Watching Death of a Salesman with my daughter

There’s something lonely and depressing about lugging my suitcase and oversized pack through the long lines at security and then to some faraway gate in O’Hare. At least I feel that way. Selling my wares on travel for various academic matters, I feel a bit like Willy Loman driving up to New England, if he could only get pass Yonkers.

This may be my internal psychodrama. My life bears little outward resemblance to Loman’s. In a cab on my way to the airport, I spoke with a producer for ABC News. In a surreal moment, I looked up from my cellphone conversation to notice a local news program on the small television screen. I see my own face staring back at me, babbling some of the same observations I am now offering to another news person in New York. I’m headed off to Phoenix. When I arrive, wealthy alumni will munch fancy cucumber sandwiches while listening to the Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration opine about health policy. Then I’m off to Washington to present a paper.

I should clarify that I’m no bigshot. My momentary TV presence is pure happenstance. Chicago’s crime problem is national news at the moment. I’m one of the academics receiving some resulting attention. I’m gainfully employed, but I’ve had my share of false starts and disappointments, too. Talking with accomplished friends and colleagues, I’ve sometimes wanted to say: “I’m liked, but you’re well-liked. Perhaps you sometimes feel the same.

My daughter was recently assigned Death of a Salesman. The play was a heavy lift for her. Much of the spite, disappointment, and human frailty of that play is fortunately inaccessible to a suburban 16-year-old.  There’s a dated gender dimension to the thing, too. Most important, in the inexorable manner of an unimaginative high school English class, Miller’s play was unbearably stretched-out, slowly-dissected, and pickled to an extent that no sane teenager could possibly look at it anymore.

My daughter was supposed to discuss the ending of the play on Monday.  She was struggling with it. So we downloaded the Dustin Hoffman production from Netflix. On Sunday afternoon, we watched it whole.

The two of us had a surprisingly intimate conversation about the play. I told her about my maternal grandfather, Harry Oncher. He actually knew Arthur Miller well. Grandpa owned a carpentry shop in New York City. Miller would regularly stop by. Grandpa would give him furniture-making tips and show him how to use some of the tools. This later became politically sensitive. Grandpa was a Communist, and Miller was a fellow-traveler. Yet as far as I know, Miller’ purpose was non-political. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman declares: “A man who can’t handle tools is not a man.” That wasn’t entirely Loman talking. Miller took great pride in his carpentry.

My daughter and I talked about her own Grandpa, my dad, who’s also pretty handy with a socket wrench. Dad spent 30+ years soldiering away at engineering jobs he disliked– only to be laid off with customary brutality after a corporate takeover. He was in his mid-fifties, twenty-five years ago. Bolstered by a strong marriage, he survived the indignity and the economic shock. He has enjoyed a satisfying retirement.

Perhaps because the play had such personal meaning for me, my daughter got into it, too. Seeing the production in its entirety, she did a great job pulling her thoughts together. She went off to school enthusiastic, ready to discuss it. Later that night, though, she looked bored and subdued when I asked her how things went: “We didn’t talk about it. We spent the class doing worksheets…”

The worksheets’ main purpose was to verify that the kids actually read it, to show that they could identify the correct make and model of the car that made its appearance in Act II. I’m sure a worksheet might capture valuable individual notes, ephemeral details, and vocabulary.

No worksheet could capture whether that play conveyed actual human meaning to these young people. “I told you that I hate that class,” my daughter told me. Who can blame her? I’ll bet similar mediocre experiences ar being replicated across thousands of classrooms across America.

We’re living through tough economic times here in the southland of Chicago. Foreclosures and layoffs have brought financial disappointment, thwarted upward mobility, and everyday struggles for economic dignity that bear unmistakable resemblances to Willy Loman’s plight. Death of a Salesman might have provided an opportunity to communicate through literature what all too many of the families represented in that classroom are now going through.

This was an opportunity squandered. Attention should have been paid.

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