Essays and Criticism
In ‘‘Psalms,’’ a piece of short, lyrical reflections on life found in his book Inhale & Exhale, Saroyan wrote, ‘‘I wish to speak of that which moves, begins and ends, yet endures forever. Man, and the river of his life.’’ It is this river that he explores in ‘‘Resurrection of a Life,’’ a story that leaves a strong impression of the continuity and permanence of human life even in the midst of all its fluctuations.
The river metaphor explains in part the free- flowing form of the story. Saroyan attempts to recreate in all its sensual fullness and emotional immediacy everything that the boy thought and felt as he sold newspapers in the city and explored its streets. The story is an ‘‘exhaling’’ (to use the story’s metaphor, which Saroyan frequently used elsewhere) of what it feels or felt like to be alive at a certain moment in a certain place. This kind of subjectivity and self-expression, in which the emphasis is placed on the inner processes of the self rather than objective description and narration, were of paramount importance to Saroyan. As Edward Halsey Foster puts it in William Saroyan: A Study of the Short Fiction, ‘‘The world and its language were no more than material from which to evoke an image of his internal self.’’
It is this desire to convey the multifaceted, spontaneous responses of the ‘‘internal self’’ to Saroyan’s experiences that drives some of the most striking stylistic elements of the story. Many of the sentences are long, with clause piled up on clause in varying rhythms. Often, the boy’s thoughts, feel ings, and sense impressions tumble along one after the other, producing single sentences that seem almost breathless in their desire not to leave anything out. One can almost hear the excited, sometimes uncomprehending reactions of the child for whom so many things are still new. The words just pour out.
Critics of Saroyan’s early stories (and there were many) complained that he was narcissistic and self-dramatizing, that he wrote only about himself, that he had little to say, and that the stories lacked the formal structures that would raise them to the level of art. What the critics looked for was more evidence that the writer was carefully shaping and controlling his own creation. According to Philip Rahv in an influential critique, as quoted in Foster’s book, Saroyan seemed to be ‘‘ad-libbing from start to finish.’’
Saroyan might well have regarded that remark as a compliment since he frequently emphasized the spontaneity of the creative act. He himself wrote very quickly, and he declares in his essay ‘‘Poem, Story, Novel,’’ found in his book Inhale & Exhale, that a story ‘‘is of course not a labor: [it] is an effortless growth, as of a tree coming up from the earth.’’ He often expressed contempt for the professors who were trying to lay down rules about what was acceptable in a work of literature. Saroyan prided himself on ignoring the traditional ‘‘rules’’ of the short story (for example, ‘‘Resurrection of a Life’’ is not built out of the traditional elements of plot and character). Indeed, he denied that there were any rules.
Do the negative appraisals of Saroyan’s work made by certain critics during the 1930s and 1940s have any validity with respect to ‘‘Resurrection of a Life’’? As far as the charge of not having anything to say is concerned, it is true that at first glance the themes in the story are straightforward and fairly simple. They do not seem to lend themselves to subtlety of interpretation. The child learns of the good and the bad in human nature. The good is conveyed by the kindness of the baker, who gives the boy chicken bread. He never discloses that he knows there are no chickens and that he is selling food to a family that can afford nothing better. The bad...
(The entire section is 1591 words.)