Early one morning in May 1940 a tall, skinny, bespectacled, nearlytwenty-five-year-old Arthur Miller sat down at his typewriter, much as hedid every morning in the cellar of his parents' house. But instead of workingon a play he wrote a nine-page, single-spaced letter of despair to KennethThorpe Rowe, who had taught his college playwriting class. The letterwas a taking of stock, a looking back over what the young man had accomplishedin the two years since his graduation.
He had, he wrote, accomplished nothing and had nothing to show for hisefforts. While a few Broadway producers were interested in his plays, therewere no takers. The most important of these producers, the Theatre Guild,at least offered what was intended as constructive criticism: Miller's playswere too challenging, not merely in the way they were written, but in whatthey were saying. The guild's chief play reader, an academic intellectual-indeed,a man to whom Miller had been referred by Professor Rowe, whomight be expected to have certain ideals-suggested that the young manbroaden his work and make it more positive. He warned Miller not to questionan audience's values or discourage its hopes; rather the plays ought tobe optimistic and inspiring. The point was to "try to understand the audience.What do they want to see in the theatre? That must temper yourwork. You must not be too hard with them, Arthur."
Ironically, as Miller pointed out to Rowe, the first play he'd submitted tothe Theatre Guild, The Grass Still Grows, had hardly been the sort thatcould be described as too hard on an audience. On the contrary, the play wasa family comedy, "Jewish, not bizarre or strikingly novel," and still it wasrejected. As far as that play was concerned, it was, Miller said, "dead as adog."
Next, his summary continued, he'd spent more than a year working onThe Children of the Sun, an epic play about Montezuma and the Aztec Indians,Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors. Miller considered it not only "abig classical tragedy" but a theatrical one, and he was still "confident that onthe stage it would cause a stir." He'd enjoyed writing that play, had evenenjoyed rewriting it. "Once it began to draw on my heart," he confessed, "Icould not stop until it sucked me dry." Yet producers and even his agent hadresponded with a spectacularly unanimous lack of enthusiasm and he finallyand bitterly had to admit, "I am dry now." Miller thus was writing this letterin hope of "drawing a moral" from his experiences so that he might "graspyour hand and search" for that moral.
At the same time he felt shameful, even unmanly about being unable tosupport himself. In the preceding two years the only steady income he hadearned from his writing had come in the form of artistic charity: six monthson the dole with the government-subsidized Federal Theatre and WritersProject that was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Some ofthe other playwrights in the program could hardly, he thought, be calledplaywrights, and such wages were unrewarding, unearned by work and paidregardless of quality. Other than that, he continued, "I have been a ward ofmy brother and father ... the former is a fine man but I never meant himto support me."
And so he had to face the fact that "I am 25, a grown man as they usedto say. Whither away? Have I justified my self-announced and self-appointedexistence as a writer?" This was a question gnawing at him, "growinglike a weed."
Arthur Miller had come away from college a praised, prized and confidentlybudding playwright, protected by the conviction that failing to get adrama produced did not mean that it was worthless, nor did having a playproduced mean that it was valuable. While such a conviction was fine in theory,his letter resumed, it was of little consolation after he had put so muchtime, mind and heart into his work. He had begun to question his ability,and not only as a writer of plays. His failure had extended beyond playwriting.Since leaving school, he confided to Rowe, he had also written severalradio scripts and a few short stories. Of these a grand total of one radio scripthad been bought. He couldn't even anticipate selling another, since two subsequentscripts had been rejected. So he drew up the balance sheet: For twoyears of work, "Net receipts, $200 less ten per cent commission." His onlyother income for the period had been the $22.77 a week that the governmenttheater paid for his six-month stint.
The disgrace of failure was making him consider "the ways out." One possibility,he mused, was to take the advice of the man at the Theatre Guildand emasculate his plays, soothing the audience with assurances that all iswell with their world. He characterized this to be advice from
the Paraclete, the comforter.... He means balm. And while I am with him I hate him for what he means, but when I am alone I know he is helpless. And for moments I say all right, I'll comfort them. I'll keep away from the conflicts, the important and wonderful crises in our lives. I'll warp what I see into comforting fancy.
His letter paused, as if to regain its composure. The past two years since1938, he reasoned, had not been wasted. He had learned much about "thewriting game." In The Children of the Sun Miller had written an epic in theclassical style, a big play that was ambitious, literary and artistic. If he hadtaken a job instead of depending on his family, he would have had neitherthe time nor energy to write such a play; but his anger could not be assuagedand the black mood returned as he vowed never again to attempt such apiece. No more history, no more agonizing work to recreate period speech,no more verse to put off potential producers. He would write in the conventional,realistic style, about "contemporary people and subjects"-that is,if he could only find a job that didn't mentally exhaust him; it might evenbe beneficial. Perhaps, the despairing young man wrote to his professor, anhonest job might help him to "overcome or at least better meet the obstacleI see so sharp before me." Perhaps too, he rationalized, a writer mightbenefit from experience at a real job with real people in the real worldinstead of working in a social vacuum, alone in a room with only a table, achair and a typewriter. Indeed that is where and how he would forever feelmost comfortable.
The letter could have been shorter, but discursive self-examination wouldbecome a way of life for Arthur Miller. So would earnestness, idealism andhis enthusiasm for wonderful crises.
Arthur Asher Miller was born in New York City on October 17, 1915, thesecond child of Isadore and Gittel Miller, thirty and twenty-two years old atthe time, respectively. His brother Kermit was already three, and they livedin a splendid apartment in comfort and security high above Central Park.
Isadore Miller was a prosperous man. His Miltex Coat and Suit Companyboasted a factory, showroom, front office and more than 800 employees, andits lucrative business of manufacturing women's clothing allowed him tokeep his family in fair luxury. They lived on the top floor of a handsome six-storybuilding at a very respectable address, 45 West 110th Street, facing thenorth end of Central Park just off Fifth Avenue. The apartment was spaciousand sprawling, with a formal dining room, a signal of particular prestige inmiddle-class Jewish circles, and this dining room was a luxury in the purestsense, as it was never used for dining. To have one's children use such a tablefor homework made the formal dining room not only prestigious but alsopractical and finally commendable in its contribution to the sacred missionof education. According to Miller family lore, a striking exception to thismission occurred one New Year's Eve, which happened to be Izzy andGussie (as Gittel preferred to be called) Miller's wedding anniversary.Gussie actually danced on top of that table, a story supporting the notionthat she was a vivacious woman despite her weight and occasional moods ofdarkness.
Impressive too was the apartment's view of Central Park from the windowsof the living room that featured two more symbols of middle-classachievement: an oriental rug and baby grand piano. This was a specially builtKnabe, with sides not rounded but straight lined and corners squared like aharpsichord's. Only a handful of these pianos had been made and Gussie,the family tastemaker, owned one of them. She sometimes sat at this pianoplaying and singing popular songs of the day, and such images of dancingand music-making lent the culture-conscious woman a certain glamour inthe eyes of five-year-old Arthur, or so he would recall ("diamonds on her fingers... she trails a silver fox across the floor"). Indeed he thought hismother was beautiful and admired everything about her, from her lipstickto her velvet shoes-and his admiration was reciprocated. Perhaps the firstbornKermit was the boy scout of the family, but Arthur was his mother'sfavorite and remained so, even after the birth of a sister, Joan Maxine("Joanie") in 1922. Her father doted on her. "After waiting so long for a girl,"she remembered, "there I was, this pretty angel ... I was like a doll."
Arthur, though, continued to enjoy his mother's favor, basking in the intimacyof the family gossip she shared with him, such as her low opinion ofthe women her brothers had married. One sister-in-law was "fat and stupid,"while another was a disreputable ex-chorus girl who-as if it served herright-had given birth to a child with Down Syndrome. Nevertheless somerelatives he did appreciate, notably, slick Uncle Hymie, who taught him howto whistle with two fingers in his mouth ("one of the greatest gifts anyoneever handed me") and Hymie's wife, Stella, who was too flashy for Gussie'staste but earthy in a way that the youngster found irresistible.
Jewish families tended to be big and all over each other. The extendedfamily of Millers was big enough-Gussie had even more siblings than Izzy,four brothers and three sisters-but that didn't make for an overflow ofwarmth. Relatives were kept at a distance and even within the immediatefamily there was a reluctance to be intimate. "It's not like most Jewish families,"Joan Miller would later say. "We didn't celebrate birthdays, not evenwith birthday cards. Nobody would presume to break in on the other person'sprivacy." This emotional isolation would come to characterize herbrother Arthur in profound and sometimes disturbing ways.
In most other cultural respects the Millers were quite usual, certainly inthe matter of Jewishness, and although Arthur would later minimize it, Jewishnessseemed to pervade his early life. Whatever happened in the worldwas viewed in terms of how it affected Jews. His friends and classmates wereJewish, as was everyone in the neighborhood or so it seemed. Arthur's parentsperhaps were not observant, but Gussie's father, Grandpa Barnett,always wore a yarmulke and both he and Grandpa Miller-both of whomspoke Yiddish most of the time-were at the synagogue for services everySabbath. Such observance was not a requisite of Judaism for Isadore, Gussieand the children. Their Jewishness was more a matter of identification, ofheritage, and there was a thoroughgoing ethnicity about this household, anatmosphere of Jewish values, style, taste, humor and of course Jewish food.Gussie considered herself just as good at making brisket of beef, gefilte fishand tsimmes as she was at interior decorating. Around the Miller family toowas a pervasive Jewish manner of speaking, with colorful argot and Yiddishisms.Arthur ("Arty" almost from the start) already had a sensitive ear forthese locutions and would soon be able to draw on a fine store of ethnicexpressions and colloquialisms.
All, however, was not Jewishness. Each summer the family indulged in agenerally middle-class ritual, the exodus from the city to a resort. A goodman was supposed to provide such things for his family and if nothing else,Izzy was a good provider. At the end of each school year his wife would leadher troop of children and their grandparents away from the steamy streetsof upper Manhattan to a rented bungalow near the oceanic splendors ofRockaway Beach. That escape, along with the apartment, rings, piano andoriental rug, signified the level to which Isadore Miller had taken his family.He even had a uniformed chauffeur take him downtown each morning inan expensive automobile, drive him to work in the Seventh Avenue garmentcenter of Manhattan and wait to drive him home at the end of the day. Thisdid not unduly impress young Arty. Apparently all the men in his buildingwent to work this way, for there was a lineup of chauffeured limousineswaiting at the front entrance every morning.
Gussie was well accustomed to this style of living and proud of her husband'ssuccess in achieving it. When among his family (a group she held ingeneral contempt and who were rarely seen), she would boast of her Izzy'ssuccess. In private Gussie was not quite so respectful, as she regularlydemonstrated for the children. Her superiority was expressed in terms ofhigher cultural refinement and proven by her origins as a first-generationAmerican, whereas Izzy and his family were immigrants from a shtetl in theold country-in this case Austria or Poland or Hungary. At various times hegave one or the other as his birthplace. The borders of Eastern Europe hadchanged so frequently that many immigrants truly didn't know where theycame from. What Isadore Miller did know about his origins-and this hetold his children on many occasions-was that he had arrived in America atthe age of six still displaying the hand-lettered cardboard sign that had beenhung around his neck (and that of many an immigrant child) at the start ofthe journey. His sign read Please put this boy on the SS Clearwater, andat the other end of the Atlantic Ocean, awaiting him on the dock in NewYork, were the three brothers and three sisters who had been sent ahead tojoin their father, Shmuel (Samuel). As in so many immigrant families, theprovider went first to establish himself, preparing a home for the others,who were sent over in descending order and put to work immediately onarrival.
Excerpted from ARTHUR MILLERby MARTIN GOTTFRIED Excerpted by permission.
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