Brenda Murphy

Critical Insights: Death of a Salesman
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Critical Insights: Death of a Salesman. 
Edited by Brenda Murphy. 
Pasadena: Salem Press, 2010.Enter content here

Critical Insights: Death of a Salesman offers a diverse and far-ranging selection of criticism on Miller’s major play, the most significant American play of the 20th Century. The volume is divided into two parts, the first composed of essays that were commissioned specifically for this volume, and the second of reprinted essays that are not only interesting and revealing studies in themselves, but reflect the plays’s critical history as well.

As background for the individual critical studies, the editor’s Introduction and Elizabeth Gumport’s Paris Review perspective present a general critical context for the play, and Carl Rollyson and Victoria Price provide a brief biography of Arthur Miller. These essays are followed by new articles that illuminate Death of a Salesman from several different perspectives. Jon Dietrick offers a close analysis of Salesman in the context of literary Naturalism and monetary theory. Joshua Polster provides the too-often ignored historical context of the 1930s theatres of social protest, seeing Salesman as the culmination of the social drama movement in the U. S. Neil Heims takes a new approach to the much-debated issue of the nature of tragedy in Salesman. Amy Sickels provides a broad overview of some of the issues that have interested the play’s critics in the sixty years since its premiere.

The essays reprinted in the second section reflect the wide variety of critical and theoretical perspectives that have been trained on Death of a Salesman. Setting the stage for a good deal of criticism to come, in his 1970 essay Chester Eisinger writes of the play’s antithesis between dream and reality and the competing dreams of the Loman family. Irving Jacobson presents an early exploration of the play in terms of Willy Loman’s need to, in Miller’s words, "make of the world a home," arguing that Willy is not a modern Everyman, but rather "an anomaly, a bourgeois romantic." In more recent criticism, Kay Stanton’s provocative analysis of Miller’s treatment of women argues that the male-oriented American Dream presented in the play requires "un-acknowledged dependence upon women as well as women’s subjugation and exploitation," and suggests that Linda Loman, as "common woman," has greater tragic nobility than Willy. From a postmodern perspective, Granger Babcock interrogates the prevailing notion of Willy Loman as liberal subject, arguing that he represents Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the "desiring machine." Fred Ribkoff addresses the dynamics of shame, guilt, empathy, and the search for identity in Salesman, arguing that Biff Loman’s confrontation with feelings of shame enables him to "find himself, separate his sense of identity from that of his father, and empathize with his father."

In a brief but illuminating close reading, Terry W. Thompson demonstrates the deep resonance and the ironic implications of Willy’s casual comparison of Biff to Hercules. Through her analysis based on Deborah Tannen’s study of gender-associated linguistic patterns, Heather Cook Callow offers the intriguing argument that it is not Willy’s failure to succeed, but "the curiously androgynous nature of his goals and methods that add fuel to critics’ dispute over his right to the title of American Everyman." Lois Tyson gives a provocative reading of Salesman based on the question, "How do psychology and ideology intersect in this drama to make the traditional Americanist separation of psyche and socius an untenable theoretical construct"? Matthew Roudané gives a deeply informed overview reading of Salesman both as literary work and as production. Finally, based on his unequaled knowledge of Salesman’s composition and Miller’s life and work, Christopher Bigsby gives a richly layered reading of the play in the context of American culture. A Chronology of Miller’s life, Literary Lineage, and Bibliography complete the volume.

For a Link to more information on this text at SalemPress, click here.

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