Arthur Miller once said that everything he had written was based on somebody he had seen or known…
Death of a Salesman began as a short story that Miller wrote at the age of seventeen while he was working for his father’s company. The story told of an aging salesman who cannot sell anything, who is tormented by the company’s buyers, and who borrows change for the subway from the story’s young narrator. After finishing the story, Miller wrote a postscript on the manuscript saying that the real salesman on whom the story is based had thrown himself under a subway train. Many years later, on the eve of the play’s Broadway opening, Miller’s mother found the story abandoned in a drawer.
In his autobiography Timebends, Miller related that he found inspiration for that short story and the play in his own life. Miller based Willy Loman largely on his own uncle, Manny Newman. In fact, Miller stated that the writing of the play began in the winter of 1947 after a chance meeting he had with his uncle outside the Colonial Theatre in Boston, where his All My Sons was having its pre-Broadway preview. Miller described that meeting in this way: ‘I could see his grim hotel room behind him, the long trip up from New York in his little car, the hopeless hope of the day’s business. Without so much as acknowledging my greetinghesaid,“Buddyisdoingverywell.“‘
Miller described Newman as a man who was ‘a competitor at all times, in all things, and at every, moment.’Miller said that his uncle saw ‘my brother and I running neck and neck with his two sons [Buddy and Abby] in some horse race [for success] that never stopped in his mind.’He also said that the Newman household was one in which you ‘dared not lose hope, and I would later think of it as a perfection of America for that reason…It was a house trembling with resolution and shouts of victories that had not yet taken place but surely would tomorrow.’The Loman home was built on the foundation of this household.
Manny’s son Buddy, like Biff in Miller’s play, was a sports hero, and like Happy Loman, popular with the girls. And like Biff, Buddy never made it to college because he failed to study in high school. In addition, Miller’s relationship with his cousins was similar to Bernard’s relationship with Biff and Happy in Salesman. As Miller stated: ‘As fanatic as I was about sports, my ability was not to be compared to [Manny’s] sons. Since I was gangling and unhandsome, I lacked their promise. When I stopped by I always had to expect some kind of insinuation of my entire life’s probable failure, even before I was sixteen.’In Timebends Miller described Manny’s wife as the one who ‘bore the cross for them all’supporting her husband, “keeping up her calm enthusiastic smile lest he feel he was not being appreciated.’One can easily see this woman honored in the character of Linda Loman, Willy’s loyal but sometimes bewildered wife, who is no less a victim than the husband she supports in his struggle for meaning and forgiveness.
Miller met many other salesmen through his Uncle, and they influenced his perception of all salesmen. One man in particular struck Miller because of his sense of personal dignity. As Miller stated in Timebends, this man ‘like any traveling man…had, to my mind, a kind of intrepid valor that withstood the inevitable putdowns, the scoreless attempts to sell. In a sense [all salesmen are] like actors whose product is first of all themselves, forever imagining triumphs in a world that either ignores them or denies their presence altogether. But just often enough to keep them going, one of them makes it and swings to the moon on a thread of dreams unwinding out of himself.’Surely, Willy Loman is such an actor, getting by ‘on a smile and a shoeshine,’staging his life in an attempt to understand its plot.
Because he was so deeply involved in the production of All My Sons, Miller did not give the meeting with his uncle more than a passing thought, but its memory hung in his mind. In fact, Miller described the event as the spark that brought him back to an idea for a play about a salesman that he had had ten years previously – the idea that he had written as a short story. In April 1948 he drove up to his Connecticut farm and began to write the play that would become Death of a Salesman. As he sat down before his typewriter in his ten- by twelve-foot studio, he remembered ‘all I had was the first two lines and a death.’From those humble beginnings, one of American theatre’s most famous plays took shape.