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Arthur Miller’s Brooklyn Legacy

Before us is the Salesman’s house. We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides… . As more light appears, we see a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home. An air of dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.

—from the opening stage directions in Death of a Salesman (1949)

Building construction on Roebling and N. 5th Street. Photograph by Amelia Hennighausen.
Building construction on Roebling and N. 5th Street. Photograph by Amelia Hennighausen.

Most of the tributes to Arthur Miller upon his recent passing paid scant attention to the influence of his Brooklyn upbringing on his life and work. The oversight may partially result from the way that Miller organized Timebends, his 1987 autobiography. Miller skips from the first thirteen years of his life, in Harlem, to getting married in his mid-20s. Only intermittently do the teenage years he spent in Midwood resurface. In those flashbacks, Brooklyn accounts for some of Miller’s formative moments, such as his first encounter with Marxism, while playing handball outside the neighborhood drugstore. But in general, Timebends is far from a coming-of-age-in-Brooklyn tale.

Willy Loman, Miller’s greatest character, didn’t exactly come of age in Brooklyn, either. Yet he most certainly did live here, in the “fragile-seeming home” steadily being overshadowed by the “towering apartment houses” Miller describes at the outset of Death of a Salesman. Throughout the play, Willy wrestles mightily not only with what’s happening to himself and his family but also with what’s happening to his home and neighborhood. In my view, it’s no stretch at all to say that Loman’s schizophrenia sprang from the soil of postwar Brooklyn. Or that many of the same conflicts that tortured Willy continue to haunt the borough today.

Willy Loman’s Brooklyn is clearly no longer the pastoral setting it had been when he first arrived. Early in Act One, an angry Willy and his wife Linda have the following exchange:

The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the back yard. They should’ve had a law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them?

Yeah, like being a million miles from the city.

They should’ve arrested the builder for cutting those down. They massacred the neighborhood.

Miller wrote the play in 1948, amid the postwar housing boom. It’s not entirely clear which Brooklyn neighborhood the Lomans live in, but shortly after the above conversation their troubled son Biff, who’s been away out West, reminds his brother Happy about where the latter met the first of his many girls: “Remember that big Betsy something—what the hell was her name—over on Bushwick Avenue?” The Lomans’ neighborhood, in short, could have been almost anywhere in central Brooklyn in the late 1940s.

The career directions of Biff and Happy embody Willy’s inner conflict, between a life of independence and moving up the ladder of success. Biff wants to go back to the Southwest, to a ranch where he “could do the work I like and still be something.” Happy, though, stayed local, and is a store clerk who wants to become merchandise manager; he’s “gotta show some of those pompous, self-important executives that Hap Loman can make the grade.” This conflict, of course, is as old as the United States itself. Biff adheres to the Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman independence. Happy is imbued with the Hamiltonian vision, caught up in the capitalist rat race. A Jeffersonian at heart, Willy has nonetheless surrendered his soul to Hamilton’s world, which is headquartered on the other side of the East River.

Willy voices the platitudes of commercial success, stressing his desire to be “well-liked,” and he’s haunted by visits from his entrepreneur brother Ben, who made a fortune in Africa before his recent death. On the one hand, Willy wants to emulate Ben, who “walked into the jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!” But when Ben “appears,” Willy defends his turf:

It’s Brooklyn, I know, but we hunt too.

Really now.

Oh, sure, there’s snakes and rabbits and—that’s why I moved out here. Why, Biff can fell any one of these trees in no time! Boys, go right over to where they’re building the apartment house and get some sand. We’re gonna rebuild the entire front stoop right now. Watch this, Ben!

For Loman, Brooklyn had been his Jeffersonian sanctuary, but now the walls have begun to both literally and figuratively close in on him. “Gee, look at the moon moving between the buildings!” Willy says as the curtain falls on Act One.

In “A Boy Grew in Brooklyn,” a 1955 essay in Holiday magazine, Miller recalled the Midwood of his youth. He had moved there during the Depression, after his father’s coat business collapsed. But Miller did not treat Brooklyn as a decline in status, a place that was second fiddle to Manhattan. Instead, he waxed rhapsodic about Midwood, “which now has no distinguishing marks but thirty years ago was a flat forest of great elms… . There were streets, of course, but the few houses had well-trodden trails running out of their back doors.” So rustic was the neighborhood that those streets seemed as “unpaved any in the Wild West and just as muddy.” Fast-forward 30 years later, to the mid-1950s: “Today everything is paved and your bedroom window is just far enough from your neighbor’s to leave room to swing the screens out when fall comes.” Miller clearly shared Willy Loman’s lament for the fast-disappearing pastoral Brooklyn he knew.

Later, in Timebends, Miller explained the circumstances behind the actual writing of Death of a Salesman. He was living on Grace Court in Brooklyn Heights at the time but went to his new country home in order to sit down and write the play. Once there, instead of writing he became focused on building a shack—“A man who can’t handle tools is not a man,” Willy Loman would say. Upon finishing the shack, Miller recalled that he then had the right setting: “The sun of April had found my windows to pour through, and the apple buds were moving on the wild trees, showing their first blue petals.” One day later, Miller had finished Act One. He had to go to the country, perhaps, not just to find peace and quiet to write but also to be able to re-create the Brooklyn of his youth.

Act Two, which took Miller six weeks to complete, sees Willy unravel, the bulk of the action taking place on the other side of the river. It does begin innocently enough, with a cheerful and rested Willy saying, “Gee, on the way home tonight I’d like to buy some seeds.” An amused Laura then cautions, “That’d be wonderful. But not enough sun gets back there. Nothing’ll grow any more.” From there, Willy’s life spins out of control—he is fired by a callous boss, Biff never gets in the door to see a prospective employer, then Biff and Happy leave Willy in a restaurant and take off with a couple of chippies. At the end of Act Two, Willy—wracked by voices, his inner demons raging—retreats to his garden, trying to find a little nighttime solace. But he can’t plant the seeds, because even though the moon is out, “You can’t see nothing out here! They boxed in the whole goddam neighborhood!” Soon, Willy, after fighting with Biff, puts an end to his misery, speeding off wildly in his car—an unusual but particularly modern form of suicide.

Loman is dead, but Miller wants us to know that his inner struggle will carry on. In the Requiem, Biff and Happy once again square off, Jefferson vs. Hamilton style. In their own distinct ways, each vows to carry on Willy’s legacy. One craves independence, the other success. “There were a lot of nice days,” Biff says about Willy, such as “when he built the extra bedroom, and put up the garage … there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.” Biff resolves to go back to the West, where, as he had said earlier in the play, he could “mix cement on some open plain.” Happy, however, is going to stay behind and win the rat race. He tells Biff, “I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him.” Through Willy and Biff, Miller has made his case for the Jeffersonian ideal—whereas, as his name implies, Happy is clearly delusional about his ability to succeed in Hamilton’s cutthroat world.

On the surface, it may seem quaint to invoke the ghost of Willy Loman in discussing Brooklyn’s current development boom. His “death” took place more than a half century ago, and since then, the borough has obviously changed. For the first few decades, it underwent a steep decline, when by and large it wasn’t a desirable destination for white-collar types; its more recent resurgence over the last 20 years has now made it difficult for mid-level salesmen of Willy’s ilk to afford to live here. Yet what seems so contemporary about Willy’s plight is his desire for Brooklyn to be its own distinct place. A frontier for hunting and homesteading is obviously out of the question, but there’s no reason it can’t be a place of “beautiful elms” and gardens, where people can take pride in the work they do. What imperils Brooklyn’s unique identity now is the same as what threatened it during Willy’s day: rampant overdevelopment. These days it’s stadiums, office towers, luxury high-rises, and big-box stores—a bland yet imposing vision, and in reality, a far from egalitarian one. Brooklyn, though, still has plenty of its own natural resources: Its capacity to manufacture, its land, and its waterfront, and most of all, the underdeveloped talents of its working people. What Arthur Miller’s masterpiece reminds us is that in order to prevent the “deaths” of many more salesmen, Brooklyn needs to be its own borough.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2005

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