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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Dandelions Launch Giveaway is here!!!

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Pathfinding Women Launch Giveaway!!!

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Release Day Blitz for Pathfinding Women!

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new release, historical fiction, women's fiction, family saga, family drama, Gilded Age, 19th century, US history, suffragism, series
new release, historical fiction, women's fiction, family saga, family drama, Gilded Age, 19th century, US history, suffragism, series

Front Cover Photo Credit: Woman standing in forest, artist signed Dobrowloski, 1910/1919, John High Collection, Czechoslovakia: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 70 Expired

Title: Pathfinding Women

Series: Waxwood Series, Book 3

Author: Tam May

Genre: Historical Women’s Fiction/Family Saga

Release Date: September 13, 2020

There are paths in life we have no choice but to follow.

At the close of the nineteenth century, Vivian Alderdice is twenty-six, unmarried, and has no prospective suitors. Now the heiress of the Alderdice fortune, she has yet to fulfill her duty to her family and to society: to marry well and produce heirs.

Her brother’s tragic plight the year before left her and her mother on shaky ground with the San Francisco blue bloods of Nob Hill, and the only way they can re-establish their social position is to win the heart of Monte Leblanc, a wealthy Canadian in search of a wife and looking to become a member of the exclusive Washington Street society.

But a young man on the train tells Vivian things about her grandmother that shake her to the core. Even as she is pursued by the debonair Monte Leblanc, Vivian can’t avoid ghosts from the past who send her on a journey she is reluctant to take.

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

new release, historical fiction, women's fiction, family saga, family drama, Gilded Age, 19th century, US history, suffragism, series

Excerpt

“If the horses are his only vice,” said Mr. Leblanc with a chuckle, “I should say Miss Drysdell is very lucky indeed.”

“But it isn’t.” Cecily’s eyes widened. “Elizabeth Cornwall told me it’s all over England that his grandfather and great-great-grandfather both went mad of the drink. It was like poison to them.”

“Well, my dear, all families have their skeletons,” said Mr. Leblanc.

“Oh, that’s all fine when they are ancient ones,” said Fern. “It’s the skeletons still rattling in the closets that one must be careful of.” Her eyes slid toward Vivian.

Vivian’s hands grew cold, even though the coffee Mrs. Tisher had given her was still warm. “Perhaps there would be no need for the skeletons to rattle if families told the truth from generation to generation.”

“Yes, you are a great believer in the truth, aren’t you, Vivian?” Amber asked. “No matter what the consequences.”

“‘Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.’” Vivian quoted. 

“You made that up right now?” Bethel’s voice was sour.

“I didn’t,” said Vivian, smiling. “Henry David Thoreau did.”

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 its 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 full of wary freshmen in Henry James’ fiction) and EFL teacher (using literature to teach English to business professionals) 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 is currently working on a Gilded Age family drama titled the Waxwood Series. The first book of the series, The Specter, came out in June 2019, and the second book, False Fathers, was released in December of that year. Book 3, Pathfinding Women will be out in September 2020, and Book 4 in December 2020.

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 up awesome vegetarian dishes.

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

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COVER REVEAL: Pathfinding Women (Waxwood Series: Book 3)

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Photo Credit: Woman standing in forest, artist signed Dobrowloski, 1910/1919, John High Collection, Czechoslovakia: Fae/Wikimedia Commons /PD Old 70 Expired

The cover reveal for Pathfinding Women, Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, is here!

This is a very special cover reveal for several reasons. First, I’ve been told Pathfinding Women is the best book of the series (so far — don’t forget, there’s one last book coming out in December!) It is, I think, also the most powerful book of the series (so far…)

But more than that. It’s a book that, more than the first two of the series, highlights the struggles women were going through at the very end of the 19th century. It’s not a political book by any means, but women’s rights and suffragism and the New Woman, which are some of the historical social and psychological events I’m most passionate about, play more of a role here than in the first two books (and it will play an even bigger role in Book 4).

This cover reveal is also coming at you with a sense of timing. Today, August 26, marks the anniversary of two major events related to women’s rights. First, it’s Women’s Equality Day, a day where we celebrate the history of women’s struggle to be recognized as equals. And second, today also marks the 100th anniversary of the adaptation of the 19th Amendment in the United States constitution. This is the amendment that gave women the right to vote, so it’s a very big deal for women in America.     

You can pick up your copy of Pathfinding Women, which is now on a special preorder sale, here. You can also find out more about the first book in the series, The Specter, which is also at a special price, here. And don’t forget to check out the second book of the series, False Fathers, here. If you want to know more about the series itself, this link will help you.

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!

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