James H. Tashjian: A Reflection on a Literary Legend

It appears that most of the great literary figures of our generation have already left us, the latest being James H. Tashjian, the editor of the Armenian Weekly for a time span of four decades, while simultaneously the long-time editor of the quarterly Armenian Review and one of the most prolific writers the Armenian-American community has ever produced. Tashjian started his career at the Hairenik Association as a young writer in his late teens on behalf of the then-newly founded AYF, contributing to an English-language column featured in the Hairenik Daily at the time. When the Hairenik Weekly (later renamed the Armenian Weekly) was established in 1934 he was almost immediately instilled as a long-standing fixture in the paper’s progression as a voice not only of the Armenian community at large in the United States but also for the ideals propagated by the ARF-Dashnaktsutiun, of which he became a long-time staunchly dedicated member. Under the initial tutelage of fellow great Weekly and Armenian Review editor James Mandalian, and having served alongside master Armenian-language writers/editors of the Hairenik Daily, notably Rouben Darbinian and Minas Tllyan, he was unwaveringly encouraged to fine-tune his craft. His love for the classics of literature, as well as the inspiration he fostered from romantic writers such as Herman Melville, was unmistakably evident in his writings. Countless social or political commentaries were churned out during his tenure. These were apart from frequent written calls to activate the youth in tackling issues that were most pertinent to them as young Armenia’s living in their actual homeland, America. For the Armenian Review he printed thousands of texts regarding literature, culture and history, revealing to the publication’s readers information about their deep-rooted ancestry that would otherwise have been unabsorbed. The editor also had a mental encyclopedic database at his immediate disposal, which he accessed seemingly spontaneously when putting pen to paper or purportedly lecturing to a crowd numbering in the hundreds. Even in his later years, despite having suffered from a stroke, Tashjian maintained his wit and sharpness, able to recall details of his literary and activist past. He was also known for his direct, perhaps considered strong-willed or intense persona as well as occasional obstinacy. In my few encounters with Tashjian, I only saw a person who was compassionate while simultaneously playfully argumentative and harmlessly inquisitive. The demonstration of knowledge that he shared with me, although briefly, was by all means astounding to the point of sheer intimidation. The sincere relationship between William Saroyan and Tashjian was not unknown to the community, and the two of them maintained their friendship until Mr. Saroyan’s untimely death in 1981. Both writers emerged during the same period of pre-World War II as contemporaries, although they would for the most part cater to varying, mainly unrelated audiences. Fellow intellectual and documenter of the early Armenian-American community, Sarkis Atamian, also shared his camaraderie. Mr. Tashjian was also a promoter of other fledgling writers emerging from the maturity of the AYF, for instance the late activist Leo Sarkisian as well as Tom Vartabedian, who to this day provides invaluable contributions to the Weekly, partly in honor to his mentor. On November 29, the Armenian-American readership lost one of the greatest literary legends it has known and will ever know. Tashjian’s dedication to the community, especially the youth, was substantial beyond measure. In respect for his devotion he was bestowed the honorary title of Prince of Cilicia. He also enjoyed the admiration of thousands of his readers from his generation as well as subsequent ones. So long as the community exists it must always remember and understand the substantial contributions that Tashjian left behind. It is rather inconceivable that an anthology of his most notable writings for the Weekly and Armenian Review has not been issued thus far; it is a tragic blow to the entire Armenian English-language literary world. His legacy deserves the recognition that it has unquestionably earned.

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