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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible Arthur Miller (b. 1915)

[8611] Wives of the Hollywood Ten, For Justice and Peace (1950), courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.

Arthur Miller was born in Manhattan to a German Jewish family. His father, a successful clothing manufacturer, lost the business in the 1929 stock market crash, and the family was forced to move to Brooklyn. After working two years to earn tuition, Miller enrolled at the University of Michigan to study journalism and began writing plays as well. Following graduation he worked for the Federal Theater Project, writing for radio, and eventually married Mary Slattery. His first Broadway success, All My Sons, was produced in 1947 and won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Death of a Salesman (1949) won the Pulitzer Prize. He also has won Tony Awards, an Obie, and the John F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award and has earned honorary degrees from Harvard and Oxford Universities.

Miller’s inspiration for The Crucible (1953) came from the McCarthy hearings in Washington, during which those suspected of communist sympathies were subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee and “confess” as well as name other “suspected” subversives. Miller himself was a victim of McCarthyism and in 1957 was convicted of contempt for refusing to identify writers with supposed communist allegiances, a conviction which the Supreme Court overturned on appeal a year later. The Crucible, a rather transparent allegory of the communist witch hunts of that era, received unfavorable reviews. Nevertheless, this morally complex play has remained one of Miller’s most powerful and popular creations.

Miller is perhaps best known for Death of a Salesman, a tragic homage to the average American middle-class, mid-century man, personified by salesman Willy Loman. Alienated from work, community, and family, Loman hungers for prosperity and personal glory but is trapped by his circumstances.

Teaching Tips

  • Have your students brainstorm about the many versions of the American Dream. Categorize these versions as a class. Discuss which versions are mostly based on illusion and which are more realistic and possible. Explore for whom they might be possible and who could probably not realize these dreams.
  • In Death of a Salesman, Willy says, “The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.” Discuss with students the differences between character and personality. You might have students explore how Americans once idolized mainly people who had good “character.” Then discuss how that has seemed to change to an appreciation for public figures with interesting personalities, or those who are “well liked.” After this discussion, apply the conversation to Death of a Salesman.
  • Have students consider Willy’s definition of masculinity and its dependence on a triad of sexual appeal, work, and sports. This is one of the places where you could discuss what is considered Jewish about the text. When Willy wants his sons not to be bookish but instead to be sports heroes and be “liked,” he engages in a classic juxtaposition of Jewish and American conceptions of manhood.
  • Have students view selected segments of Death of a Salesman on film. Use these segments as a springboard for discussing Miller’s critique of mid-twentieth-century life in America. Note that this play is set entirely in the house and in this sense depends upon classical (Greek) dramatic conventions, in which everything happens around the ancestral house, and we are just told about other events/places. What kind of house is the Loman house? How does it symbolize the action that will take place?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why does Willy Loman continue to idolize his son Biff throughout most of the play?
  2. Comprehension: Does Willy Loman learn anything by the end of the play? Or does he continue to see the world as one of limitless promises?
  3. Comprehension: Examine the role of Linda Loman. Is she typical of a housewife of this era? What do we make of her when reading the play today?
  4. Comprehension: What do Charley and Bernard seem to represent in the story? Are they living a different version of the American Dream? What is their version?
  5. Context: One of the risks of literary naturalism is caricature and condescension. How do the mixed modes of Death of a Salesman-its dream-sequences and interludes of surrealism-help it resist these pitfalls?
  6. Context: How important to the play is the design and style of its set? What audience might Miller have had in mind when he wrote the play? Is Death of a Salesman a “period piece” about a particular era or a play that can be reimagined as relevant to our own time? How do we account for its perennial popularity in high school and college English courses?
  7. Exploration: Ellison and Bellow fill their stories with the music, food, and popular tastes of Harlem and Chicago. Why are there so few such details in Miller’s portrait of the Loman household?
  8. Exploration: Does Death of a Salesman attempt to refute the American Dream, as some critics have noted? Is the play devoid of hope? What myths are challenged in this play, and how are they transformed?

Selected Archive Items

[3024] Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., Levittown House of Mrs. Dorothy Aiskelly, Residence at 44 Sparrow Lane (1958),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G613-72794].
The postwar generation saw the development of so-called “Levittowns,” homogeneous suburbs that were first conceptualized by William Levitt in response to the postwar housing crunch. These communities were typically middle-class and white. Jewish Americans flocked to the suburbs during this era. Philip Roth satirizes Jewish suburban life in Goodbye, Columbus, and Arthur Miller dramatizes the plight of the suburban Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

[6240] Anonymous, Look Behind the Mask! Communism Is Death (n.d.),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-80757].
Propaganda poster depicting Stalin and a skull. U.S. anti-communism peaked during the 1950s Red Scare. Many political, union, and popular-culture figures were accused of being communists. Writers responded to the Red Scare with such works as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

[6404] Joseph Glanvill, Frontispiece, Saducismus Triumphatus: Or Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (1681),
courtesy of the Annenberg Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
Fear of witchcraft was widespread in Puritan New England, as evidenced by the Salem witch trials. Nathaniel Hawthorne dramatized this fear in such works as “Young Goodman Brown.” In the twentieth century, Arthur Miller made a powerful connection between McCarthyism and America’s history of the witch hunt in The Crucible.

[8567] Carla Mulford, Interview: “Becoming Visible” (2003),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media.
Professor Carla Mulford discusses the origins of the American Dream.

[8611] Wives of the Hollywood Ten, For Justice and Peace (1950),
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
When members of the movie industry were questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, ten Hollywood producers, directors, and screenwriters refused to testify about their possible communist ties. They were briefly put in jail and then blacklisted from Hollywood studios. The “Committee for the Hollywood Ten” was formed to fight on their behalf.

[8612] Anonymous, Facts on the Blacklists in Radio and Television (1950),
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
By 1950, the number of movie industry people blacklisted had grown to over two hundred. Blacklists were issued by “independent” sources like the Catholic Church and religious/moral citizen watchgroups. These lists usually devastated the careers of those targeted.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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