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.     

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Defending June Cleaver

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Photo Credit: Photo of Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver) with Tony Dow (Wally Cleaver) and Jerry Mathers (Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver) from the television series Leave It to Beaver, 9 July 1959, ABC Television: We hope/Wikimedis Commons/PD US no notice

In light of my book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, that came out last week, I wanted to revisit one of the most iconic TV characters of the 1950s.

It recently came to my attention that, while the name June Cleaver conjures up very specific images in the minds of many Americans (of an older generation, especially), not everyone knows who June is. June was the mom on the family television show that aired between 1957 and 1963 called Leave It to Beaver. The show was about a typical American suburban family of the 1950s and encompassed all of the stereotypes we associate with the post-war nuclear family: a father who has a good job and is the undisputed “head of the family,” a mother who epitomizes the feminine mystique, and two smart, good-natured kids (in this case, two boys, the younger of which is nicknamed Beaver and forms the central character of the series). The show was a huge hit in the Occupation: Housewife era because it offered Americans who were recovering from the horrors of World War II exactly the kind of life they wanted — stable, family-oriented, and prosperous.

June Cleaver was exactly the kind of woman Betty Friedan would have considered the poster child for the feminine mystique (interestingly, Friedan never mentions June, though that may be because the show was still running at the time of the book’s publication). Her role in life is that of a housewife and mother and she has no desire do be anything beyond that. Her life revolves around her husband, two sons and her house, which is always immaculate and polished. She even presents the kind of 1950s housewife in the advertisements, complete with high heels and pearls, which she wears even when she’s doing housework.

But, just as with many television and film characters, there is more to June than meets the eye. One of the most interesting scenes of Beaver finds June arguing against the rather myopic opinions of her young son, Beaver, about women and intelligence. The scene is fascinating because Beaver, probably about eleven or twelve here, brings forth some of the views in the 1950s that Friedan outlines in her book, The Feminine Mystique: that intelligence for women wasn’t an issue because they only had to get married and have families, and if they did work, they had “jobs” (and highly feminized ones at that) and not “careers.” June counters this by reminding Beaver that, nowadays, women can have careers and their intelligence is as good as any man’s. It’s significant that the episode aired in 1960, when women were beginning to wake up to the fact that the post-war image of the feminine mystique might not be serving them well as individuals.

Photo Credit: Photo of Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as June and Ward Cleaver from the television series Leave it to Beaver, 15 September 1958, ABC Television: Crakkerjakk/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice  

June also was a match for her husband, Ward. If June was the poster child for the 1950s woman, Ward epitomized a lot of what American men were expected to be after World War II: ambitious, strong-willed, and forceful. He’s in no way a bully but let’s just say, we know where The Beaver got his opinion of women in the previously mentioned episode, as this clip tells us. Although June defers to Ward in most important decisions in the show, she doesn’t do so meekly. She has her own opinions and voices them.

And just a word about June’s pearls and high heels. These things were part of what made June Cleaver an icon and also won the character a lot of criticism from the second wave feminist movement, because, they reasoned, women were not dolls to be on display all the time. But, as Barbara Billingsly, the actress who played June, points out here, there were actually very practical reasons for both the pearls and heels. She wore the necklace to hide a hollow in her neck that was causing an unseemly shadow on film, and the high heels were because, throughout the six years Beaver aired, both actor Jerry Mathers (who played The Beaver) and Tony Dow (who played older brother Wally) grew, as boys do, and both became quite tall. So she had to wear the heels to keep up with their growth spurts!

You can check out more about how women lived in post-World War II America in my new book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, here.       

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Cover Reveal for Lessons From My Mother’s Life

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Photo Credit: stokkete (Luciano de polo)/Depositphotos.com  

I’m so excited to be revealing the cover for the second edition of my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, now titled Lessons From My Mother’s Life!

Why the title change? Because in revising and expanding this new edition, I threw out some of the stories that didn’t fit into the collection with its new theme, namely, the feminine mystique and other ideas related to the 1950s housewife. One of those stories was “Gnarled Bones,” the title story of the first edition. I took this story out, so, obviously, I had to find another title. 

I hit upon Lessons From My Mother’s Life from my reading of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique. In the book, Friedan talks about the lessons previous generations of women had to teach women of the 1950s, pointing out how the mothers of the 1950s American suburban housewife did not have the burden of the feminine mystique on their shoulders and were, in fact, fighting for their rights as women and getting out into the workforce to show their worth in roles other than wife and mother. Since many of the stories in the second edition take place in the 1950s, this era represents the mothers and grandmothers of more modern generations and their lives do, indeed, have much to teach us. I also talk a little bit in the Foreword of the book about how these themes and stories relate more closely to my life and my mother’s life. So the title seemed fitting.

The preorder for this book will be up very soon. In the meantime, you can read more about the book here

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