Death of a Salesman (1949)
by Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
There are critics who think that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the greatest American play of the 20th century. Salesman warns of the trap inherent in a story created by the false-self dependent intellect. Looking at Salesman as a warning or prophecy, we might see more than the tragic life of one misguided individual, we might see the death of a culture.
The uniquely American expression of P-B is fundamentally the same as any other culture or narrative in the world, but it does have some interesting and tragic expressions that most of us are not aware of. Like humanity as a whole, the American male represses or denies his most self-destructive behavioral traits.
Unfortunately, the American female, and all females, live within the same worldview as do the males and exhibit the same culture-destroying behavioral traits. A production of “Julius Caesar” in a woman’s prison in Brooklyn had “a muscular strength and ferocity guaranteed to keep everyone in the theatre in sustained fight-or-flight mode. The women playing men here seem poised to challenge the entire audience to put up its dukes—and perhaps to pull out contraband switchblades.”[i]
Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman taught his sons the myth of American exceptionalism. That is a good thing right, a point of pride? In fact, as Arthur Miller understood, that myth destroyed both Willy and his sons. That myth in its fullest expression is destroying America today.
The only way America is exceptional today is that it is exceptionally afraid. The macho American male would be loath to admit it, but machismo is precisely acted out to delude the Tarzan who is beats his chest to proclaim he is indeed not afraid. Methinks he doth protest too much; in fact, we know he does.
Looking at beliefs and values, key components of the American male’s worldview, we see competition, football, NASCAR, gun racks in pickup trucks and the proliferation of weapons in general. Plus the belief that the American male is superior to the American female.
But it is not only misogyny that reveals the fear driving the American male, it is the culture itself. “As so many studies have demonstrated, success in math and the hard sciences, far from being a matter of gender, is almost entirely dependent on culture—a culture that teaches girls math isn’t cool and no one will date them if they excel in physics; a culture in which professors rarely encourage their female students to continue on for advanced degrees; a culture in which success in graduate school is a matter of isolation, competition and ridiculously long hours in the lab; a culture in which female scientists are hired less frequently than men, earn less money and are allotted fewer resources.”[ii]
Selecting a few behaviors of the American male we can see a fear-driven identity. Intense competition reveals a belief in social Darwinism, i.e., survival of the fittest. A love of violence in sports such as hockey, and boxing reveals the attraction of violence for it’s own sake. Gratuitous destruction of automobiles in “demolition” derbies affirms the “toughness” of participant and spectator alike. The proliferation of weapons in the American community, mostly among insecure males, affirms that they are afraid. Do they believe if they have enough “firepower” they can defeat the imaginary Other threatening them?
In the final analysis all people in Paradigm-B, male or female, are craving plenty, pleasure and power which has them behaving in self-destructive ways. These behaviors are leading to the destruction of not only our planet but the Global Village culture. Adding to these behaviors we also have the fear of the non-existent Other. That’s the same imaginary Other that killed Willy Loman.
[i] Brantley, Ben. “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” The New York Times. October 10, 2013,
[ii] Pollack, Eileen. “Can You Spot the Real Outlier?” The New York Times Magazine. October 6, 2013, page 46.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.