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The Misquotation of William Saroyan

His most famous words are haunting and brilliant. Also, he didn’t write them.

June 13, 2017  |  by Marc A. Mamigonian

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I have seen them carved in stone monuments, lit up on the big screen in The Promise, framed and hung on the wall outside my own office. Practically every Armenian knows them, and probably quite a few know them by heart — these, the most famous words of William Saroyan:


I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered.  Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.


These words resonate with Armenians everywhere, and not only Armenians. They have been quoted on the floor in Congress. David Mamet uses them as an epigraph in his book The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews. They speak of deep yearnings and fond hopes — for the immortality of the Armenian spirit and the Armenian nation.


There is only one problem. These aren’t the words William Saroyan wrote.[1] 


The original passage, if you care to read it, comes in the last two paragraphs of “The Armenian and the Armenian,” the final piece in Saroyan’s second book, Inhale & Exhale (1936).[2]


I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no longer uttered.


Go ahead, destroy this race.  Let us say that it is again 1915.  There is war in the world.  Destroy Armenia.  See if you can do it.  Send them from their homes into the desert.  Let them have neither bread nor water.  Burn their houses and their churches.  See if they will not live again.  See if they will not laugh again.  See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years after, and laugh, and speak in their tongue.  Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it.  See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them.


The first thing to notice here is the absence of the climactic phrase “see if they will not create a New Armenia.” These are words that Saroyan never wrote or uttered. The famous version does not merely sanitize the original passage for family ears or compress it for space: it substantially rewrites Saroyan to include new phrases and concepts. And now the pseudo-Saroyan version has effectively displaced the genuine article. How did this come about?


One would have to trace the matter back to the enduring success of the posters that feature the quotation and an image of Saroyan, most particularly the 1982 poster copyrighted by WizMen Productions and created by Zaven Khanjian and designer Mher Tavitian. It does not help, of course, that Inhale & Exhale has been out of print since the 1930s. But Saroyan himself was recorded reading “The Armenian and the Armenian” for the 1973 three-LP collection Here’s William Saroyan Reading His Own Stuff and Talking, so it’s not as if the original words had become inaccessible. Had they been inaccessible, they would not have been remembered at all.

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Khanjian, to his credit, has explained at considerable length the history of this poster, trying to set the record straight in articles published in Armenian newspapers.[3] Despite his efforts, the record is still more than a little bit crooked.


According to Khanjian, he first saw the “quotation” in early 1982 on a poster (above left) evidently created by one Peter Nakashian. Using the same words, which he assumed were correct, Khanjian had a new poster (above right) designed by Mher Tavitian, and in the years ahead the poster enjoyed great popularity. Certainly many copies were sold out of the bookstore of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR).[4]Though it is no longer available, people still ask for it.


William Saroyan, having died in 1981, was not available to offer a correction to Nakashian or Khanjian. Eventually the William Saroyan Society contacted Khanjian, but they were not concerned about the unauthorized alteration of Saroyan’s words. They were concerned about rights — and suggested to him that he cease and desist or share the profits. He ceased and desisted.

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Eventually, the Saroyan Society issued its own poster, citing the ostensible source, Inhale & Exhale, and appending an Armenian translation by Dr. Arra S. Avakian, even though “The Armenian and the Armenian” had already been translated into Armenian as early as 1940 by Samuel Toumayan and published in Lebanon. Incredibly, given its mission to promote Saroyan’s works and educate the public, the Saroyan Society used the altered quotation yet again – the work not of the late William Saroyan but of an unknown and self-appointed collaborator – and the Armenian translation, right down to nor Hayastan, is based on the concocted text.


To date, I have never seen the actual passage from Inhale & Exhale quoted on a poster, and you will look long and hard before you find it correctly quoted anywhere. I have seen the fake one on plenty of posters, not to mention wall plaques, t-shirts, and what other retail items heaven only knows. Zaven Khanjian, in his assessment of the legacy of the posters, takes the sanguine view that no harm has been done and the spirit of Saroyan’s idea has not been compromised. “Whereas it was indisputably wrong to tweak Saroyan’s original text, it was done only with the intention of making it even more powerful,” he argues. To my eyes, the rewritten text is not more powerful, only (in a very narrow sense) more palatable. It is certainly less interesting. Whether it’s in the spirit of what Saroyan wrote is debatable.


I cannot defend this kind of bowdlerization, even if it was done with the best of intentions. Quietly deleting “you sons of bitches” in order to create a family-friendly poster — well, okay. But it took a lot of chutzpah for somebody to look at Saroyan’s published text and see it as a rough draft that he or she had license to work over. “See if they will not pray again”: an entirely new concept introduced by Saroyan’s uncredited co-author! Quite a far cry from the earthiness of two Armenians meeting in a beer parlor and cursing. Speaking of prayers, in the original they are “no longer uttered,” while in the rewrite they are “no longer answered”— as if the tragically significant idea that post-genocide Armenians no longer bother praying was too shocking and had to be reversed.


And what a difference between the sentimental nationalism of “For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia,” on one hand, and “See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them,” on the other. C. K. Garabed calls the “New Armenia” sentence “completely gratuitous,” and I agree. Yet most people who today are aware of William Saroyan, the most famous of Armenian-American writers, know that ersatz sentence and nothing else he ever wrote. This is the fate of a man who turned down the Pulitzer Prize because he felt commerce shouldn’t judge art. Ironists please take note.


It gets worse. Close to the beginning of this great story that nobody bothers to read, Saroyan writes, “There are only Armenians, and these inhabit the earth, not Armenia, since there is no Armenia, gentlemen, there is no America and there is no England, and no France, and no Italy, there is only the earth, gentlemen.” I’m not sure that would make a best-selling poster to hang in every Armenian home; but while Saroyan was indeed a proud Armenian, he was also a proud contrarian.


“The Armenian and the Armenian” is short — under two pages, it is placed carefully at the end of Inhale & Exhale, the last of the collection’s 71 pieces. A lot is packed into those two pages. Like most of Saroyan’s best work it is filled with humor, vitality, contradictions. As in other writings, he seems to say: Being Armenian is different and no better than being anything else, but it is also the best thing in the world. He is saying: There is no Armenia, if there ever was such a place it was destroyed, but you can’t destroy Armenians. This is no more or less than he says in his great story “Seventy Thousand Assyrians” in his first book, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, describing the Assyrian barber Theodore Badal as “himself seventy thousand Assyrians and seventy million Assyrians, himself Assyria, and man standing in a barber’s shop, in San Francisco, in 1933, and being, still, himself, the whole race.” The third-to-last paragraph of “The Armenian and the Armenian,” the one right before the notorious passage, is also worth quoting, with its almost Whitmanesque catalog:


And the Armenian gestures, meaning so much. The slapping of the knee and roaring with laughter. The cursing. The subtle mockery of the world and its big ideas. The word in Armenian, the glance, the gesture, the smile, and through those things the swift rebirth of the race, timeless and again strong, though years have passed, though cities have been destroyed, fathers and brothers and sons killed, places forgotten, dreams violated, living hearts blackened with hate.


In other words, a more subtle version of “when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia”? Not quite. Saroyan embraced Whitman’s line from Leaves of Grass, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes,” and made a pretty good career out it. The Saroyan who writes in “Antranik of Armenia” (also included in Inhale & Exhale), “Armenia. There is no nation there, but that is all the better.…What difference does it make what the nation is or what political theory governs it?” is the same Saroyan who delights in hearing that the countryman he encounters, thousands of miles from home, in a beer parlor in Rostov, is from Moush. “Moush. I love that city,” he writes. “I can love a place I have never seen, a place that no longer exists, whose inhabitants have been killed. It is the city my father sometimes visited as a young man.” At times Saroyan elevates the Armenian nation; at other times he sounds like Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses who scoffs at the idea that he might be important because he belongs to the Irish nation, stating that, on the contrary, “I suspect that Ireland must be important because it belongs to me.”


So, we can cozy up to the Saroyan who sounds like a worldly post-nationalist, a man beyond the nation state, a citizen of the world. Or we can embrace Saroyan the Armenian patriot who celebrates the Armenian nation and longs for its revival. And in both instances we’ll be dead wrong. And, also, partly correct. Strip Saroyan of his contradictions and he’s no longer Saroyan, and no longer worth our time. I think you either embrace Saroyan in all his contradictions — his greatness and his mediocrity, his love of people and his misanthropy, his ethnicity and his cosmopolitanism, his art-for-art’s-sake integrity and his pursuit of commercial success, his self-destructible individualism, his Christian anarchy (in the words of James Agee) — or you don’t. Unfortunately, for the most part, it appears that people don’t.


“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams once said. (At least, I think he said it.) But perhaps even more stubborn than facts are myths. The trumped up Saroyan “quotation” is a myth — both in the sense of “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone” and “an unfounded or false notion.” It is obvious that it expresses something Armenians want or need to believe, and perhaps in a way that the original might not. Sometimes, sadly, the big ideas of the world get the last word. When that happens the least we can do is consider for a moment what has been lost.[5]



[1] I want to make it clear that I am neither the first person to notice this nor to write about it. (And, let’s face it, I probably won’t be the last.) For example, in the August 8, 2009, edition of the Armenian Weekly, C.K. Garabed penned a piece entitled “Mincing Words” that presented all of the variants of the “quotation” that were known to him, without, as he wrote, “the intent to be critical.”


[2] It also appears in the following collections: 31 Selected Stories from Inhale & Exhale (1943), The Saroyan Special (1948, reprinted in 1970), and most recently in He Flies Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease: A William Saroyan Reader (2008).  


[3] See “How I Came to Know Saroyan: The Story of a Poster,” Armenian Reporter, Nov. 1, 2008, and "Saroyeanê yev Yes," Asbarez, Aug. 13, 2008.


[4] NAASR is where I work. I am its Director of Academic Affairs.


[5] My thanks to Dickran Kouymjian for sharing his thoughts and recollections regarding the Saroyan posters and his many insights about Saroyan’s work; to Vartan Matiossian for his assistance; and to Zaven Khanjian for responding to my queries.


Marc A. Mamigonian has worked at NAASR since 1998 and has served as its Director of Academic Affairs since 2009. Mamigonian is the editor of the book The Armenians of New England and the Journal of Armenian Studies, and is the co-author of annotated editions of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses

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