13 February 2005

Death of a tales man

For every peak, there is a valley.

I try to never get too "up" about life because I know it can change in a hurry.  I use the same reasoning to avoid many "down" moments, but I wasn't always like this.

I was about as miserable as a person can be in the fall of 1989, when I was a junior at the University of Iowa.  When I started there in 1987, I wanted to major in finance, but to do so, I first had to complete a required amount of "pre-business" courses.  Only after that could I apply for admission into the college of business.  By the middle of my sophomore year, I knew I didn't have the grades to get in.  They weren't that bad, but they weren't good enough to be competitive.  I was fine with that, though, because I had decided by then that business bored me.  I was 22, and I knew that I did not want to be a businessman.

The problem was that I didn't know what I wanted to be.  I had no initiative to plan for my future.  It just hung there, in front of me, all the time.  My indecisiveness evolved into a complete lack of caring.  For a time during the summer before my junior year I thought about not going back, since it cost a lot of money and I didn't seem to be working towards any objective with school.

I did go back.  I had registered for classes for fall before I left for the summer, and since I had abandoned my finance plan, I had filled my schedule with electives.  One was philosophy, another sociology, and I took a psychology course as well.  I also registered for two English classes.

The first English class was a course on F.Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.  I had always been a big Hemingway fan, so I figured I could do well in this class.  The other class was on Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.  The only reason I registered for this class was because there was still room in it.  Other classes I had wanted to take were full.

I loved the Hemingway/Fitzgerald class, which I expected, and I also loved the Williams/ Miller class, which I did not expect.  Within a month of being in this class I realized that it made sense for me to focus on literature.  I became an English major and spent the next two years enjoying every minute of it.  It helped me in my time working in the public sector, as I felt I could communicate with anyone under different circumstances.  And now, since I have abandoned my first career and taken up writing, I am using all of the tools I learned from my time at the University of Iowa.

I knew nothing of Arthur Miller prior to taking the class other than knowing that he wrote "Death of a Salesman."  I hadn't seen the play.  During the course of the class I saw a taped version with Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman.  While it's a fine play, I don't think it's Miller's best.  Nor do I think his other best known work is, "The Crucible."

Miller wrote three lesser known plays that I read during that course that I found to be his best.  The first, "After the Fall," was assumed to be somewhat autobiographical, given that there is a character in the play that resembles Marilyn Monroe (the play was written after her death in 1962, a year after she and Miller were divorced).  I've often wondered why we were assigned this play first in class, since everything else we read was written before.  I felt "All My Sons" to be his best work.  That play deals with a deception during the second world war that affects many families.  It's the most believable of his plays, in my opinion.

I got into a bit of trouble in this class.  It was while we were reading and discussing "A View from the Bridge."  In the play, an Italian couple in New York live in realtive quiet with their niece, until they agree to help out two cousins from Sicily who enter the US illegally.  Eventually one of the cousins and the niece fall in love, and her uncle allows his jealousy over this to become obsessive.  In the end he reports the cousins to immigration, and when it is uncovered what he has done, the remainder of his world implodes.  It's a powerful play about family honor and envy.  As I read this play, it became very clear to me that the uncle could be seen as Miller, while the cousin and neice could be seen as Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.

I spoke up about this connection in class.  Had I done a little research on it I would have found that Dimaggio and Monroe were married before Miller and Monroe were, and that Miller had written the play before he knew Monroe.  Still, given the way their lives and relationship progressed, I didn't think it was a stretch to envision this.  My professor disagreed vehemently.  Apparently he took his Miller interpretation quite seriously.  He spent the rest of the semester reminding me that I was completely off base for thinking this way.  I still think it was a different and thoughtful way of looking at the play.

So as I read about Miller's passing, I remember that he played a big part in straightening out my direction.  There were others responsible, yes, but he was the only living author from those two classes.  Fitzgerald and Hemingway had already been gone a long time, and Williams had died earlier that decade.

I had a good friend in college who appreciated Miller.  If you've never seen "Death of a Salesman" this probably won't make much sense to you, but Willy Loman's two sons, Biff and Happy, aren't much of anything.  One is living in his football glory past, while the other has no idea what he will be in life.  My friend and I constantly referenced a short conversation these two had in the play whenever we saw something that we felt was out of our reach, be it an expensive car or an exceptionally beautiful woman, for example.  One would start, and the other would finish:

"You want her, Biff?"

"Oh, Hap, I could never make that."

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