Death of a Salesman: Deracination and Its Discontents *

By Novick, Julius | American Jewish History, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Death of a Salesman: Deracination and Its Discontents *


Novick, Julius, American Jewish History


   To me the theater is not a disconnected entertainment.... It's
   the sound and the ring of the spirit of the people at any one
   time. It is where a collective mass of people, through the genius
   of some author, is able to project its terrors and its hopes and to
   symbolize them.

   --Arthur Miller (1)

A primary function of the theater is to perform social fact, to express it in terms of fictive yet truthful personal experience. With the passing of the years, social fact becomes historical fact, and the drama, particularly the realistic drama, stands as an often-invaluable record of what history felt like to those who actually lived it. The great subject of American Jewish drama--defined for our purposes as plays written in English by American Jews about Jewish experience--is the great subject also of the historians and sociologists of American Jewry: the encounter with America, the complex question of Americanization, acculturation, assimilation.

America is famously a nation of immigrants. In Oscar Handlin's words, "the immigrants were American history." The "history of immigration," he went on to say in his most famous book, significantly called The Uprooted,

   is a history of alienation and its consequences.... Emigration
   took these people out of traditional, accustomed environments
   and replanted them in strange ground, among strangers, where
   strange manners prevailed. The customary modes of behavior were
   no longer adequate, for the problems of life were new and
   different. With old ties snapped, men faced the enormous
   compulsion of working out new relationships, new meanings to
   their lives, often under harsh and hostile circumstances.... The
   shock, and the effects of the shock, persisted for many years; and
   their influence reached down to generations which themselves never
   paid the cost of crossing. (2)

American Jewish drama reflects Handlin's insight. It is not primarily about the immigrants themselves, but about their legacy to their descendants. It dramatizes the wound of immigrant uprooting as it throbs down the generations, the continuing effect of the "alienation," the shock," that Handlin speaks of.

Where in this new world do we find beliefs and models to tell us what is important and good, to show us how to be? And even beyond America, beyond ethnicity, most people today are living in a different world from that of their immediate ancestors. We all live in the tension between what we came from and what we have come to; we are all faced with the challenge of making some accommodation between them. American Jewish drama chronicles and analyzes the American Jewish version of an all-but-universal, historically determined experience.

Arthur Miller (1915-) is manifestly the most eminent Jewish playwright who ever lived (unless you believe the rumor that Shakespeare was a Marrano.) (3) Death of a Salesman, produced on Broadway in 1949 for a run of 742 performances, starring Lee J. Cobb in a celebrated performance as Willy Loman, is universally considered his most important play (as generations of high school students can attest). But what has Death of a Salesman to do with American Jewish drama as we have defined it? In what sense is Arthur Miller a Jewish playwright? Allen Guttmann, in an otherwise admirable book about American Jewish writers, placed Miller with Nathanael West and J. D. Salinger as "nominally Jewish, but ... in no sense Jewish writers." (4) That was in 1971--Guttmann would probably not say that today--but the question of Jewishness, or the lack of it, comes up frequently in discussions of Miller's work. Thus Morris Freedman wrote about several Miller plays, including Salesman,

   The ethnic anonymity of these plays is striking, if only in
   comparison with the plays of Odets and O'Neill, whose Jewish and
   Irish Catholic families in Awake and Sing and Long Day's Journey
   Into Night are so plainly identified for us. … 

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