- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

William Saroyan (1908-1981) was the boy-wonder writer of the Depression. In 1934 his first collection of short stories, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" made him a literary sensation at 26. Five years later his play, "The Time of Your Life," won the Pulitzer Prize (which he refused). In 1943, his novel "The Human Comedy" became a bestseller, a Book of the Month selection and the basis for a hit MGM movie. Alas, it all went downhill from there.
John Leggett, in his readable, richly detailed, sympathetic, but critical A Daring Young Man (Knopf, $30, 496 pages, illus.) tells the story of how a brash Armenian-American kid from Fresno, with little formal education, swiftly rose from being an unknown writer to a world-famous celebrity, and then slowly but inexorably began to decline and fall.
In World War II Saroyan spent three years as a noncombatant soldier, with easy (and safe) assignments, but he never recovered from his belief that the war had been a conspiracy among the Army, the government, the country, and, indeed, the world, to interfere with his personal happiness. Although he wrote some good short stories and autobiographical pieces after 1943, he was never able to write the big play or novel that would bring him back on top.
In 1974, 35 publishers rejected one of his novels. But he kept on writing (and making money) almost to the end, because he was convinced, as he had always been, that he was the greatest writer who ever lived.
Jonathan Swift once wrote that while he loved individuals, he hated the human race. Saroyan took the opposite view: He had a schoolboy crush on the human race, which in his mind meant all the charming oddballs, it-ain't-my-fault losers, heart-of-gold whores, high-minded eccentrics, lovable old coots, and innocent young people he liked to write about. But he had a very hard time loving real, live, human beings.
He had nothing but contempt and loathing for anyone holding a position of authority, in politics, the military, the movie industry or in publishing. He especially despised and went out of his way to alienate powerful people who had been helpful to him, such as publisher Bennett Cerf. As an artist Saroyan was talented, prolific, and probably the fastest pen in the country; personally he was exasperating, egomaniacal (even for a writer), and self-destructive, yet admirable in his fierce, unwavering faith in himself.
The big, near fatal, problem with the book is that after 1943 Saroyan's life was an almost unbroken series of failures and disappointments. After a while each setback looks like the one before it, and not even the author's considerable skills can make these artistic and personal disasters interesting. But Mr. Leggett, whose 1974book "Ross and Tom," about the brief, tragic careers of writers Ross Lockridge and Thomas Heggen, ranks among the best American biographies, brings his subject to life, not just as writer but as a man.
Mr. Leggett is especially good in his blow-by-blow account of Saroyan's two marriages to his wife Carol. Their first divorce occurred after she told him, for the first time, she was a Jew. Saroyan, the great lover of humanity, was shocked and hurt by the disclosure. Go figure.
Note: I have not read Saroyan for many years, so in order to refresh my memory for this review,I read for the first time "The Human Comedy" and the preface to his one-act play, "Hello, Out There." Saroyan had an accessible, unique literary voice, and a small but real gift for writing about ordinary people and their problems. But the warm, humane "philosophy" for which he was so widely praised rarely rises above the level of greeting card maxims. A little Saroyan goes a long, long way.

If Madalyn Murray O'Hair (1919-1995 had been merely a "militant feminist" (her words), an anti-anti-communist, and someone who believed that the election of Ronald Reagan meant "the powers of darkness, brutality and death … gained another victory" (her words), she would long since have been forgotten. What made her memorable was her deliberately provocative, litigious, in-your-face brand of atheism and particularly her successful 1963 Supreme Court case against state-mandated prayer in the public schools.
In The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair (New York University Press, $29.95, 296 pages, illus.), Bryan F. Le Beau, professor of history and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri, tells Mrs. O'Hair's story, relying heavily on her own writings, the records of court cases in which she was involved, and interviews with those who knew her. Her dictatorial attitude, her love of the spotlight and what Mr. Le Beau calls her "seemingly uncontrollable need to challenge and change some of the most dearly held beliefs of the world around her" made her infamous to most Americans and did not endear her even to fellow atheists.
What many tend to forget is that her case against Baltimore public schools Murray v. Curlett was not the only school-prayer case before the court at the time. The other was Schempp vs. School District of Abington [Pa.] Township. When the Court decided (by a slam-dunk 8-1 margin) school prayer was unconstitutional, the Schempp family said very little. Madalyn Murray claimed the win and began a 20-year long victory lap in which she thumbed her nose at religion in every forum she could find. She had brought her case at just the right historic moment, before a Supreme Court eager to embrace her argument.
The author devotes two long chapters to Mrs. O'Hair's writings on the virtues of atheism and the horrors of religion. She had nothing new to say the atheist argument is an old one, and everything has been said but her obvious intelligence and talent for provocation made her diatribes interesting, if not convincing. Her personal life was tragic: an unhappy childhood, two children born out of wedlock, an abusive husband, a son who turned against her and became a Christian, squabbles about money donated to her causes, and, finally, her brutal murder.
The author treats Mrs. O'Hair and her opinions with respect, offers a fair sampling of her opponents' views, and generally does a workmanlike job. But he believes that American "anti-Communist leaders" turned Americans against the Soviet Union after 1945 through "an extraordinary propaganda coup," by "creating an enemy image of tremendous proportions." He also believes "kill a Commie for Christ" was a "popular slogan" among anti-communists. I have not come across a more touching and devout faith in left-wing academic pieties in years. Who says folks don't believe the way they used to?
For the Record: I taught at Abington senior high school, where the Schempp case began, and daily led my home room class in the Lord's Prayer. I can remember the day in June, 1963, when the principal's voice, over the public address system, announced the result of the Supreme Court's decision. That day, I believed the Court went too far. Today I am not as certain about the correctness of state-mandated prayer in public schools, and I believe there is a principled conservative argument to be made against it.

William F. Gavin is a writer in McLean, Va.


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