- Arthur Miller, 1915-62 by Christopher Bigsby
Weidenfeld, 739 pp, £30.00, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 297 85441 8
Even as late as the 1950s, at the height of his fame as a playwright, Arthur Miller would periodically leave his nice house to hang around the dockyards. He had worked for two years in the 1930s at a car parts warehouse, where he first encountered anti-semitism and suspicion. Reading Russian novels on his way into work, he found, when he considered it later, that the workers ‘feared his intelligence, his application, his ambition and his thrift, taking all these as tokens of his Jewish identity’. Miller’s mother made fun of his radicalism, calling him ‘Artovsky Millensky’, and in 1947, several weeks after his first big success with All My Sons, he applied to the New York State Employment Service, keen to take any job they might have. He was sent to Long Island City to assemble beer-box dividers, earning the minimum wage. He was on the run from a hit Broadway play. ‘I couldn’t stand the idea that I was making money without working,’ he said years later. ‘It was morally disgusting . . . but I couldn’t get past a week. It was not the work; it was the boredom . . . I wanted to be with the salt of the earth, and the salt was in that factory. But these people were totally depressed. It was just awful being there and I would have gone crazy finally.’ In that spirit he continued to pride himself on a certain opposition to the Partisan Review crowd: the Trotskyists, he said, ‘were a New York literary phenomenon rather than anything else. I never heard of them as being active in unions or election politics.’ Miller watched the waterfront, and it would take him years to stop admiring the Soviets.
With his appearance at the Waldorf Conference in 1949, he effectively branded himself an un-American for years to come, while his plays began to establish social conscience at the level of style. Christopher Bigbsy, the author of this new biography, has a perfect ear for the manners and motions of Miller’s art, and he tells a gripping story of Miller’s hunt for truth. There are mysteries to bear and ironies to become invested in – all good biographies must have their share – and yet the Miller who emerges from this book is ambiguous enough to become a beacon of the Cold War period. As he stood next to Shostakovich at the Waldorf Conference, Miller found himself impressed with the composer’s defence of Soviet freedoms. He did, it’s true, think Shostakovich a little blank-eyed; it didn’t occur to him that his temporary colleague’s face displayed nothing if not the terrified look of a man under compulsion to speak the truths of Uncle Joe.
Arthur Miller’s brother Kermit said that their family had left Poland clutching sewing machines. Their father, Isidore, arrived at Battery Park with a scab on his head the size of a silver dollar: it was a gruelling crossing. From the very start, Arthur was attuned to the immigrant view of the future, and his Marxism can be seen as a negotiation with his father’s failures as a businessman. The Crash laid waste to his father’s hopes, also to his mother’s confidence in his father’s powers, but out of it came Miller’s understanding of a particularly American experience of delusion. At one and the same time, he appears to have been mortified by his father’s decline and exhilarated, in ways both Freudian and contemporary, by the space it opened up for his own long struggle with reality. Edmund Wilson catches the mood in a passage from The Shores of Light:
One couldn’t help being exhilarated at the sudden unexpected collapse of that stupid gigantic fraud. It gave us a new sense of freedom . . . a new sense of power to find ourselves still carrying on while the bankers, for a change, were taking a beating. With a businessman’s president in the White House, who kept telling us . . . that the system was perfectly sound, who sent General Douglas MacArthur to burn the camp of the unemployed war veterans who had come to appeal to Washington, we wondered about the survival of representative American institutions; and we became more and more impressed by the achievements of the Soviet Union.