When you set your novel in a California town called Ithaca and you give your characters names like Homer and Ulysses, you had better be making some sort of effort to tie your story in with the ancient myths of yore. Lots of writers have attempted to do this, from James Joyce to the Coen Brothers. Some do it with such attention to detail that you practically have to have an advanced degree to understand it. Then there are those writers like William Saroyan whose novel The Human Comedy can be enjoyed equally whether you are familiar with a certain blind poet and a certain lost warrior desperately trying to get home or not.
The Human Comedy is no modern day retelling of an ancient myth requiring you to consult footnotes and references to get at its theme. The theme is as simple as its story of a town confronting the consequences of being a soldier in World War II. Marcus Macauley, eldest son of the Widow Katey Macauley, is one of those young man who went off serve their country during World War II and never came back. The analogies and allusions may reference ancient Greek texts, but the theme of The Human Comedy could be easily understood by any of the young children to robustly populate the narrative.
Nobody ever really dies as long as there are people left behind to remember and share their memories of the deceased.
Saroyan’s portrait of small town life rings so true because he was raised in a similar small town under similar familial conditions. This attention to detail is very likely one of the aspects that allow it to be uncompromising sentimental without ever devolving into an insipid and treacly feel-good novel. Another element at work in this alchemy is the lingering presence of the dead soldier, Marcus. That cloud of bitter realism hangs over every scene of simple small town domesticity that Saroyan paints like a French Impressionist. The result is that when nothing in the book is anywhere near to being exactly like what you may remember about growing up, so many things are familiar enough to make it seem like something you might remember.
On February 4, 1943 The Human Comedy was published as a novel. A month later, a film version starring Mickey Rooney hit theaters. Under normal circumstances, that would make it one of the quickest book-to-film adaptations of all time. The Human Comedy was not created by William Saroyan under normal circumstances, however. The movie script actually came first, but after what is commonly referred to as “artistic differences” Saroyan cut and ran from his screenwriting job and set about turning his script into a novel.
Eventually, the natural course of events would correct itself and the novel would be adapted for film. The first remake featured Sean Penn’s dad Leo appeared in a 1959 television production narrated by Burgess Meredith. Meg Ryan directed frequent co-star Tom Hanks in a 2015 film version retitled Ithaca. In 1984 the story was transformed into a stage musical that proved unable to transfer its huge Off-Broadway success into popularity on the Great White Way. Nevertheless, the musical has been mounted successfully in regional theaters around the globe.
A extensively edited revised edition of The Human Comedy was published in 1966 that reduced the page count significantly