A Boat Looking for a Harbor: Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman

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***This post is part of The 4th Broadway Bound Blogathon: Tony Edition, hosted by the Taking Up Room blog. ***

***Some spoilers***

Most of you who have been reading my blog know that I am both a fan of classic film and I write psychological fiction. When I was in grad school, I found many classic playwrights have an amazing way of dramatizing psychological reality into compelling family stories. Playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neal, and Lillian Hellman were some of my favorite playwrights in grad school and an inspiration to me as a writer. 

Another playwright that was an inspiration to me was Arthur Miller. His post-war play Death of a Salesman (1949) has always been a favorite of mine. I really appreciate Miller’s deceptively simple story of the decline of a typical post-war traveling salesman which slowly unfolds to reveal the complex elements of family life during that era. Miller wrote a lot about male family members, and since my theme this month revolves around fathers, I wanted the opportunity to talk about what I believe is one of the most complex paternal figures in literature.

Willy Loman is, in many ways, a “regular Joe-shmo”, a direct product of the post-World War II era. I’ve talked a lot about women during this time in blog posts like this one, but the expectations put upon men during this time had their own set of problems. America was recovering from the horrors of the war and there was a drive to succeed and to be bigger and better than before the war. For many men, this meant reaching new heights in business and family. There was pressure to succeed and an emphasis on making money (Loman’s best friend points out to him that all people care about is how much a man is worth). In terms of family, the man was the head of the household and expected to make decisions and rule his wife and kids with an iron hand. The attitude was, “whatever I say, goes.”

Photo Credit: Lee J. Cobb (Willy Loman) and Mildred Dunnock (Linda Loman) from the 1966 televised version of Death of a Salesman, retelevised in March 1967, CBS Television: Renamed User 995577823Xyn/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

*This is my favorite version of the play, as there are a lot of versions out there (including a 1985 version with Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman and a very young John Malkovich as Biff). You can find the 1966 version here

Willy Loman is very much this type of man. He’s built his entire thirty-five-year career as a traveling salesman around his expectations that his devotion would yield success. He expects obedience from everyone around him and doesn’t hesitate to raise his voice or his hand to get it. His semi-aggressive manner is, at times, frightening.

But Miller portrays Loman as much deeper than that. Underneath the bullying and arrogance is a man in need of love and respect and belonging (his wife refers to him as “a little boat looking for a harbor”). He tells his young boss Howard Wagner a touching story of how he came to be a salesman. He explains how he witnessed an 82-year-old salesman one night making phone calls to buyers and getting a warm reception. For Willy, this was the epitome of love, making him realize that being a salesman was the most wonderful job in the world. Why? Because a salesman could pick up the phone and be remembered and loved and respected. He goes on to tell Howard how this 82-year-old salesman died “the death of a salesman” with people lining up at his funeral. Willy, then, wants to be loved and remembered and, as many men did in the post-war era, chose his career to do it.

However, Willy is a dreamer to the point of building sandcastles in the air. His ideas of his own grandeur don’t quite gel with reality. The problem is he imposes these dreams on his family, especially his elder son Biff. Willy imposes his dreams of being “big” on his son without giving him a chance to discover who he wants to be on his own. So when Biff fluffs up a football scholarship and turns to a less-than-stellar life, his father accuses him of spitefulness, as if Biff chooses to fail instead of failure is inevitable because he is simply a different kind of man. In Willy’s eyes, his sons don’t love or respect him because they are as average as he is. Only in the end, when Biff makes Willy understand who he really is does Willy realize his son loves him after all. But by then, it’s too late.

My book False Fathers is also about delusions and fathers. Jake is looking for a father figure now that he has come of age and ready to take his place in the world. Interestingly, the expectations for men in the Gilded Age  were similar to those of the post-war era: success in business, earning a high income, and being “big”. Jake knows this and knows he needs a father to guide him. But the road to searching for a father figure isn’t as smooth as he anticipates and, like Biff, he learns a lot about himself and his own expectations in the bargain. 

You can read about False Fathers, which has just been revised and updated, here. And if you’re interested in women of the post-World War II era, you might find my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life to your taste.     

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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Complex Woman and Man in The Misfits (1961)

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Photo Credit: Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in The Misfits, May 1961, from Radio-TV Mirror, McFadden Publications: Encyclopedias/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to review a book about classic Hollywood film director Robert Wise (you can find that blog post here). Reading this book reminded me of how much I used to love blogging about classic films. I haven’t done that in the last few years because I wanted to focus more on history related to my fiction, but the Wise book got my juices flowing again, so I’m putting classic film blogging back on my agenda.

Since this is Women’s History Month, and I’m celebrating the accomplishments of women in the 1950s and 1960s, I thought it would be fitting to blog about one of the most iconic movie stars of the mid-20th century who still haunts us today — the beautiful, talented and troubled Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe is best known for comedies in the 1950s such as Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955). But she also did a fair amount of dramas and excelled in them. In 1961, when she was married to Arthur Miller, she starred in The Misfits and gave what I consider the finest performance of her career. The film is a magnificent classic written by one of America’s premier playwrights (Arthur Miller) and stars, along with Monroe, some of Hollywood’s greatest actors (Clark Gable, Eli Wallach, Montgomery Clift, and Thelma Ritter). What fascinates me the most about this film is the way both Monroe and Clark Gable edge out of the kind of roles they had been used to playing for much of their careers.

I don’t think anyone would deny that, when it comes to the feminine prototype, Marilyn Monroe’s film persona is it. From her voluptuous figure to her child-like voice to her sensual gazes, Monroe embodied a fantasy for 1950s men that differed widely from the woman of the Occupation: “Housewife” era. The sensual babydoll was no weakling, though. She was in command of the men who admired and lusted after her, aware of what she had to offer as a woman and making the most of it. Similarly, Gable was the definition of masculinity in the 1930s and 1940s. His elegant pencil mustache and gruff manner and his readiness to throw a punch at any given moment defined what it was to be a “man’s man” not only in the pre-World War II era but in the years following the war.

In “The Misfits”, Monroe is something of the innocent but voluptuous baby doll while Gable is the gruff cowboy capable of bringing women to their knees even in his 60’s. But the characters they play are much more complex and move well beyond these stereotypes. Monroe shows us the darker side of the sexy babydoll that so captured the delight of 1950s viewers in films such as those mentioned above. Miller wrote the character of Roslyn Taber with Monroe’s own past in mind, and some of the more troubling aspects of Monroe’s life emerge in that character. One is Monroe’s paradoxical relationship with her mentally ill mother. In a scene following Taber’s divorce settlement, she becomes tearful thinking about her mother. One can imagine that, during this difficult time, Taber has a sudden wish for the maternal comfort she never got, and one wonders whether Monroe herself didn’t sometimes have the same wish for her mother, who was largely absent from her life, in and out of mental institutions.

As for Gable, the character of Gay Langland is much less pugnacious than some of the characters Gable played in the 1930s and 1940s. For example, in one scene, he assures Taber she might someday think of him as something more than a friend in such a good-natured way that it’s clear Langland isn’t a man who expects every woman to fall for him, and that his ego doesn’t depend on this. The man of iron also shows himself as vulnerable as the film progresses. In one scene, his drunken devastation at being unable to find his estranged grown children at a rodeo gives us a glimpse into some of his past regrets.

The 1960s, when The Misfits was made, was a time when the rigid definitions of the post-war gender roles were beginning to break down, which, I think, partly accounts for the way Taber and Langland are portrayed in this film. If you’re interested in reading about more characters whose ideas of gender already showed signs of changing in the 1950s, check out my short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life

And just for fun, here’s the trailer for The Misfits. 

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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Release Day Blitz for Dandelions!

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release day, historical fiction, series, family saga, family drama, women's fiction, Gilded Age, 19th Century, women's history, resilient women, US history
release day, historical fiction, series, family saga, family drama, women's fiction, Gilded Age, 19th Century, women's history, resilient women, US history

Photo Credit: Couple painting, Dionisios Kalivokas, 1858, canvas and oil, Corfu National Gallery, Greece: File upload bot (Magnus Manske)/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 70)

Title: Dandelions

Series: Waxwood Series, Book 4

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Women’s Fiction/Family Saga

Release Date: December 20, 2020

She had more in common with her nemesis than she wanted to believe…

For Vivian Alderdice, the 20th century begins with a new start. Now a working girl and progressive reformer like her friend, Nettie Grace, she has forsaken the Gilded Age opulence of Nob Hill for the humbler surroundings of Waxwood’s commercial district. Rather than whittle away her days with other wealthy young women in gossip, parties, and flirtations, she sells talcum powder and strawberry sodas to customers at Nettie’s Drugstore and helps the poor to read at the Waxwood Women’s Lending Library and Reading Room.

But sometimes the scars of the past leave bitterness behind …

Harland Stevens, the man who ruined her brother’s life two years before, appears like another specter in Vivian’s life and, in spite of herself, Vivian is compelled to help him escape from a hell of his own.

You can get your copy of the book at a special promotional price from your favorite online book retailer here.

release day, historical fiction, series, family saga, family drama, women's fiction, Gilded Age, 19th Century, women's history, resilient women, US history

Excerpt

As she watched him stroll down the boardwalk, his hands in his pockets, nodding at ladies as he passed but without the leering eye of his college boy days, she felt again the wave of uncertainty engulf her like the sea wind. She was alone now with this large, silent man.

“Since you prefer everyone call you Stevens,” she said, glancing at the redhead, “that’s what I’ll call you from now on.” 

Though the redhead did not speak, she saw his lips sway as if he were trying to answer her. She felt a surge of relief as she led him down the boardwalk. 

As with the hotels, the place was empty. As it was Saturday, men had come down from their city jobs to spend the weekend with their families. She suddenly feared she might encounter people she had known the previous summers in Waxwood and couldn’t help but wonder what they would think. Would they see her as a little plain in her shirtwaist and gray suit but nonetheless fashionable, and Stevens looking for all the world like the new century’s gentleman with his stiff collar and tie tucked inside his closed vest? Would they guess their eyes were feasting upon a Washington Street blue blood nearly fallen from grace and a once vibrant, commanding man, now a hollow shell of silence and perhaps madness?

About the Author

Tam May started writing when she was fourteen, and writing became her voice. She loves history and wants readers to love it too, so she writes historical fiction that lives and breathes a world of the past. She fell in love with San Francisco and its rich history when she learned about the city’s resilience and rebirth after the 1906 earthquake and fire during a walking tour. She grew up in the United States and earned a B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor (where she managed to interest a class of wary freshmen in Henry James’ fiction) and EFL teacher (where she used literature to teach business professionals English) before she became a full-time writer.  

Her book Lessons From My Mother’s Life debuted at #1 on Amazon in the Historical Fiction Short Stories category. She has also published a Gilded age family drama set in Northern California at the close of the 19th century which tells the story of the Alderdices, a family crumbling in the midst of revolutionary changes and shifting values in America’s Gilded Age. Her current project delves into the historical mystery fiction genre. The Paper Chase Mysteries is set in Northern California at the turn of the 20th century and features amateur sleuth and epistolary expert Adele Gossling, a young, progressive, and independent young woman whose talent for solving crimes comes into direct conflict with her new community, where people are apt to prefer the Victorian women of old over the New Woman of the new century. 

Tam lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature, watching classic films, cross-stitching, or cooking yummy vegetarian dishes.

Social Media Links

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Facebook Readers Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/tamsdreamersRG/ 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tammayauthor

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/tammayauthor/

Instragram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16111197.Tam_May

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

I’ve got a giveaway going on with 4 chances to win a prize! You can enter here.

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The Marriage Age in the 19th Century

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marriage, 19th century, gilded age, Waxwood Series, women, men

Young married couples in the 19th century knew marriage wasn’t all hearts and flowers. They were practical as well. I’m guessing this is probably an advertisement for Domestic sewing machines.

Photo Credit: Bride & Groom: Karen Arnold/PublicDomainPictures/CC0 1.0

Not long ago, I wrote this blog post about marriage advice in the Gilded Age era. Not surprisingly, age was an important factor, for both men and women, and it’s emphasized in my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women.

Today, we’re used to women (and men) marrying at any age they like. It’s significant that many women and men choose to marry at a later age. My research revealed that the average marriage age today is 35 years old for women and 38 years old for men. I can see several very good reasons for this. Both men and women are generally established in their careers and their lives by their 30’s, so choosing to marry and have a family is a commitment that can richen their lives. Many women prefer to have a career before they take on marriage and motherhood. There is also a level of emotional maturity and intelligence that comes with age that (we hope) makes relationships and child-rearing more painless and fulfilling at later time in our lives.

This is in stark contrast to the marriage age in the 19th century. The average age for women to marry was, roughly, 20 to 22, while for men, it was 26. Why were women marrying at such a young age, nearly 15 years younger than they do today? We want to remember women were not as autonomous as they are today, especially not in the first three-quarters of the century. Due to the separate spheres, many women were dependent on others for their livelihood, and marriage was the primary way they could survive when they came of age. There was also the “cult of True Womanhood” mentality where women’s destinies were to be wives and mothers, so marriage was seen as their goal in life.

Surprisingly, upper class women took the marriage age as more crucial than middle and lower class women. You would think women with social and economic privileges would be more independent than their less privileged sisters, but, in reality, family and social expectations lay heavily upon them (a theme that comes back again and again in the Waxwood Series). Women who expected to marry into high society and/or maintain their position among the blue bloods had to marry young. In her book What Would Mrs. Astor Do? author Cecelia Tichi describes actress and model Evelyn Nesbitt, whose decision to marry the rich but abusive Harry Kendall Thaw came largely from the fact that she was “now over twenty years old, a perilous age for a Gilded Age starlet harboring hopes of matrimony” (Tichi, location 3210). How much over? According to Tichi’s book, when Nesbit married Thaw, she was 21 years old.

In Pathfinding Women, the social standing of both Vivian and her mother Larissa hinge on Vivian marrying again. Vivian and her mother and, in fact, the Washington Street blue bloods that make up their social set are hyper aware of this fact:

Vivian thought with irony of the past few days. “Yes, it would certainly be peaceful for us both if I were to become Mrs. Monte Leblanc.”

“And just what you need at this particular time in your life.”

A pain shot through Vivian. “What do you mean, Mother?”

“You always accuse me of ignoring the truth,” said Larissa. “But you don’t like it when someone else shows you the truth you’ve been ignoring.”

Vivian turned up the gas lamp on the night table and observed her mother’s face illuminated by a yellow halo. “You’ve always been shrewd, haven’t you, Mother?”

“I’m trying to make you see!”

“See what? That I’m not getting any younger?” Vivian’s eyebrows arched. “That’s what you meant, isn’t it? You think I ought to grab the first man that asks me like Cousin Emma did.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as that.” Her mother’s voice was reasonable. “But twenty-six is an age where a woman can begin to expect little out of life if she’s not married.”

You make twenty-six sound like ninety-six,” said Vivian, realizing she was starting to sulk.

Vivian is considered, by the standards of the 19th century, to be well above the marriage age, though she is still young, and this puts her in an awkward position matrimonially, and one that her love interest, Monte, who is considerably older than she is, doesn’t fail to grasp and try to use to his advantage.

Pathfinding Women is the third book of the Waxwood Series and will be out on September 13. But you can grab a preorder copy now at a special price here. To find out more about the series, please go here.      

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Want in on exclusive sneak peaks, giveaways, and polls? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Tichi, Cecelia. What Would Mrs. Astor Do? The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age. Washington Mews Books, New York University Press, 2018. Kindle digital file.

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Marriage Advice From the Turn of the Century

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Photo Credit: Portrait of a man and woman, possibly wedding photo of husband and wife, probably from around the 1890s, photographer unknown, Wakefield 1 High Street, Ealing: whatsthatpicture/Flickr/Public Domain Mark 1.0

If you’re a fan of my work, you know I’m not a romance writer, per se. I have nothing against historical romance, and I love classic romances like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Austin’s novels, but I’m just not in that vein.

However, my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women, does have a romantic subplot. And for this, I went searching for information on marriage and love in the Gilded Age. A very interesting article on the Click Americana website cropped up in my research titled “Tips for a happy marriage: Advice for newlyweds, from the 1900s“. It’s actually a series of articles published in the early 20th century by the San Francisco Examiner, so the advice given is actual “real time” suggestions for newlyweds. 

Needless to say, the marriage advice is about what I expected. Although the first few decades of the 20th century were somewhat more progressive than the prior century, there was still a lot of Victorian baggage left from the separate spheres when it came to relationships. The passage that interested me (there are a few included in the article) was written in 1901, just at the beginning of the new century. The advice begins with the obvious: “‘First select a MAN’” (Wheeler Wilcox, par 2). At first glance, this might seem like a “well, DUH” kind of thing. But I think it’s interesting to note Wheeler Wilcox uses the word “select”. Sadly, many women in the 19th century didn’t really chose a marriage partner — their circumstances often made marriage imperative, and they sometimes had to go with whatever was available. But the Gilded Age was the era of the New Woman, so women had choices, even in marriage partners. 

Also interestingly, Wheeler Wilcox was no fool when it came to the personality of the Gilded Age man. She warns women, “[o]f course, he will be more or less selfish. That is the way parents rear their sons to be” (par 3). Her solution to this problem is for the wife to show patience and tolerance, and teach him to be a considerate, kind human being by modeling that behavior.

Some of the advice is actually quite sound, though. For example, Wheeler Wilcox suggests that, when a husband chides a wife about one of her faults, she ought to remind him he has faults as well and enter into an agreement with him so that they can both work on themselves (“‘Let us enter into a Mutual Improvement Society. I want to be everything you admire — you want to be everything I admire. I will try and do my part and you must do yours’” (Wheeler Wilcox, par 6)). There is the assumption here that men and women are equal partners in a marriage and therefore, must compromise and work together to make the marriage a happy one. This wasn’t exactly the attitude the Victorians had toward marriage (as you’ll see later).

Unfortunately, Wheeler Wilcox’s advice sort of goes downhill from there. Wives are told to be prepared to make sacrifices, stroke the husband’s ego, and please him as much as she can. She should create a happy, harmonious home, always having the house clean and looking her best. Wheeler Wilcox even suggests bad behavior (including alcoholism and adultery) should be accepted as a given for some men:

“Of course, we must make allowances for the occasional lawless and drunken mariner who sends his ship on the rocks and the worthless husband who does not appreciate life’s best gifts. There are men whom no woman on God’s earth could keep loyal or honest; but they are exceptions” (par 15)

Nevertheless, the attitude toward marriage and especially a woman’s role in it has clearly shifted from the Victorian period. Although the woman is still expected to play her role as the angel in the house, she is also advised to voice her displeasures in the marriage and expect more of her husband in terms of love, affection, and respect. Such, sadly, was less the case a century before. In another article by Click Americana, we get a taste of pre-Civil War marriage advice. There is no assumption that the woman is equal to the man in marriage. She is the subservient and should always remain so, abiding by her husband’s law in the home, never contradicting him (heaven forbid!), and centering her world around him.

In Pathfinding Women, Vivian is in a thankfully more progressive state of mind than that. Though she’s not quite a New Woman, she has her own ideas about what she wants in marriage, some of which she expresses in a scene with Monte Leblanc, the love interest in the book, and in the company of a Miss Sowberry, who is quite young but has been taught all the virtues of Victorian womanhood by a rather domineering mother:

“There are times when women are a burden to men.” Vivian cast her eyes across a table with the silver-gilled carp. “Just as sometimes men are a burden to women.”

“You have modern opinions about marriage, then?” [Mr. Leblanc] asked.

“Some,” Vivian admitted. “I believe, like Mrs. [Lucy] Stone, that women should keep their maiden names after marriage, if they wish. That’s one reason why I went back to being Miss Alderdice when my husband died.”

“A girl ought to make a home for her husband, wherever it is,” said Miss Sowberry but she sounded as if her opinion were being dictated by someone else.

To read more about Pathfinding Women, which will be out on September 13, check out this webpage. And to learn more about the series, you can go here.     

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Wheeler Wilcox, Ella. “Love, sense, & patience: The 3 most important things for a happy marriage (1901).” From “Tips for a happy marriage: Advice for newlyweds, from the 1900s.” Click Americana. Synchronista, LLC, 2011-2020. Web. 29 July 2020.

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