By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

One of my high school teachers told our class a story that has always stuck with me. I don't remember it's context in the greater lesson of the day, and perhaps I may have perverted a few of the details because memory isn't perfect or, to be a bit more
Jay Fox
accurate, memory tends to manipulate certain elements of most stories to get them to comport with one's worldview. Regardless, this teacher, Mr. Craig, had gone to Europe. I believe he was in a nation that had previously been part of the Soviet Union, and that it was at a time when such nations were still getting used to the idea of independence. I don't recall why he was there—he may have been part of a tour group or he may have been one of several chaperons overseeing a multinational field trip.

However, a situation arose wherein the entire group was locked out of their hotel rooms because there was a problem with the locks or the keys. They informed the front desk. The people from the Soviet countries understood that this was a problem that would eventually get fixed, and so they sat in the hallway to await either the locksmith or the clerk who would arrive with the correct keys. My teacher, however, thought that this was a waste of time, so he went out in search of someone to help him. Within just a few minutes, he came back with the keys to allow everyone into their rooms. Those who had been sitting in the hallway thought this odd. They were not offended by the American man's temerity or impressed by his ability to wheel and deal or his willingness to proactively fix a problem. They just never would have done what he did.

I don't wish to give the impression that I believe this to be a uniquely American characteristic. Far from it. However, in certain largely defunct and certainly dated spheres of American literature, this kind of assertiveness is the precondition for achieving one version of the American Dream. Call it the honest American Dream. It's the belief that one has enough agency to use their intelligence and natural gifts to make their own life, and that if they are pure of heart and diligent, they will achieve success.

In its most radical iteration, you end up with Objectivism—a philosophy that gives each individual total freedom to fashion and define the world in which they live, and grants this same freedom to all others, thereby eliminating any ethical imperatives beyond those of self-interest. Equally radical is the Existentialist worldview, which also claims that individuals have the freedom to define what is good and what is bad, but maintains, contrary to Objectivism, that there is burden of responsibility, and that to choose for oneself is to choose for all people. Jean-Paul Sartre, probably the most famous of the Existentialists, was perhaps the most vocal proponent of this type of universal ethics. He also felt that this combination of responsibility and autonomy leads people to feel anxiety, despair, anguish and, because there's no God to tell us what to do, forlorn.

In its less radical form, this honest American Dream recognizes that there are social conditions that can have substantial effects on individuals' freedoms. Some have the privilege of not having to overcome numerous obstacles; some are not so lucky. The typical American Dream narrative focuses on the latter—the person who goes from rags to riches because of their tenacity and incorrigibility in the face obstacles. The underlying logic behind the American Dream is that anyone who is willing to put in the hours and maybe get a few lucky breaks here and there can be successful. Institutional racism, sexism, xenophobia, poverty and a wealth of other social conditions that can prove debilitating to all but the most intelligent and talented are usually not under consideration in such narratives, though they are inalienable from American society. 

However naive this worldview is, it has been at the center of some of the greatest works of fiction and drama that our nation has produced. One of the playwrights best known for using the American Dream as a plot device is Arthur Miller. This particularly true of his seminal work, Death of a Salesman. However, there was another work that he wrote a few years beforehand which deals with similar themes, and that play is The Man Who Had All the Luck. It debuted in November 1944, and ostensibly takes place during the mid-1930s.

The play's protagonist is David Beeves, a man in his early-twenties who lives in a Midwestern town. David has always gotten what he wants, though he's never had to work very hard to achieve success. Things just seem to work out in his favor and obstacles seem to disappear. When he starts a business running a garage without really knowing how to fix cars, somehow he manages to get by without any problems. This is true even when he makes a bad decision when he gets talked into buying a massive barrel of anti-freeze in the spring. Luckily, a sudden cold streak hits the town, and he ends up being the only shop that can provide it to motorists. Other examples abound. After opening a gas station on the outskirts of town, he soon learns that a new state highway is going to be built that goes right past it. When he is asked to fix the car of a rich farmer who owns several tractors (which require frequent maintenance and can earn a mechanic a good living), he finds that he is out of his league. He stays up all night without figuring out what the problem with the car is, but in the early morning hours Gus, an Austrian who is new to town, shows up to give him a helping hand. He, not Gus, ends up becoming the most celebrated mechanic in town. Hester, his fiancée, has a father who objects to their marriage, but he is killed, thereby leaving David and Hester free to wed. You get the idea. He is extremely lucky.

When David looks to the other characters, however, he finds himself almost entirely surrounded by men who have ostensibly been destroyed by luck. (Unfortunately, the women do not seem to have lives that are independent of the men, so the idea of them being personally deprived of something isn't an issue.) One man, J.B., can't have the children he desperately wants. Another, Shory, lost the use of his legs in the Great War. Amos, David's brother, can't seem to land a break with a team in the majors, despite being a phenomenal pitcher who has been coached by their father since he was nine.

As the play progresses, David becomes increasingly aware of his luck, and begins to acknowledge that everything does seem to always work out in his favor. He grows increasingly perplexed by the logic behind it. Why does he have all the luck?

At the beginning of the play, David sides with Gus, who believes that people are responsible for their own lots in life, and laments that many of those in his native Austria do not share this belief. “What a man must have, what a man must believe. That on this earth he is the boss of his life. Not the leafs in the teacups, not the stars. In Europe I seen already millions...walking around, millions. They gave up already to know that they are the boss.” For David, it's foolish to just sit around and wait for something to happen—nothing ventured, nothing gained.

As David comes to see these misfortunes around him, however, this worldview changes. He begins to believe that people are the objects of Fate. He begins to side with Shory, who tells David early on in the first act, “A man is a jellyfish. The tide goes in and the tide goes out. About what happens to him, a man has very little to say.” Everything goes well until it doesn't, and, eventually, people have to accept that the other shoe is going to drop.

This type of thinking eats at David, and he begins to obsess over it, to act as though it is an inevitability. As he tells his wife, Hester, “A man is born with one curse at least to be cracked over his head.” I won't ruin the drama by describing how this paranoia affects the plot of the play, but I will note that we eventually learn that luck alone did not cause other characters’ misfortunes. Each one of them is suffering because of personal flaws.

J.B. is denied children because he has a drinking problem, and his wife refuses to bring a child into a world with a father who is an alcoholic. Shory was denied the use of his legs not because of heroics on the battlefield, but because he was having sex with a prostitute inside a building that collapsed. Amos was denied a contract with the majors because his father taught him the basic mechanics of the game, but never gave him enough experience on the field. Despite his good arm, he was incapable of concentrating when there were runners on the bases. Furthermore, his father failed Amos thrice because, on top of his faulty training, he never went out of his way to call a scout to see his son pitch. Had it not been for David, who called the Detroit Tigers several times and asked them to send someone to see his brother pitch, Amos would have probably spent another decade waiting for someone to come appreciate him only to learn that he wasn't majors’ material. Finally, Amos' fixation on baseball precluded the cultivation of any other talents. At the end of the play, he's pumping gas at his brother's station.

However, this still doesn't resolve the issue of luck and fate, and this is the lasting question that one is left with at the end of the play. Is there a design that preordains winners and losers in this world, either due to their vices and virtues or simply by caprice, or are the events that befall us ultimately due to a morally arbitrary series of causes and effects? It's a question that has been asked for millennia, one that Miller sees as more worthwhile to ponder over than to answer.

Jay Fox


Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.