Early Days, Early Works Arthur Miller at the University of Michigan
Arthur Miller's long association with the University of Michigan actually began with a rejection letter-two of them, in point of fact. When he graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933, he needed four faculty members to write letters of recommendation; he could find only three. He had flunked algebra three times, and the rest of his record-both at Lincoln and at James Madison High School, where he spent two years playing football (a serious leg injury later kept him out of military service)-was similarly lackluster, and that is putting a good face on it. Turned down in 1933, he applied again in 1934 because, as he told me informally in October 2000, Michigan was one of the few places that took writing seriously. When he received a disappointing second letter of rejection, he was emboldened to respond to the dean of the college, telling him that he had been working hard and "had turned into a much more serious fellow." Years later, writing for Holiday magazine in 1953, Miller remembered that the dean said he "would give me a try, but I had better make some grades. I could not conceive of a dean at Columbia or Harvard doing that." Looking back at this probationary period from his eighty-fifth year, Miller commented, "I still can't believe Michigan let me in."
What brought a New Yorker like Arthur Miller to a Midwestern college town like Ann Arbor? First and foremost, tuition was cheap; and these were, after all, some of the toughest years of the Depression. Tuition was free, of course, at a more likely choice for someone from Miller's background: City College, now part of the City University of New York. This had long been the intellectual center for boys and girls born to immigrant parents like Miller's, Polish Jews who made whatever fortune they had at the schmata trade in Manhattan's Garment District on Seventh Avenue. Isidore Miller, the playwright's father, actually owned and ran a coat factory there, but what had once been a thriving manufacturing business went belly-up after the crash of '29. "I did go to City College for about three weeks in the evening," Miller said, "because I was working during the daytime. But I couldn't stay awake." After a few weeks, he dropped out. Miller's father, a practical-minded businessman, was amazed to hear of a faraway school called Michigan that would actually pay students money for writing. His son told him about the prestigious Avery Hopwood Awards, built from a legacy given by another Michigan alumnus who had made a fortune on Broadway with such slight bedroom farces as Getting Gertie's Garter and Up in Mabel's Room; plays like The Best People (revived in a Michigan student production in February 1998, directed by Philip Kerr) brought in huge box office receipts in the 1920s. Miller's father was impressed, but he reminded his son that he had to make some money first-before trying his hand at the Hopwoods.
Miller worked in New York for two years at Chadwick-Delamater, a gigantic warehouse for automobile parts located on the site that was later to become, in 1963, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. He made fifteen dollars a week and worked for a "very dour, pasty-faced, very neat" boss named Wesley Moulton. "The area was a kind of slum," he wrote in the New York magazine (December 18-25, 2000), "with a lot of saloons, working-class bars, and boarded-up houses." They had never hired someone who was Jewish before, and at first wouldn't hire Miller when he answered their ad in a newspaper. But his old boss in Brooklyn intervened and told Moulton in no uncertain terms that Miller knew "more about parts than most of you guys, so if you don't give him a job there's only one reason." At Chadwick-Delamater Miller remembered that he "was the only Jew. The guy who worked there after me was an Italian. They hated him, too."
In the years before superhighways, and even before the landmark Pennsylvania Turnpike was constructed, it took a long time to get from New York to southeastern Michigan. But once he arrived in Ann Arbor after a circuitous bus ride and a hitchhike, he said, quite simply, "I felt at home."
It was a little world, and it was man-sized. My friends were the sons of diemakers, farmers, ranchers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, clothing workers and unemployed relief recipients. They came from every part of the country and brought all their prejudices and special wisdoms. It was always so wonderful to get up in the morning. There was a lot learned every day. I recall going to hear Kagawa, the Japanese philosopher, and how, suddenly, half the audience stood up and walked out because he had used the word Manchukuo, which is Japanese, for the Chinese province of Manchuria. As I watched the Chinese students excitedly talking outside on the steps of Hill Auditorium, I felt something about the Japanese attack on China that I had not felt before.
As an undergraduate at one of the great publicly supported institutions of higher learning in America, Miller was attracted to the spirit and opportunity of what we would now call diversity in progressive, liberal education. The University of Michigan, for example, provided a far less hostile environment to students from Miller's own background (the writer Norman Rosten, the CBS television anchorman Mike Wallace, and future MIT president Jerome Wiesner were there at the same time)-especially when compared to Ivy League institutions back East, where quotas against Jews and other "others" were strictly enforced. H. Porter Abbott reports that his grandfather, who was in the university administration at the time, specifically encouraged an admission policy based on merit. Picking up students who were barred from "restricted" Wasp strongholds like Harvard and Princeton, it was, he said, simply the best policy for building a strong, ambitious, egalitarian and hardworking undergraduate class. Yale, it should be remembered, did not have a tenured Jewish faculty member until 1956.
As a first-year student at the University of Michigan, Miller lived in a rooming house on South Division Street run by Mrs. Elnora Nelson, the widow of a dentist (she made all of her residents store their luggage in a large wooden barrel in the attic containing old teeth; the future playwright soon discovered that none of them had any gold crowns). Miller's housemates included Harmon L. Remmel and Henry Carl Reigler, both from Little Rock, Arkansas; Keith and Bob Dubey from just north of Ann Arbor; Paul B. Cares, a doctoral student; Charles S. Cook, who was killed in World War II; Bob Danse; and William and Mary Tommy Lee from Kentucky, who occupied an apartment on the first floor. "They were great bridge players," recalls Remmel, "and all of us living in the Nelson house got to play bridge there with them." That first year Miller and several of his housemates took their meals at a small mom-and-pop restaurant around the corner run by a family named Helper. Later, when Miller moved to another house at 411 North State Street, where he paid $1.75 a week, he took some of his meals at the Wolverine Eating Club in the basement of Lane Hall. The club's cook, Anna Panzer, recalled in a 1983 interview that they fed about 250 people three meals a day. She was assisted by John Ragland, who later became Ann Arbor's only African American lawyer. About 40 students, including Arthur Miller, helped with the prep and cleanup in exchange for free meals, while the rest paid $2.50 a week. At the time Miller earned $15 a week feeding past-prime vegetables to thousands of mice at 4:00 p.m. every day in Professor Frank H. Clark's genetics laboratory, which was housed on the edge of town near the old Ann Arbor Coal Yard. In his autobiography, Timebends, Miller recalls trudging two miles each way.
Although most Miller studies trace the beginning of his literary career at Michigan to his undergraduate submissions to the Hopwood Awards Committee, he first made his mark in Ann Arbor as a writer for the Michigan Daily. Housed, as it still is today, in the Student Publications Building at 420 Maynard Street, the Daily was even in those days one of the country's most notable student newspapers, along with the Columbia Spectator and the Harvard Crimson. A review of the future playwright's work as a young journalist allows us to trace his progress from cub reporter to sometimes fiery editorial columnist.
The name "Arthur A. Miller" first appeared in the Michigan Daily staff box on Tuesday, May 21, 1935 (the "A" stands for Asher, Miller's middle name). In the thirties the Daily was printed in seven-column format; Miller had his first byline on May 24, 1935. Based on an Associated Press source, the article is ripe with dramatic foreshadowing: "Anti-Red Bill Sent to Senate." Reporting on the Dunckel-Baldwin antiradical bill, making it a felony to advocate the overthrow of the government, Miller begins his coverage of events in Lansing, the state capital, as follows: "Before a gallery packed with more than 400 protesters ... some of whom were university students, the house passed the anti-violent overthrow measure while representatives on opposing sides nearly came to blows." The bill passed 61-28, but not before demonstrators in the gallery were heartily rebuked for disorder by the speaker pro tem. "The spectators," Miller wrote, "were mostly opposed to the measure, many of them wearing tags with the slogan, 'Don't pass 262,' on them.... Immediately before its passage, the sponsors of the measure seemed to be acceeding [sic] to the negative pressure, since they offered arguments only spasmodically." Miller's reporting for the Michigan Daily falls rather neatly into two separate categories: one dealing with campus events and information of a nonpolitical nature, the other reflecting his growing commitment and attraction to progressive causes. His first byline for an original story appeared on October 11, 1935, when he reports on "Mice of Many Colors," an article based on his part-time work feeding rodents in Professor Clark's research laboratory. On November 9 of the same year he covers a story about the Medical School under the headline, "Scientists See and Hear What Dog's Brain Cells Are Doing." Four months later there is a distinct shift in his assignments. On March 1, 1936, he reports on the National Education Association meeting in St. Louis, Missouri. The lead paragraph reads: "Should a teacher bring into [the classroom] controversial social and economic questions?" Two days later he covers the looming 20 percent reduction in state contributions to local relief, unless local governments can make up for the shortfall-a setback for the WPA program that was part of the Roosevelt administration's New Deal. And on March 12, 1936, Miller's byline appears above the fold for the first time as he reports on the Michigan Student Alliance symposium "Fascism, Naziism, and Hearst."
Miller's college buddy Harmon Remmel recalled that in his early years at Michigan the playwright was "always involved with one cause or another." And it was at the Daily that Miller soon found it possible to reconcile his journalistic and political interests. That opportunity would come in a signed editorial published on October 11, 1936. Here Miller responds to the following remarks made at the Michigan Union by the vice chairman of the board of Chrysler Corporation, identified only as one "Mr. Zeder": "Hitler is doing a great job, he's carrying on, he's getting his house in order." Fred Morrell Zeder's remarks bring out Miller's sharp irony and social commitment. It was unusual for an editorial to be signed by one member of the Daily staff, or to be signed at all, and Miller made the most of the occasion. "In other words," Miller writes, "you mean labor in concentration camps working for whatever you choose to pay them. You mean that labor strikes and efforts of labor to make a living wage under decent conditions are 'crimes against the state.'" When Zeder told the president of the university that he preferred fascism over communism, President Alexander Grant Ruthven (to his credit) responded, "We are not confronted with a choice between fascism and communism, but we cannot survive, we cannot achieve peace without the recognition of our responsibility for the welfare of others." Miller also elaborates and editorializes on Ruthven's remarks: "Fascism has not one iota of `responsibility for the welfare of others.' So thanks again, Herr Zeder. But we advise if we may, that you change your opinion of the college man. He is not a sap!"
Miller's final entry in the Michigan Daily appeared as a letter to the editor on May 31, 1937, when he was no longer a member of the staff. Writing in support of a sit-down strike organized by labor representatives in Washtenaw County, Miller lampoons the right-wing position taken by "C.B.C" published the day before: "I think his logic rears up and kicks him in the face." Assuring his audience that they are all "good Americans," Miller concludes this letter by remarking that "good Americans, like good elephants, never forget tea parties, especially the Boston kind. But with one reservation under the belt. The Boston Indians never even built the tea."
One of Miller's stories that did not make it into the Michigan Daily concerned an ugly racist incident that took place in sports-minded Ann Arbor in 1934-35. The Michigan football team, which then included an undergraduate from Grand Rapids who would later become President Gerald R. Ford, was scheduled to play against Georgia Tech. The team from Atlanta refused to play on the same field with Ford's African American teammate, Willis Ward. The official story was that Ward chose not to play after Georgia Tech protested his presence and Michigan administrators didn't back him. The actual story was a bit more complicated. Miller's friends from Arkansas, Harmon Remmel and H.C. Riegler, who actually knew one of the Georgia Tech players named "Pee Wee" Williams from high school back in Little Rock, took Miller with them to meet with members of the team, to protest but also to appeal to the athletes' sense of fair play. "Miller was right in the middle of this," Remmel recalls. Not only did the visiting team rebuff "the Yankee" Miller "in salty language," but they told him they would actually kill Ward if he set one foot on the Michigan gridiron. "The Georgia Tech team was wild." Miller was furious. He "went immediately to the office of the Michigan Daily and wrote an article about it, but it was not published." Coach Harry G. Kipke quietly sent Willis Ward off to scout another Michigan game in Wisconsin. Remmel said that Miller "could not believe that the Georgia Tech team would have tried to destroy Willis Ward-but, I am sure they would have."
Not all of Miller's journalistic writings at Michigan were weighted with so much local political history. He also contributed to the Gargoyle, a humor magazine written and published by students on the Ann Arbor campus. Founded in 1909, the Gargoyle remains one of the oldest college humor magazines still in circulation. Miller contributed two articles. The first, entitled "You Simply Must Go to College," appeared in October 1937. The second appeared a few months later, in January 1938. "The Rosten" is a satirical piece about his friend and fellow writer Norman Rosten, who was a year ahead of him at Michigan. Revealing a facility for the kind of ironic edge we might associate with a mature Miller work like The Price, the undergraduate writer characterizes his reclusive and bohemian colleague as someone who "practically lives on paper clips."
The most important writing Miller did as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan was his work on early playscripts, including No Villain, Honors at Dawn, and The Great Disobedience. Paul Mueschke, the English instructor who was impressed by Miller's response to the classical Greek plays they studied in his class, also noticed his student's remarkable facility as a writer, a talent that seems to have eluded his high school teachers back in Brooklyn. Mueschke referred Miller to his colleague Kenneth Rowe, a popular Michigan professor who taught a number of courses in dramatic literature and playwriting. Rowe was also the author of a book called Write That Play!, a manual scrupulously adhered to by students, Miller among them, who chose to enroll in his writing class. Rowe, Miller said, "may not have created a playwright (no teacher ever did), but he surely read what we wrote with the urgency of one who actually had the power to produce the play." It was from Professor Rowe that Miller learned the mechanics of the trade, including such elementary principles as narrative exposition, character development, delayed entrance of a central character, the surprise ending, and the virtue of carefully calibrating the rising action of a play. Rowe made his students read a lot of Ibsen. "You may not have heard of this Norwegian playwright," Rowe told one of his bright-eyed undergraduates ten years later. "But by the time you leave here you will know who he is."
Excerpted from ARTHUR MILLER'S AMERICAby Enoch Brater Copyright © 2005 by University of Michigan Press . Excerpted by permission.
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