saroyan had a chaotic and confrontational early youth. His father abruptly died when he was only 3, and his mother placed him and his siblings in an Oakland orphanage for the next five years. Driven to become a writer, Saroyan dropped out of high school to move in with family in San Francisco, where he unsuccessfully attempted to peddle his writing, enduring the ridicule of relatives who thought him a no-good bum.

His breakthrough story, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," was published in Story magazine in 1934, while Saroyan lived as a young, impoverished writer on Carl Street. The tale followed the life of a young, impoverished writer who lives on Carl Street and wanders the streets of San Francisco, unable to sell any of his work:

"I'll go and sleep some more, he said; there is nothing else to do. He knew now that he was much too tired and weak to deceive himself about being all right, and yet his mind seemed somehow still lithe and alert. It, as if it were a separate entity, persisted in articulating impertinent pleasantries about his very real physical suffering. He reached his room early in the afternoon and immediately prepared coffee on the small gas range. There was no milk in the can and the half pound of sugar he had purchased a week before was all gone; he drank a cup of the hot black fluid, sitting on his bed and smiling."

With only a final penny to his name, the narrator lies down on his bed and dies with a smile. Both sad and ultimately uplifting, the story was an immediate success, and many more followed, published first in periodicals and then collected into books. At 26, he was already famous, an eloquently simple voice of prewar America, telling stories of hardships and survivors, of immigrants hustling to make ends meet, and scrambling to support their families.

About The Author

Jack Boulware


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