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Christopher Michaelson, Ph.D.

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We Are All Traveling Salesmen

Posted: 05/30/2012 3:20 pm

Death of a Salesman's preeminence as the Great American Play -- as Mike Nichols, the director of its current, affecting Broadway revival, puts it -- is even less controversial than The Great Gatsby's status as the Great American Novel. More specifically, Salesman is the canonical narrative of American capitalism -- in any narrative form. Even Shelley Levene, the central character of Mamet's rival classic, Glengarry Glen Ross, deliberately echoes Miller's Willy Loman, while Wolfe's tragic hero, Sherman McCoy, is in the end nothing but a traveling bond salesman. Since its first performance, Salesman has accomplished the ostensibly impossible task of making grown American men cry, as they reportedly did at the Morosco in 1949 and then again at the Barrymore this year. But there remains work for it to do, to inspire business men and women to reflect on the future of capitalism, a future being reinvented by its context, its audience, and its actors.

Someday, we may hopefully look back and credit Salesman not only for exposing the fraudulence of the American dream but also for making space for a new and better culture of capitalism. For now, Willy's illusion of success as a measure of the number of people who like you -- and who therefore determine your weekly commission -- remains an awkward reality for contemporary, relationship-based capitalism. Imagine Salesman, transposed into one of tomorrow's capitalist champions, an emerging market in which, as Willy declares, "It's not what you do... it's who you know." On the one hand, sanctimonious American capitalists disavow such markets, in which connections matter more than competence, as corrupt. On the other hand, in idealistic thrall to free markets that purport to be free of undue influence, Americans often don't recognize a gentler face on such relationships. In genuine, relationship-based capitalism, Willy would not get discarded by his manager for no longer being useful, and Biff would not be completely forgotten by his former employer. In a market in which filial piety was not automatically demeaned in workplaces as nepotism, Willy would have a secure position with his former boss' son in New York; he would not be too prideful to accept another job offer from his well-meaning neighbor; and, rather than supporting his middle-aged sons on the top floor of his home, he would be the guest of honor on the main floor of theirs. Capitalism without a human face is not only a poor excuse to regard other human beings as means to our material ends, but it is also as illusory as Willy's erstwhile glory.

In the audience of Salesman this year for the first time since I became a father, I was impressed more than any other time that I have seen or read Salesman, by how much Willy Loman is in me. When I said this to my wife, she objected, as Linda Loman might do, that I mustn't belittle myself. But what father, I replied, does not seek to be a hero in his children's eyes, and in doing so construct an embellished truth that is uniquely their image of me? And what father has not wobbled from the delicate balance of inspiring his children to achieve more than he has without undercutting their ability to live contentedly and without disillusionment? Before I became a college professor, I was a management consultant, which on my bad days I referred to as a glorified traveling salesman. Like Willy, I yearned to determine my own business, autonomy which I thought I had achieved when I gained academic freedom. Until, at an academic conference at which I was "defending" an argument, I realized that we are all mere traveling salesmen, trying to persuade others of our ideas, whether to pad our commissions or to enhance our professional status or to be "well-liked." Meanwhile, like Willy, I dream for my children that their brilliance will be so self-evident that they will never have to sell it -- or sell out.

 
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