Occasionally, people who think of me as some sort of authority approach me with questions of a literary nature. When that happens, I suddenly remember that I am Dr. Heuser, BS, MA, PhD, something that you tend to forget when you spend most of your afternoons in the company of a small dog whose passive vocabulary is limited to words like “want,” “basket,” or—a testament to my cleaning skills and the joys of country living—“spider.” So, I was eager to be of service when a young friend of mine from New England, where I have what you might call a surrogate family, asked me whether I could give her a few pointers on her latest English assignment.
The assignment, as she described it to me, was to compare one of the characters in Death of a Salesman to somebody she knows. I hope she did not think of contacting me because she had me in mind for the title role and expected me to prove her right by confessing that I’ve been feeling an awful lot like Willy Loman lately. I haven’t. Now, Biff, on the other hand . . .
I first read Death of a Salesman when I was an undergraduate in New York City in the early 1990s, at about the time that my term paper burdened friend was born. Back then, the play confirmed what I had expected all along: that things would not get easier growing older, that, even though the years of our protracted adolescence may well be the worst years of our lives, no matter how we romanticize them later on, there might never come a period of calm, certainty, or happiness. The regrets, though, might be mounting.
That I never revisited the Lomans was, heretofore, not among my regrets. As a matter of fact, I took a dislike to Arthur Miller in the intervening years, ever since I discovered that he was somewhat of a traitor. That is to say he was a reluctant radio playwright who, once he achieved success in the theater, professed to have hated the medium that got him started, the bastard medium that became the subject of my dissertation.
From the late 1930s to the mid-1940s—when radio dramatics were at the peak of their influence on American culture—Miller made a decent living writing for the Columbia Workshop and Cavalcade of America. He wasn’t toiling away for the Hummerts or writing advertising copy. And even though the Workshop was a sustaining program—that is, one not controlled by advertising—he went on dismissing radio as a tool for the hucksters. It was a popular view shortly after the war.
Miller was not just father to Willy Loman; he was also one of his sons. Working in commercial radio, he might have seen himself as an adjunct—the product of—salesmanship, until he finally managed to make a name for himself by writing for the stage. The technique of Death, though, is clearly indebted to his years in radio, to the ways in which aural play can take you right inside the head and heart of a person, unencumbered by walls, by exteriors, by physicality. There are only voices—and the only dimension is that of time. Not that Miller ever gave credit to radio for that.
Anyway, faced with my friend’s assignment, I did the only responsible thing I could think of and reread Miller’s play. By the time I reached the “Requiem,” I was in tears. Even though he did not take great pride in his career—a career he did not choose—there was a lot of Willy Loman in my father, right down to the extramarital affair, the self-deception, the suicide attempts, and the loss of his son’s respect.
Like most hard-working folks, my father could not cope with the suspicion that he was what Biff calls “a dime a dozen”—though he was a childhood hero to me. He got stuck in a line of work that exhausted him, driven by a desire to be “well liked” and anxious to display such tokens of middle-class achievement as are generally read as signs of success. His legacy, likewise, was a disappointment. I turned out to be Biff—privileged to reject the “phony dream” (“Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be?”), to be my own kind of failure and make some kind of virtue of it. What I have not yet dealt with is the role I might have played in my father’s early death, whether or not my loss of respect for him contributed to the loss of respect he had for himself.
I don’t suppose my words were any great help to my young friend, let alone a reassurance. There was one thing I told her that I would like her to remember, though: “whatever you write, write what you really feel. Anything else is a waste of time—for you and your reader.” Clearly, I was not speaking as an academic, to whom every argument is a sales pitch and every paper an opportunity for self-promotion. Else I might have suggested that she align herself with one of the minor, female characters in Death—“Strudel” to Biff’s brother—to point up the chauvinism of Miller’s world and defy its marginalization of her sex.
“A Half-Dollar and a Dream: Arthur Miller, Scrooge, and a ‘big pile of French copper’”
Politics and Plumbing
“Arthur Miller Asks Americans to “Listen for the Sound of Wings”
“Arthur Miller Unleashes a Pussycat”