The Great Depression
The Great Depression was the most devastating economic period in American history. It began in late 1929 and did not end until the early 1940s. Brought on by economic instability and uneven distribution of wealth in the 1920s followed by a major stock market crash, the depression affected not only the United States but most of the world’s industrialized nations. It finally ended when the government spent massive amounts of money on the effort for World War II.
Over the course of the depression, businesses failed, people lost jobs and homes, a drought ravaged the Great Plains, and charities were overextended. By 1933, over nine thousand banks (almost 40 percent of the nation’s total) had collapsed, taking millions in people’s savings with them. Considered by many to be the worst year, 1933 also saw unemployment rise to 25 percent, accounting for over 15 million people.
While millions of people lost their jobs, others were forced to take reductions in pay. Desperate, some people resorted to digging through garbage dumps or eating weeds. Many men, unable to find other work, sold apples and provided shoe shines to make a little bit of money. Traditionally, men were responsible for supporting their families, but the depression forced other members of the family to seek work. Women, who were not hired for manufacturing jobs, were less likely to lose their jobs as clerks, teachers, and social workers. Children...
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‘‘Resurrection of a Life’’ is told entirely in the first person. The narrator begins by musing about the nature of memories and then provides a detailed account of what he was like in 1917. In the end, he returns to the present, telling the reader what he has learned since those days as a ten-year-old boy.
The description of the narrator’s childhood is deeply personal, and most of the memories center around his thoughts, feelings, and attitudes at the time rather than around interactions and events. The narrator’s memories of his childhood personality are so detailed that the reader often wonders how much is an accurate account of the boy’s psyche at the time, and how much is the adult narrator’s present view. Saroyan gives readers a clue that the narrator is at least partially inserting his present thoughts into the past when he names the films the boy saw at the cinema. Two of the films, Jean Valjean (1909) and The Birth of a Nation (1915), could have been seen by the boy in 1917, but the other two, While London Sleeps (1926) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921), could only have been seen by the narrator as an adult. Ultimately, Saroyan succeeds in forcing the reader to consider the nature of memories, their accuracy, and their role in people’s lives, by relating the past and present in the first person.
Stream of Consciousness Saroyan’s style in this story...
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Compare and Contrast
1917: As the United States enters World War I, many men leave to serve in the war effort. Women temporarily take their places in the workforce
1935: Soaring unemployment creates extreme hardship during the Great Depression. The unemployment rate reaches a height of 25 percent in 1933, and is somewhat improved to 20 percent by 1935.
Today: The economy is strong, and unemployment levels in 2001 hover around 4.5 percent.
1917: To aid the war effort, many movie stars urge Americans to buy war bonds. Among the most popular actors and actresses of the day are Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, and Gloria Swanson
1935: Child star Shirley Temple is the country’s most popular movie star. Although Americans have little money, Temple’s films are so successful that in 1935 she receives an honorary Academy Award for ‘‘outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year 1934.’’ Her success is attributed to the charming, light-hearted films that provide moviegoers a much-needed temporary escape from the hardships of the Great Depression.
Today: Many celebrities are involved with charities and social and political causes. Celebrity activists include Susan Sarandon (who supports AIDS research, the homeless, abortion rights, and nuclear disarmament), Rosie O’Donnell (who supports child advocacy and gun control), Tom Hanks (the national...
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Topics for Further Study
Find a book of photographs taken during the Great Depression. See if you can find scenes and people resembling those described in ‘‘Resurrection of a Life.’’ How do these photographs affect your reading of the story? How is photography unique as an art form in terms of preserving history?
The narrator is quite contemptuous of the fat man who sleeps in the saloon. As a result, the reader is never given an opportunity to consider what this man’s life may be like. Write a short piece from the fat man’s perspective in which you explain why he sleeps in the saloon all day and what sort of life he leads. You may portray him sympathetically or not, but your account must be consistent with the information provided by the narrator.
Trace the historical and economic events leading up to the Great Depression. Why did employment levels drop so low? What groups of people suffered most? Did anyone remain wealthy, and, if so, who and why? Create a multimedia (diagrams, photographs, text, etc.) presentation for your peers that makes the Great Depression easier to understand.
Many people who experienced the Great Depression lived the rest of their lives very differently as a result. While some adopted life-long habits of saving and storing, others committed themselves to enjoying pleasure and luxuries that were not available during the depression. Talk to or read interviews with at least two people who lived during the Great Depression...
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What Do I Read Next?
Saroyan’s first collection of short stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories (1934), not only established the author as a serious writer of his time but continues to be regarded as one of his most important collections. Written during the Great Depression, these stories continue to resonate with readers for their ability to capture an important historical period and for their universality in themes and characters.
Robert Allan Gates’s compilation American Literary Humor during the Great Depression (1999) demonstrates the ways in which American humorists addressed the Great Depression. Gates presents the works of authors such as Dorothy Parker, Zora Neale Hurston, H. L. Mencken, Will Rogers, and Ogden Nash to show the various ways in which humor was used to comment on hard times.
Perhaps Saroyan’s best-known novel, The Human Comedy (1943) was adapted by the author from his Academy Award-winning screenplay. Set in California during World War II, it is the story of the Macauley family, particularly fourteen-yearold Homer, whose job as a telegram messenger brings him face to face with the joys and heartbreaks of the war.
Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life (1939) was chosen for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, but Saroyan refused the award on the grounds that businesspeople should not be judges of art. The play is set in 1939 and takes place in Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, 3rd ed., Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1971, pp. 164–65.
Balakian, Nona, The World of William Saroyan, Bucknell University Press, 1998.
Floan, Howard R., William Saroyan, Twayne, 1966.
Foster, Edward Halsey, William Saroyan: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1991.
Keeler, Greg, ‘‘William Saroyan,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 86: American Short-Story Writers, 1910–1945, edited by Bobb Ellen Kimbel, Gale Research, 1989, pp. 252–63.
Lingeman, Richard R., ‘‘A Variety of Curtain Calls,’’ in New York Times Book Review, May 20, 1979, pp. 7, 49.
Matalene, H. W., ‘‘William Saroyan,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 204–27.
Scharnhorst, Gary, ‘‘Saroyan, William,’’ in Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 1: 1981–1985, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.
Shinn, Thelma J., ‘‘William Saroyan: Romantic Existentialist,’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. XV, No. 2, September 1972, pp. 185–94.
Updike, John, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison, Houghton Mifflin Company,...
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