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Death of a Salesman is rooted in Miller's personal memories of a period of financial hardship in his family when he was growing up, and also his recollection of the Great Depression when he was a young man. Miller’s father was a manufacturer whose business was at first successful but then began to falter, at which time the family moved to Brooklyn, which is where the play is set.
His father’s financial failures obviously had an impact on Miller. Salesman revolves around the failing father-figure, the head of the household struggling to maintain his authority and ideals, and this same figure is also to be found in other of his plays, like the earlier All My Sons. However, unlike Willy Loman, Miller's father was not an actual salesman. Miller, though, encountered many salesmen when he worked in his father’s company for a time and went on to immortalize a particular type of salesman in Willy: men who might be big talkers, but who struggled to get anywhere in life. The plight of the small man, trying vainly to make it in a hostile world, was visible on a national scale at this time, this being the era of the Great Depression, a grim yet formative experience for Miller as for many other writers and artists.
There was one particular individual in Miller's own family who served as the most recognizable model for Willy Loman: his uncle Manny Newman, a travelling salesman. Manny was one of the big talkers, endowed with a strong sense of competitiveness, continually boasting and devising grandiose schemes which came to little. Like Willy, he took pride in his sons' achievements – real or imagined – and unfavourably compared Miller to them. Miller occupied the kind of niche that Bernard does in the play: somewhat looked down on at first, but he was the one who went on to make his name in the world. A chance meeting with Manny at the premiere of All My Sons inspired the writing of Salesman, at least in its final form. However it should be noted that Miller had written a story on the same theme long before this, when he was only about seventeen. In that story, as in the play that would become world-famous, the unsuccessful salesman ends up committing suicide.
Therefore, personal and familial circumstances, as well as the wider social and economic circumstances of his youth and early manhood strongly inspired Miller to the writing of this play. In considering the biographical connections with this particular piece, we might also note a fitting coda. Salesman, undoubtedly the work that won Miller his greatest and most lasting acclaim, premiered on Broadway on Feb 10th, 1949; and it was also on Feb 10th, fifty-six years later, that Miller died.
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