America has a love-hate relationship with labor.
Labor Day, celebrated first in 1882 and made a national holiday twelve years later, is all about the love: we honor the workers and tradesmen and tradeswomen, whose toils built the country, with cookouts, parades, and a day designated as a holiday from, well, labor.
Yet our disdain for labor—at least the kind the holiday was founded to honor—upturns its nose at every corner: from the magical powers universally attributed to the college degree, to our infatuation with get-rich-quick lottery games and reality shows, to the pundits’ breezy division of all political disputes into the false dichotomy of plebian and patrician.
But the American Dream is centered on labor. So too is the distortion of that dream. The dream becomes a nightmare when labor is separated from meaning, when the calculus of its purpose and measure consists solely of material factors. This conflicted, quintessentially American view of labor is brilliantly captured in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (thus garnering a chapter in my forthcoming memoir, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, from which a portion of this essay is derived).
The title of the play refers to both the story’s tragic end and its tragic origins. Long before the action of the play begins, Willy Loman met a salesman who would “put on his green velvet slippers … and pick up his phone and call the buyers, and without ever leaving his room, he made his living.” His success, Willy says, allowed the man to die “the death of a salesman.” The hundreds of buyers and salesmen Willy witnessed lining up at the salesman’s funeral cultivated in Willy his paramount value of being “well-liked.” Mistaking the means of success for one man as a formula to follow, Willy gave up his plans of pursuing a self-made life of adventure in Alaska to become a salesman. Not only that, but Willy has come to sneer at outdoor work and manual labor, the love of which runs through his family and is, in fact, his true calling.
Because he has stolen a dream that was never rightfully his, Willy fails. He is not a good salesman, not in the long run. But he denies this truth, and in so doing, loses his soul. And in losing his soul, he loses his life.
After Willy’s death, his oldest son Biff realizes the truth about his father: “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.” Reflecting further, Biff muses, “There were a lot of nice days. When he’d come home from a trip; or on Sundays, making the stoop; finishing the cellar; putting on the new porch; when he built the bedroom; and put up the garage. … there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he made.”
As I explain in my book,
Other clues in the play point to Willy’s true calling as an outdoorsman who works with his hands: in one of his frequent reveries he tells his older brother Ben that he moved to Brooklyn—before it was built up—because it had “snakes and rabbits.” Later Willy complains to his wife Linda about the closing in of their neighborhood: “The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should’ve had a law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them?” Working with his hands was even part of his natural inheritance, for we learn that Willy’s father, “a very great and wild-hearted man,” was a salesman, but the products he sold, flutes, were those he made with his own hands—and played, too.
But Willy’s error is twice over. For not only does he reject his true calling, but he derides the outdoorsy, manual work he was called to do. When he overhears his son Biff lament the family’s urban life, saying, “We should be mixing cement on some open plain, or—or carpenters. A carpenter is allowed to whistle!” Willy responds scoffingly, “Your grandfather was better than a carpenter.” Indeed the deep rift between Willy and his elder son is rooted in Willy’s insistence on false values, values that betray his rightful inheritance and his true self.
There is an ennobling virtue to manual labor, something Willy, along with the rest of us, lost in the wayward clamber toward the apex of the American Dream. In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew B. Crawford describes this spiritual power of physical work:
The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretation of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.
Tellingly, we never learn in Death of a Salesman what it is that Willy sells. For what makes a good salesman in a soulless age is not what he sells but that he sells. So when Willy ages and slows and no longer sells well, his broken mind seeks to repair itself with chattering interpretations of himself. He tries to convince himself and others—to the point of madness—that he is well-liked, that his sons are well-liked, that he has been successful, that his sons will be successful—in short, that he has achieved the Dream.
But Willy’s definition of success, like the corrupted version of the American Dream, is all wrong. Therefore, his view of labor is all wrong, too.
The Christian view of labor is that labor, in and of itself—not only in what it can reap—is good. The labors of naming the animals and cultivating the earth were part of life before the fall. The curse of the fall—for both Adam and Eve, for both men and women—was increased difficulty in work, whether in the labor of tilling the ground or in the labor of giving birth.
Nor is labor about self-fulfillment, although it can and should render this. When understood within its proper context of vocation, work becomes wedded to purpose and meaning, as well as providing material sustenance for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. Indeed, work is, Gene Edward Veith has said, how we serve our neighbors. Thus, vocation is inherently communal. Meaning “call,” its origin is external to the self, yet the call is fulfilled by the self and can be self-fulfilling.
The doctrine of vocation views labor rightly as neither means nor end, but both. This is what Willy never understood. He mistook the symbols of success—the latest appliances, the suburban home, well-liked sons—for success itself. Death of a Salesman suggests, then, how intrinsic vocation is to success and to the best version of the American Dream. For this reason, the play is one my favorite works to teach my college students, most of whom are in the midst of developing their views about work and discovering their callings, all the while being lured by the siren songs of parental demands, economic realities, and social expectations.
If not as a nation, at least as the church, let us celebrate Labor Day by remembering the spiritual side of labor, the communal nature of vocation, and the blessings of work.