The Human Comedy (1943)

by William Saroyan

The Human Comedy is a series of connected vignettes centering around the Macauley family in the fictional town of Ithaca, California, during World War II. Mr. Macauley died two years earlier, and the oldest Macauley child, Marcus, is away at war. Mrs. Macauley is home with Bess, 17; Homer, 14; and Ulysses, 4. Assuming the role of man of the family, main character Homer talks his way into a job as a telegram messenger while continuing in school and track.

The novel offers a vivid look at small-town life and an appreciation for its simplicity and goodness. In some regards the vignettes could make readers long for the good old days. For example, a gang of boys commits the crime of stealing apricots from a tree — while the property owner chuckles in his house. But The Human Comedy is also a story of lost innocence. Homer is not sheltered. He has to deliver telegrams informing families that their loved ones were killed in the war.

Standouts among the book’s interesting characters, along with Homer, are the telegram office’s kind Mr. Spangler and aged, philosophical, often drunk Mr. Grogan; wise Mrs. Macauley; and curious Ulysses. The story is semi-autobiographical. Saroyan, son of Armenian immigrants, grew up with his widowed mother and siblings in Fresno, on which Ithaca was modeled. Ithaca was a diverse agricultural community with many immigrant cultures.

William Saroyan originally wrote the story as a film script, but it was twice as long as a usual script, so he turned it into a novel. It was an instant bestseller. The film adapted by someone else from Saroyan’s script also came out in 1943.


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