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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Larissa Alderdice: The Alderdice Matriarch

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Photo Credit: jspring/Depositphotos.com 

It’s May, which means it’s not only spring but also the month of mothers (Mother’s Day in the United States was May 9). If we’re talking about mothers, I wanted to say a few things about Larissa Alderdice, the matriarch in my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series

I’ve done several blog posts about the Alderdice family already. I did one for Vivian Alderdice, the series protagonist, and for her brother, Jake. I even did one for Penelope Alderdice, the family specter whose hidden past kicks off the whole series. 

Larissa is a fascinating character because she is one of the focal points of the series, and yet, in each book, she remains a minor character. Her influence is not in the number of appearances she makes in each book but the mark she leaves on everyone in the family. I don’t think this is unusual when it comes to mothers. Mothers are a major source of nurture, discipline, and affection in many of our lives (mine sure is) but they often remain in the background, and their influence affects us in ways we don’t always realize until we’re adults and possibly have children of our own.

Larissa had her own beliefs, some of which are quite rigid. Her whole life evolves around society and what the Jones’ are doing. She is very much a product of the Gilded Age in that she is a part of all its opulence and excess. Like the famous Mrs. Astor, there is a “them” and there is an “us” and “we” are more superior to “them”. So, yes, she’s a snob.

Her views are somewhat mid-Victorian. There is a scene in Book 2, False Fathers where she chides her daughter for attending a suffragist meeting:

“You have a mutinous streak, Vivian,” Larissa said gently. “I’m only trying to help you.”

“Don’t worry, Mother. No blue blood woman ever strayed far from conformity.” His sister’s voice was wary. 

“Conventional life has its rewards,” [her] mother reminded her. “Comfort and peace of mind, for one.”

In other words, Larissa finds security in the separate spheres and the chaotic changes that were happening in the last decade of the 19th century and into the 20th were frightening and disturbing to her. 

Where Larissa’s maternal influence is felt most is in the third installment of the series, Pathfinding Women. In that book, the Alderdices aren’t exactly on sure footing with their Nob Hill neighbors, and this is a devastating situation for someone as social-conscious as Larissa. Her solution? Coax her daughter into chasing after a wealthy but somewhat unpolished Canadian buccaneer. Not the most liberating solution in the world, but, given Larissa’s character, predictable. What happens in the book is far from predictable, though.

But Larissa has her good points too. There is no question she is intelligent and brings her views forth in an insightful way. In False Fathers, her daughter remarks, “If social propriety hadn’t distorted your wit and intelligence, you might have achieved something in this world.” Had Larissa been a woman of the 21st century, she would probably have been an entrepreneur or a high-ranking executive of a company because her acumen and social savvy would have been channeled into more useful ways than at high society balls and dinner parties.

But, as it is, her obsession with society and its conventions place her in a position to editorialize about them in ways you would expect from a Mrs. Astor. For example, in a mock interview I wrote as part of the “Meet The Alderdices” packet, Larissa has this to say about Gilded Age debutante:

“For us, when a young lady comes out in society, it is an occasion for celebrating. She is now a woman and must take upon her shoulders the duties and responsibilities of a woman, not only toward her husband and children, but toward society as well.”

Want to read more about Larissa and her role in the Waxwood Series? You can start with Book 1, The Specter, which has now been revised and updated and is at the special price of 99¢. 

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. Oh, and that Meet The Alderdices packet? I occasionally put that out to my newsletter subscribers, along with a few other goodies, but only to subscribers, so if you’re on my list, you’ll get a chance to get that too!

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A History of Mother’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Flowers for Mother, from Pictures and Prattle for the Nursery children’s book by Harrison Weir, published in 1880: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100

Today is Mother’s Day in the United States. Where did this holiday come from? It began in 1908 when Anna Jarvis, editor and Progressive Era activist, decided to pay tribute to her mother in Philadelphia. She also, incidentally, started the tradition of giving flowers on the day by sending five hundred white carnations to the church in her hometown as part of the tribute.

Although Jarvis is credited as the godmother of Mother’s Day in the United States, she was not the first to come up with the idea. That honor goes to Jarvis’ own mother Ann Maria Jarvis. From all accounts, Ann Maria was the prototype Victorian woman, devoted to her children and her church. At the same time, she was also an activist but, unlike the suffragists, she kept to her side of the separate spheres. Her work was confined to areas acceptable for women (church and home). Her activist work was nonetheless important, as she formed Mothers’ Day Club events where the goal was to educate mothers on proper hygiene to prevent the massive infant death rates prevalent in the nineteenth century. 

It’s interesting to note Ann Maria conceived of Mother’s Day quite differently than her daughter. To Ann Maria, maternal responsibility was very much linked to community service, and her idea was to celebrate the role of motherhood in society and family. Her daughter, on the other hand, wanted to make the day a national holiday where both men and women honored their individual mothers — hence, we call it Mother’s Day and not Mothers’ Day. So Jarvis took Mother’s Day to a very personal level.

The fight to get Mother’s Day declared a national holiday came during the first decade of the twentieth century when many women were advocating taking their lives outside the private sphere and fighting in social and political arenas for their rights and identities as individuals. It might seem a little odd that Jarvis would, at this time in history, lead a movement honoring women’s most traditional role inside the home. In addition, Jarvis was one of these New Women who held a career as an advertising editor and earned a college degree. But suffragism was also about making women visible and respected for their own merits and contributions to society. Mothers fit right into this category (since you have to be a woman to be a mother, right?)

Photo Credit: Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day in America. Probably taken around the turn of the century, judging by the hairstyle and clothes, but no additional information about the image. Uploaded 4 May 2017 by Jonas Duyvejonck: jonasduyvejonck/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In May of 1914 (only a few months before the outbreak of World War I), President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. By the 1920’s, Mother’s Day, like most American holidays, had become a target for consumerism, specifically florists and candy makers. Jarvis was disillusioned by this toward the end of her life and spent much of her later years trying to gain the recognition she deserved. One of the beautiful things about history is that, while innovators may not be appreciated during their own lifetime, we can look back and give them the kudos they deserve decades, even centuries, later. 

Mothers play a huge role in my fiction. Some of them are martyrs (like Mary’s mother in the short story “Mother of Mischief,” which is part of my collection of post-war stories, Lessons From My Mother’s Life), while others are hard-bitten and manipulative (like Joan’s mother in the story “Soul Destinations,” also part of that collection). In my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Larissa, the Alderdice family matriarch, is a complex mother whose attitude toward life and toward her children changes over time.

You can find out more about Larissa and the rest of the characters of the Waxwood Series on this page. Check out both Larissa and Penelope Alderdice (Larissa’s mother) in Book 1 of the series, The Specter, recently revised and updated and now at 99¢. All my books feature interesting mothers, and you can find out more about them here.    

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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All Decked Out: Easter in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: Let all rejoice sweet Easter Day, 1881, stock card, published by Geo M. Hayes, Boston Public Library, Print Department: Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

It’s officially Easter and, if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I love to dive into the way things were during the holidays. The Gilded Age made of Easter what it made of many other holidays — an opportunity for opulence and excess. But, then, Gilded Agers knew how to enjoy life.

Easter in America didn’t become a spectacle until after the Civil War. In the first half of the 19th century, it was an important holiday for Christians and Catholics, but some religious groups were apt to ignore it. Others made Easter Sunday a day of mourning the fallen soldiers of the war. 

But things began to change around the 1870s (which coincides, not coincidentally, I think, with the birth of the Gilded Age). Easter was still, of course, a religious holiday and honored as such, but the Gilded Age mentality began to slip in. Gilded Agers saw it as a time to celebrate spring in the best way they knew how — by showing off.

Now, here’s a cartoon that is a sign of the times: An elderly Victorian lady dressed to the nines points toward a lavish Easter bonnet on a maypole while other equally garish women gather around to worship this sign of Gilded Age opulence. But the New Woman isn’t buying it and, in her sensible and comfortable suit, gives her a look like, “Seriously?”

Photo Credit: She won’t bow to the hat, C. J. Taylor, 1896, Library of Congress, Chromolithographs: Picryl/No known restrictions

The tradition of new Easter clothes took off during this period. Easter was the perfect time to jump into spring with bright, pastel shades and adornments. As with other holidays, such as Christmas, consumerism ruled, and it suddenly became a necessity rather than desirable for women and men to get new clothes for the holiday. Advertisements for men’s clothes urged them not to wait to order their new Easter suits, and buying a new hat for the holiday was the order of the day for most women (thus was born the “Easter bonnet”). As you can see from the photos on this page, not a ribbon or a frill was spared on these elaborate headgear. 

Where did Gilded Agers take themselves to display their new Easter garb? To church, obviously. In fact, there were those who weren’t regular churchgoers but would make an exception for Easter Sunday so their fellow worshipers could admire their new spring clothes. Another place Gilded Agers went to see and be seen in their new Easter garb was restaurants and hotels. Just as with Thanksgiving, hotel dining rooms had special menus for Easter that might have included lamb and asparagus (a vegetable just coming into vogue in Victorian cuisine). And the height of showing off in the Gilded Age was the Easter parade. In fact, the idea of the parade was conceived when aristocratic Victorian ladies flocked down Fifth Avenue dressed in their finest after church. In 1948, the musical Easter Parade, starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire epitomized this Easter tradition, especially in this song where Garland tackles all the cliches of Easter in one tune.

Want to read about one Nob Hill family and their rise and fall in the Gilded Age? My entire Waxwood Series is now available!

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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