a f t e r w o r d
The Time of Your Life
‘‘There are those who believe art cannot do anything about history. I
am not one of those. I believe art can do a good deal about history’’—
so wrote William Saroyan in 1940 to introduce the publication of his
1939 Pulitzer Prize–winning play The Time of Your
Saroyan be-
lieved that art played an integral role in the public sphere and that its
necessity was all the more pressing in times of national crisis. His con-
viction about art’s centrality to the national culture fueled a career that
lasted throughout most of the twentieth century until his death in 1981
at seventy-two, but it proved especially poignant in the late 1930s when
the United States was coping with the terrible effects of the Great De-
pression and Europe found itself ravaged by war and the rise of fascism.
‘‘In a time of war if art abandons its labor, war wins its victory, and cheap
history tells the fable of the world,’’ Saroyan continued. ‘‘If it is impos-
sible for art to reach the soldier who is on the verge of killing or being
killed, it can get ready for the soldier’s son. If art cannot improve the
tone and meaning of the statesman’s radio speech, it can anticipate his
burial and be ready for his successor. If the world is amuck and there is
no one for art to talk to, it can prepare itself for the next generation.’’
Sixty-some years later, if Saroyan is remembered at all, it is for the opti-
mism of such commentary and the traumatic historical context within
which it was produced.
Saroyan’s philosophy of art and his insistence on art’s generational
legacy seem to counter my claims throughout this book that the con-
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