During William Saroyan’s life as a writer, 1934 was an important year. His first collection of stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, was met with popular and critical acclaim capped by the O. Henry Award for the title story, which also appeared in Story magazine in 1934. ‘‘Resurrection of a Life’’ was first published in Story magazine in 1935. It was such a strong story that Saroyan chose to include it in his much-anticipated second collection of short fiction, Inhale & Exhale (1936).
‘‘Resurrection of a Life’’ is typical of Saroyan’s short fiction in style and content. Stylistically, the story is representative of Saroyan’s short stories in its first-person narration, rambling plot line, and ultimately optimistic outlook. The story’s content is typical of Saroyan’s work in its autobiographical elements, inclusion of the subject of death, and optimistic tone.
‘‘Resurrection of a Life’’ consists mainly of the narrator’s recollections of his life as a ten-year-old paperboy in 1917. He sold newspapers by standing on busy public sidewalks and shouting the headlines to passersby. As a result of this work, he was faced daily with the events of World War I. In addition, he was from a poor family. These factors made the child cynical, and he sought stability and certainty in a difficult time.
The story opens with the narrator commenting that the events of the past have no death because they remain alive in his memories. He notes that he often wandered into saloons, whorehouses, and gambling establishments to watch people. He also watched rich people eating ice cream and enjoying electric fans, and silently rebuked them for ignoring the realities of the lives of the less fortunate. Another place he liked to go was the Crystal Bar, where men drank, played cards, and spat on the floor. He was disgusted by a fat man who came every day in the summer and slept. Finally, he describes going to the cinema and seeing the falseness of the films that somehow revealed the truth of his world.
Regarding himself as worldly and insightful, the boy had no use for school. He was not interested in listening to teachers, and he considered himself superior to the other children.
The boy often went to The San Joaquin Baking Company early in the morning to buy ‘‘chicken bread.’’ This was bread that fell on the floor during the wrapping process, and people bought it to feed to their chickens. The narrator, however, bought it for his family. The man who sold him the bread knew why the boy bought it but preserved the boy’s dignity by pretending to believe that he had chickens. The narrator remembers having noticed that this man always chose the best loaves of chicken bread for him.
The narrator also describes the house in which he and his family lived. The roof leaked, the floor sagged, and it was full of insects, but the family did not mind because they were together and had a place to live.
The narrator recalls a time when the headline he shouted was about ten thousand huns being killed. (During World War I, hun was a disparaging term used to describe a German soldier.) Although he liked that the news helped him sell newspapers, he was disgusted at how happy people were about so much death. He relates that he sees war differently than historians do. While historians often view war as a series of events accompanied by statistics, the narrator sees it one man at a time. He believes that death is a personal experience in which the universe ends for one man.
The narrator recalls accompanying his family to church. He dressed in his best clothes and loved the songs, but he doubted the existence of God in a world of hate, ugliness, death, suffering, and poverty. He saw too many places in the world where God seemed absent, but he could not bring himself to completely reject the idea of God’s existence.
The narrator returns to the present as the story concludes; he is sitting in a room alone at night. He explains that he has learned that all people can do is keep breathing and carrying on with their lives in the face of pleasure and pain. He ends by declaring that he is glad to be alive, ‘‘glad to be of this ugliness and this glory,’’ adding that he believes that there is no death and never will be.