Last night, for the first time in years, I finished, once again, Arthur Miller's classic play, Death of a Salesman. I loved it, once again. What an incredible play that is, full of resonance--more for me than it was a quarter century ago or more, when I read it first. Whether or not Willy Loman is a true tragic figure is still as sticky a question as it always was, but what's clear to me today, at his age, is that I know some of the issues he carries, and I know them in spades. I hope I'm not as delusional, but, good night, some of the hurts he feels arise from places in the heart I can now identify much better than I could when I was a kid.
Anyway, I finished it, then googled "Death of a Salesman." Seconds later, it turned up 225,000 documents, every last one of them at my fingertips. I don't doubt, of course, that some of those documents got flagged by only one of the words--"salesman," for example. But still. Good night, 225,000 documents right there on my lap.
An incredible blessing and an unbelievable nightmare. It's almost impossible to come up with writing topics with the kind of library students have right there on their desk beside their boyfriend's--or girlfriend's--picture. But it's an immense blessing, too, and I sometimes think I'm not getting it--not understanding how to use that bounty in the classroom. The fact is, I am less needed than I once was, as a teacher I mean. If a kid wants to learn something about Arthur Miller or Willy Loman, all he or she has got to do is google--or bing or whatever. Vastly more information than I could ever design exists right there in a machine that's barely bigger than their high school annual.
But then I think about a man I know who, the first in his family, went off to college in the early 1920s, carrying--as he told me--his entire library: the Bible and Shakespeare. And I wonder sometimes, heavily laden with the huge library I've accumulated through a lifetime of teaching, whether those two books weren't worth more to him than my thousands are to me; and whether having a dozen libraries' worth of information right there at my students' fingertips doesn't somehow make Willy Loman no more significant than, say, that tattooed ex-Amish stripper who did some lap dancing for Sandra Bullock's husband. I can find 225,000 entries for her too these days, or Ben Rothlisburger. What's the diff?
Don't know. Life's a battle, I guess, a battle old Willy thought he was winning by taking himself out of it. In the fictional life of Willy Loman, he took his own life and lost it at the same time. But in the play, by crashing that car the way he did, he and Arthur Miller left us with a stunning portrait about about being well liked and chasing a dream, about real American values.
An abiding portrait and a valuable lesson.