This review was written in April and November 2005
This book was in my library for some years but I had failed to read it until the turn of the century. I read Miller’s obituary in the Irish Times and Time Magazine and having just completed Paul Johnson’s lengthy history of America and a biography of Franklin Roosevelt, these readings gave me the urge to read more about this well-known author and playwright.
Miller died in January of this year. He was 90 years when he died. The biography contains a list of his plays, screen plays, prose fiction and non-fiction which were mostly travel books. He had been an admirer of Stalin in earlier years and was arraigned by the McCarthy committee in the 1950s when he was suspected of being a communist. He was an icon of the civil rights movement. Unlike many successful people, he died a happy man at the age of 90 and still in love with his 34 year old girl friend. He had been married three times, including his second tempestuous marriage to Marylyn Munroe.
He deals with his early life in New York where his extended Jewish family lived in more or less ghetto circumstances. He conveys the ambience of early pre-World War New York society and the extraordinary change which overtook America from prosperity and optimism to the poverty and despair of the Depression, an economic change which was as unexpected as it was overwhelming. Miller gives an insight into this appalling period in the United States, a disaster which took ten years and the World War to achieve a full recovery. One wonders if it could happen again; although less likely now because of a more stable international monetary system. However, a serious shortage of oil, currently looming large if somewhat distantly on the horizon, may be equally disastrous as may world poverty, a swelling refugee problem, food shortage and the burgeoning world population.
Miller grew up as a cynical but politically compassionate person and was quick to realise the problems which beset a materialistic, greedy and competitive society which was America. It was natural to feel a certain sense of depression or ennui when reading about the life and circumstances of people who differed with ourselves in terms of religion, culture and background; but he too might have felt the same ennui reading about Irish society and Irish Catholic lower and middle class families living in the austere times of the 1920s and 1930s.
I found the book heavy going, although aspects of his life were sufficiently compelling to make me continue to its end. It was difficult to absorb the meaning of many of his convoluted sentences and I was obliged to re-read many. I quote an example
The very leaving behind of the familiar is implicitly erotic and renewing, an opening of the soul to the unknown, a kind of expectance that calls for aloneness, and besides, with so little confidence that I could write another commercially successful play, I needed to conserve money.
There is a lack of easy flow in his writing. He is unusual as a writer in that he does not write in chronological order but continuously shifts back and forth from his early days in New York to his later life when he was well established as a playwright and an icon of the liberal movement. From an early stage he cites the various circumstances which lead to his career as a playwright, and the themes of his plays were obviously closely influenced by his political and social concerns.
There is much in the book about McCarthyism and particularly about the constant threat to liberal people by a widespread intrigue on the part of a right wing society. Those who had more liberal ideas were victimised on trivial evidence and hearsay as communists and of being anti-American. I think that Miller was justified in applying the word Fascist to some of these right wing people. The illiberal trend in America started with the Republican Party and the Democrats were to some extent tainted by the same attitude. It was a sinister if somewhat underground feature of American life in the 1950s and 1960s during the cold war. It reminds us that the Americans, with unique military and industrial power, with a strong Christian fundamentalist tradition and with poor insight into international affairs, not unexpected among a parochial people, may be a serious threat to world society and to future generations.
I have referred previously to American foreign policy, heavily influenced by American industry and the military, and particularly the gradual infiltration of international markets by American commercial enterprises. Long before Iran, Nicaragua and other American adventures into international affairs, and from the beginning of the 20th century, Americans have an appalling history of interference in central and South America where many liberal movements and democratic aspirations were defeated by despotic and dictatorial regimes supported by the Americans and American money. In Johnson’s history of America, the author attributed the traditional instability of the Central and South American countries to their early origins and the failure to set up institutions such as federal administrations and the constitutional basis of government as is evident in the United States and Europe. Yet, one wonders to what degree the instability of some of these countries might be attributed to their failure to develop stable democratic forms of government because of interference by the United States. One of the American leaders who lead the marines in the 1930s told Miller (p253)
I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interest.…I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank to collect revenues in…. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for American fruit companies in 1903
But this naked use of his troops by the bank, jeopardising American lives for private profit, finally changed the marine leader into a critic of American economic expansion. Miller talks about the hypocrisy of the Vietnam War and the denial which was a feature of American life
As a playwright Miller was motivated by strong political, social and moral considerations, and by his ability to express his compassion for society in his plays. The obituary in Time referred to his ‘hero’ in the Death of a Salesman as a man ‘selling his soul and eventually his life to the false values of a materialistic America’. At the period of fear and threat to the liberals during the cold war, Miller became interested in doing a play about the notorious Salem witch hunt of the 17th Century. This play was eventually published as The Crucible and was an account of the hysteria aroused during the Salem Witch hunt. It was a reflection of the hysteria that gripped some Americans in their fear of communism. The violent paranoia which was evident in Salem was reflected among the conservative members of the House un-American Committee which investigated and jailed many on the flimsiest evidence. The Crucible was a metaphor of Salem and the red scare which thrived in the early years of the cold war. The play had a shaky start when first produced in the States but afterwards it became his greatest best seller and is still popular internationally. Its emphasis on indigenous tyranny was appreciated in other countries, such as Poland and China, two of many other countries which were exposed to the same political tyranny.
His involvement in the Reilly case, where a boy of 18 was corruptly accused of killing his mother by the police, and was put on death row, showed a degree of compassion which was exceptional. He devoted an important part of his time and energies, and probably of money, in investigating and fighting against the boy’s conviction which ultimately was proved to have been a set-up by the police.
Reverting to Miller’s writing policies, his constant shift from one period of time to another and one subject to another reminded me of The English Patient, the film which was beset by numerous flashbacks. Miller is the master of the flashback although his are much less confusing that those in the film. He is curious too in never giving dates, which can cause problems of understanding because of his flashbacks. I have already referred to the difficulties in understanding some of his more turgid sentences and these were not made easier by long monologues of introspective meanderings, some of which I learned to skip read, receiving only a vague idea of their contents.
Miller emerges as a socially and politically liberal person with a genuine feeling for society. He was deeply committed and loyal to his country but deplored its many political and social failings, and the tensions which existed between individuals, institutions and ethnic groups. At the same time he was a very vain person, perhaps no more than the rest of us, but he may have been more willing and more courageous to expose his vanity in his writing. He was an icon not only in his own country but also abroad where his plays had a big influence and where, as the president of PEN, the international writers organisation, he played a large part in bringing writers together from different countries and political systems, and was successful in encouraging a more liberal outlook by government authorities towards writers, including those who were formerly treated as dissidents.
I was glad I read the book. I could say that as a biography it added to the knowledge and insights which I have always derived form good biography. It has certainly added to my knowledge of the United States and to my increasing interest in the dominant part the Americans are likely to play in the destiny of the world – a country which leads the world in its materialistic aspirations, which has a large proportion of people who share a naive fundamentalism, a parochialism and a poor education which makes them easily swayed by fundamentalist ideologies.
Miller contemplates the loneliness of the celebrity, his isolation from the common people; so it is not surprising that so many successful people are unhappy as they grow old and find they are no longer in the corridors of power and in the minds of others. He talks about Steinbech’s unhappiness and restlessness, a reminder of Hemingway’s suicide. He certainly had much to be contented about his life. He was a successful playwright, recognised internationally; he had a proud record as a civic rights advocate when such people were so badly needed by his country. From the personal point of view, he had a successful third marriage with the talented, educated and intellectual Inge Morath, a German who was an internationally recognised and respected photographer.
He deplored the Vietnam War and he talks about the country ‘clutching corruption’, expressed when it sent its sons to Korea, He took part in the bitter anti-Vietnam campaign. It was a war supported by the overriding influence of the conservatives in America. Those who were opposed to the war were victimised and had to remain mute until the anti-Vietnam movement began to gather strength. He thought the Democrats were as culpable as the Republicans in prolonging the war and he had little regard for the Democrats as a liberal party. He railed against the sacking and jailing of so many people who were good Americans but were deemed to be disloyal to their country
He writes much about his years with Marylyn Monroe but here his writing lacks an easy thread of chronology nor is it easy to understand the jumble of his thoughts about her and their complex relationship. Their relationship was a disaster of misunderstandings and incompatibilities. She emerges as a very beautiful and talented person, an extraordinary public icon, but unduly sensitive and unstable, particularly in the highly competitive and adversarial life of entertainment. A lack of confidence and self-esteem may have been personality defects which made her unsuitable for the rough and tumble of the entertainment world and for the adulation of the public and the constant pressures from the media. I suspect her early death may have been related to drug dependency and to the indulgence and enthusiastic interventions of her doctors.
He was conscious of the average American’s lack of profound and intellectual interests. The more serious forms of entertainment had little attraction to them. To this he attributed the relative failure of his plays in America compared to their popularity in Europe and the rest of the world. The Americans’ unlimited desire for entertainment, their search for new diversions, their icons – their movie stars and those who had made massive fortunes - their compulsive self-gratification and their superficial goals of life, their religious fundamentalism and their idea of a life hereafter, entered through the portals of the New York stock exchange, these are some of Miller’s thoughts, perhaps with a few of my own added!.
He talks about the emergence of the atomic bomb and its possible consequences for humanity and the world. He arranges to meet some of those who were responsible for its development and who now have serious doubts about their role in creating such a threat to humanity. Hans Bethe and Robert Oppenheimer were both depressed and isolated, with feelings of guilt about their role in the destruction of the Japanese cities and in the future potential of the weapon to annihilate the world. Bethe had strongly opposed the dropping of the bomb on living people but had failed to dissuade Truman.
One did not intend what one had done. And yet one was responsible, if only because someone had to be. Why was one responsible if one had no evil intention? But if one had no evil intention, then where did the evil come from?
This was the dilemma that troubled them. And
---- the fact would not go away that all their marvellous craft had placed in the hands of ignorant, provincial men the destroying power of the gods. ---- left to politicians whose minds and motives were too often petty and unwise.
It was little wonder that these great scientists were dejected and isolated by the result of their genius. It reminds me of the words of the Angel Rafael to Adam in Milton’s Paradise Lost ‘Do not try to understand the stars’. Miller had hoped to write a play about the dilemma of science but I am not sure if he ever did.