Since time in memorial, Americans have been recognized as people obsessed with both material and business. For years the American business culture has been defined by their experience in the industrial age that did encourage individuals to pursue wealth at any cost regardless of whether it did they would be going against societal norms (Britten 66 During the Second World War, there was a major shift from individualism to corporate business. The man who would be recognized at this time was the one who set aside his own interests to better the business system. It is with this in mind that this paper seeks to analyze individualism as brought out in Arthur Miller’s famous play, death of a Salesman.
In his book, Miller tells a story of a Salesman, Willy Lonman who is declining because he fails to keep up with the dynamic business environment depicted after the Second World War. His role model, Ben, influences Willy’s view about the American business. Miller portrays Ben as a relic of the industrial philosophy and as an early frontier that seems to embrace the frontier of ethnic of individualism encompassed with business practices of a “self-woven individual” (Miler 22). Willy is unable to advance his career mainly because he keeps on applying the ethics of winner-take-all business in a modernized business environment where it is inapplicable. Willy keeps idolizing his brother Ben by conforming to the business ideas that Ben presents. Ben had headed to Africa while young in search of a fortune in the African Diamond mines. He now comes back at the age of 21, presenting himself a very wealthy man. In the play, Ben is described as a ‘utterly certain man’ who has “an aura of far places about him’ (Miler 42). On his return to the United States, Ben intends to venture into Alaska and invest in timberlands. Willy is of the opinion that Ben definitely represents the ideas that his father, who was a successful Salesman in the West, had taught them. Ben seems to have leaved by that dream to the fullest and Willy feels that he has a lot to copy from him.
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The business values that Ben works with have their origin in the industrial experiences and in the frontier experience. The frontier experience defined the American depicted the American sense of individualism while promoting individual pursuits for wealth. According to Riesman 1964, the frontiers brought people to a seemingly excess supply of material tasks in trade and industry and in scientific discovery and geography. The frontier was, at that time beaming with opportunities to acquire riches that influenced the swarming of people to the East Coast to seek them. The California Gold rush experienced in 1849 is a perfect example of the pioneers who shifted to West. People believed that striking gold was the easiest way of getting rich and this drove them into presuming that there West had endless supplies of the Gold (Riesman 57). Speed was pivotal as every individual rushed to get a portion, this culminated into collectivism on the frontier.
According Riesman (1964), the frontier’s major preoccupation was not centered on human nature but rather it was physical. Apart from individuals being more interested in the quest for riches, they also used the frontier as an escape from societal confinements while they took advantage of the Westward journey as a chance for self-discovery. Regardless of the direction that the frontier took, it left a lasting impact on the American business values and character. This is depicted in Jackson Fredrick’s turner that attributes every aspect of the American culture to the frontier. Cullen (2005) asserts that the mentality that American transformative riches were cast at one’s own feet had grave impacts on the American’s of imagination. This is was evident in that even after the frontier closed this way of thinking was still reflected in the American lifestyles.
The American Industrial era
Individualism was also reflected by the American Industrial era that was encompassed with the myth of ‘self-made-individual’ hence encouraging individuals to strive for successes by applying any form of business values and techniques that were available at a particular time (Britten 34). Just like the pioneers, the ancillaries of wealthiest ‘robber barons’ had a belief that it was possible to begin life while empty handed but die a billionaire. In this era, poor Americans were told about stories of poor individuals who had managed to come up with financial empires that were far way above the national imagination (Cullen 60). For instance Andrew Carnegie who had began of as a poor Scottish immigrant was now the wealthy steel tycoon who reflected the dream of a self-made man. In his book Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie reflected the fact that in his age wealth was worshipped and that one was bound to obtain it at any cost (Carnegie 89). For instance, the Standard Oil Company that was then under Rockefeller worked so hard to obliterate their competition by accepting preferential prices from the railroads which they shipped with. This was a clear indication of remarkable ruthlessness that took place among America’s top businesspersons which depicted complete failure of charity for others (Crunden 141). This concept of Winner-take –all business is evident in Willy Loman’s era as depicted in the play.
Ben’s character in the play Death of a Salesman encompasses both the industrial eras and the individualistic ethnics experienced in the frontier. Ben got his fortune through venturing into the jungle and taking remarkable risks. His anxiety to cultivate the Alaska forests reflects the same traits that were apparent in the frontiers’ men that indicated the desires to take on nature for an individual’s personal gain. On the other hand, Ben is similar to the idealized self-made man who just like Carnegie begins from a humble background to and creates his own wealth through his own labors. Porter (1998), describes Ben as coming from an idealized past in that he is a robber baron who is the industry’s captain. Ben is also seen advocating for the same similar cooperate business philosophy as that depicted by Rockefeller while giving Biff Willy’s eldest son some advice to succeeding. He tells him, “Never fight fair with a stranger boy. You will never get out of the jungle that way” (Miller 33). Willy’s efforts to idolize Ben make him a strong believer of this same advice that Ben gives. Regardless of the changes around him, he remains being an idealist who has strong believes in Individualism and overnight riches as the industrial tycoons and the frontiersmen did. Porter (1998) asserts that to Willy Uncle Ben acts as a palpable proof of his believes.
Induvidualism in the post World War II era
The death of a Salesman is set in the post World War II era when profound social shift away from the American individualism is experienced. This era is marked by both business and financial prosperity for Americans. According to Britten (1998) President Dwight had created a favorable environment for business that was reflected by personal income skyrocketing and the economic status of the Americans is surging up. These conspicuous changes subject Willy Lomans’ character into predicament. Apparently, he is not in a position to advance his career because he keeps clinging to his old faith rather than adapting to the modern business culture. When we meet him in life, his career is almost declining as compared to his past when he had experienced numerous successes as a Sales person. Willy decides to share his problem with his wife Linda, he tells her “You know, the trouble is, Linda, people do not seem to take me…..I don’t know the reason for it but they just seem to pass me by” (Miller 36). The basic reason as to why Willy cannot cope up with the dynamic changes is that he keeps on clinging to the ideology one can be successful in business merely with an imposing personality.
This is seen when depicted in the play when he says “…the man who makes an appearance in the business world is the man who gets ahead” (Miller 21). He even encourages his son Biff to take the initiative and be successful in business. Willy’s strong believe that personality can trump all in the business arena comes as a direct influence from his two role models who are his father and his brother Ben. He views both of them as frontier success that culminated from the strengths of their characters and devotion encompassed with their swift negotiation skills. While exchanging with his boss, he points out that is failure to make sales is due to the newly accepted techniques and not his inability to keep up with change. He says “Today it is all cut and dried…they don’t know me anymore” (Miler 81). Willy implies that personality is pivotal to success in business and that business will be properly transacted if when the sales person and the client make direct connects rather than negotiating in a meeting room.
Willy also fails to recognize the fact that a new business culture is in place accompanied by new characters in businesspersons. According to Cullen (2005) in the post war era, a man of the future is one who devotes his body and soul to his corporation. He is termed as the organized man. In Willy’s case, he seems to be the ultimate opposite of the organization man as depicted by his idealist individualist character which drives him to making his own success as a self-made man. He even goes ahead to dream “someday I will have my own business, and I will never have to leave home any more” (Miller 30). To have such a goal in mind is definitely ridiculous for an organization man who would go for the opinion of diligently working his way up the company ranks. Willy comes to realize that his dreams are void when the boxed-in city life conforms not to accommodate a man with such weird ambitions as his.
Miler’s play acts as an ultimate warning to individualists who venture into the American business world. The undying believe of individualism seems to be innate in the American culture due to the fact that many are inclined into it that they cannot afford to believe that it cannot work in the dynamic business world. The play clearly indicates that if one is to be successful he has to learn tactics as to how to adapt to the new business environments. The American dream of overnight riches is non-existent in modern societies that demand living with values that the societies can accommodate. Willy Loman is a disillusioned individual who has fallen prey of the archaic individualism.