I read The Death of a Salesman over the break because my son was doing it for his GCSE and was having some problems with it. I realised that – to my surprise – I’d not read it or seen it before, even though the Willy Loman character has become iconic; worse, I’d conflated it in my mind with Miller’s other epic family drama, All My Sons. Some of its insights about how work had changed resonate again, two generations on.

The first thing to say is – in general – how contemporary the play seems to be. It premiered in 1949, but could describe our post-crash world. Willy Loman is, we discover, working only on commission, although he’s been with the firm for most of his working life years, as his undistinguished sales record gets worse; Linda, his wife, has an exact handle on the household debts at all times, barely staying one step ahead of the payments; and the boys, now in their thirties, are stuck in dead-end jobs. A recent New York Times article which mentioned a new production of the play which opens on Broadway later this year put it this way (spoiler alert!):

Willy Loman may emerge as even more a man of our time than he seemed to be of his when the play first opened in 1949. … Willy, after all, remains the American drama’s most poignant example of a man driven to despair when he loses his job and is made — to use a word more in fashion now than then — redundant.

Handling tools

One of the themes in the play is the contrast between Willy’s work as a salesman and more traditional American skills, involving working with your hands (Willy has built much of the house himself, and despises his neighbour Charlie – despite his success in business – because he can’t “handle tools”), or working on the land, which Biff has been doing in the West, despite the poor pay and prospects.

A couple of days after I read the play, I came across this passage in Matthew Crawford’s  The Case for Working With Your Hands (US title, Shop Class as Soulcraft):

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” would impart to students, as though by magic. (His emphasis).

The limits of consumer society

With hindsight, Death of a Salesman can be seen as one of a number of works which addressed the rise of consumer society (The Visit, The Affluent Society, The Critique of Everyday Life, and A Bout de Souffle also come to mind). And part of that story is about the rise of extrinsic value in which the external world is needed as a source of validation (at its extreme this manifests itself as celebrity culture) at the expense of intrinsic value.

I know that there’s a longer and larger story here; the origins of this split can be traced back to Adam Smith and the division of labour, the development of the factory system, and its acceleration during the 20th century through the invention of the assembly line. But this is changing. We are, according to research by Hardin Tibbs (opens pdf) moving quite quickly to a world in which those who hold post-materialist values are in a majority. We already know that one of the values expressed by the millennial generation is that they are less likely than previous generations to see who they work for or what they do as a source of personal esteem (although the work, and its purpose, may contribute to their esteem). With hindsight, looking back from a coming world of scarcity, the separation of work from ourselves may come to appear as a long blip and a strange aberration.

The picture of WillyLoman comes from the blog Voices Carry, and is used with thanks.