View From a Bridge of Posterity

Arthur Miller’s Early Life and Career Considered

Looking Back: Miller at work in 1987 on his comfortingly cluttered desk in Roxbury, Conn.
Looking Back: Miller at work in 1987 on his comfortingly cluttered desk in Roxbury, Conn.

By Julius Novick

Published August 12, 2009, issue of August 21, 2009.
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Arthur Miller: 1915–1962
By Christopher Bigsby
Harvard University Press, 776 pages, $35.00.

Arthur Miller is, by any measure, the most eminent and the most acclaimed Jewish playwright the world has ever seen. Most people who know his name probably would accept his greatness as a given. Yet he has been attacked vigorously: for his left-wing politics, for his conduct toward Marilyn Monroe, even for being a self-hating Jew. Admirers and detractors of both the man and his work will find plenty of ammunition in Christopher Bigsby’s monumental biography.

Mr. and Mrs. Miller: The happy couple in 1956.
Mr. and Mrs. Miller: The happy couple in 1956.

On the “Acknowledgements” page of his book, Bigsby writes: “My greatest debt is to Arthur Miller himself. For more than twenty-five years he and Inge [Miller’s wife] offered me gracious hospitality… and Arthur submitted to many hours of interviews. For two years he gave me free and exclusive access to all his published and unpublished materials.” Bigsby has had access to material denied to previous scholars, and he has mined it, and multifarious other sources, with great assiduity. He writes as an admirer — otherwise, he scarcely would have been granted such privileges — but not as an idolator. He argues against Miller’s detractors, but he gives them their space and presents their arguments fairly.

The book follows Miller’s life only up to the death of Marilyn Monroe, his second wife, with a brief coda about his third and final wife, Inge Morath. On its title page, the book is called “Arthur Miller: 1915–1962” — although, misleadingly, these dates do not appear on the book’s jacket or spine. In 1962, Miller had more than 40 years and many plays and short stories ahead of him; still, Bigsby takes his protagonist through the writing and reception of his greatest and most popular plays — “Death of a Salesman,” of course, and “The Crucible” — and the most tumultuous years of his public and private life. He does not produce any startling revelations, but he provides an exceptionally full account. This is a big book: more than 700 pages. Its thoroughness is its greatest merit and its greatest fault.

“This is the story of a writer,” the biographer says in his preface, “but it is also the story of America.” Bigsby is an English academic, but he is an authority on American drama (having written or edited five previous books about Miller), and he is clearly no stranger to the American scene. For Miller, he says, “the key events were the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and the Cold War. They dominated his mind and influenced his writing. So they do in this book.…” As he promises, he shows in great detail how Miller responded to those “key events” and how his responses shaped both his life and work.

The result is a book about a fervent Marxist who gradually (and, as Bigsby acknowledges, belatedly) lost his faith, but never his anxious concern with what is now referred to as tikkun olam, healing or repairing the world. Bigsby not only gives us a blow-by-blow account of Miller’s 1956 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which he risked jail by refusing to name the people he saw at a communist meeting; we also get a detailed account of the post-World War II split between pro- and anti-communist liberals, a history of HUAC going back to 1934 and an account, for contrast, of Paul Robeson’s more boldly defiant testimony before the committee. We see, in full, the paradox of Miller’s middle years: Though he was regarded even then as one of the greatest living American playwrights, he was nevertheless persecuted by his own government in the name of freedom. (The book quotes liberally from Miller’s FBI file.)

Bigsby is equally thorough in treating Miller’s private life. He starts the book with, “Arthur Miller’s story begins in the shtetl: Radomizl,” the Polish birthplace of his father and both of his grandfathers. He goes into considerable detail about Miller’s Jewish roots and the immigrant experience; his hero is not even born until page 20. Most of Miller’s thinking and writing about his own Jewish question took place after 1962, when this book ends, but we do see him at intervals trying to transcend his Jewishness, only to find it’s not so easily done. If, however, you accept a preoccupation with guilt and responsibility as Jewish characteristics — if there is a kernel of truth in that stereotype — then the book is pervaded by Jewishness. Bigsby shows us young Arthur’s guilt at going off to college while his brother, Kermit, stays home to help their father, a garment manufacturer ruined by the Depression; his guilt at being 4-F while Kermit fights in World War II; his guilt at the huge success of “Death of a Salesman,” which necessarily separates him from ordinary men and women; his guilt at leaving his first wife for Monroe; his guilt at his inability to save Monroe from her own demons, and, when he meets and marries Morath, the daughter of a Nazi, guilt for the Holocaust on behalf of the whole human race. Guilt generates feverish rationalizations, as Miller tries to prove to himself that he is not guilty.

Bigsby writes about the Miller-Monroe marriage at length, without sensationalism, with sympathy for all parties, but he certainly writes from Miller’s point of view, accepting his explanation for leaving his wife in favor of Monroe: “In the end, he chose his art over his marriage.” His art? The biographer forbears to suggest that in the end, for all his moral agonizing, Miller was another successful man who dumped the wife of his poverty years in favor of a younger, sexier trophy bride. Still, Bigsby is

particularly good at using Miller’s life and work to illuminate each other, showing how Miller’s plays, so deeply concerned with the largest public issues, had their sources in his own private experience.

This is an intelligent, fair-minded book written in clear, serviceable prose, free from academic jargon, with some neat touches of irony and moments that approach eloquence, but it sags under the weight of its admirable thoroughness. Its American edition is an unaltered reprint of the British edition, and perhaps British readers are more in need of the exhaustive context the biography provides than American readers are likely to be. It tends to hammer away repetitively at major points, and sometimes the sequence of events gets lost in the profusion of detail. Do we really need to know how much Miller’s friend Alexander Calder paid for his house, or that Morath “attended the Luisenschule in Ziegelstrasse, near the Friedrichstrasse Station?” Most people — most Americans anyhow, — probably would be happier reading “Arthur Miller: His Life and Work” by Martin Gottfried (Da Capo Press, 2004), which takes Miller’s story all the way up to Morath’s death in 2002, only three years before Miller’s own death, in a mere 484 pages. But anyone who really wants to know all there is to be known about Arthur Asher Miller will have to read Bigsby’s book.

Julius Novick, for three decades a theater critic at the Village Voice, is the author of “Beyond the Golden Door: Jewish American Drama and Jewish American Experience” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

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