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Monday, February 14, 2005

More on Arthur Miller

Let's beat a dead horse, so to speak. In a comment to an earlier post on Arthur Miller, P.J. Jaworski commented:

"Miller was a great playwright, even if you and Teachout don't think so. Unless you have some very good reasons to think otherwise, the rest of us might prefer to accept the general consensus amongst those who would know about such things. In this case, Miller is considered a great playwright. And I don't think you've offered good reasons to think otherwise."

Here are some reasons, then, and none of them are political.

I think that Death of a Salesman is a good play but not a great play. It is over-rated perhaps because two generations of students have read it in high school and remember it nostalgically as their first serious play other than Shakespeare. I also believe that a good many people think they like Death of a Salesman because they have been indoctrinated to believe they should. But even at that, the literary critic Harold Bloom doesn't even include Death of a Salesman in his Western Canon.

My bone of contention is with the idea that Miller was a great author/playwright. One good play does not a great playwright make. Consider his other works (if you can name one). Miller's novel Focus is the story of Lawrence Newman, an anti-Semite living in Brooklyn in the 1940s. Later in life he begins to wear glasses and, looking Jewish, becomes the victim of anti-Semitism himself. It has a wonderful plot and interesting characters but it is written as if rendered by a high school student and one wishes that Bernard Malamud had instead written this story. Incident at Vichy has been rightly criticized as nihilistic and is more Sartrean than Sartre. But aside from its ideas, Incident at Vichy is lousily written; it doesn't have characters, it has stereotypes. While Vichy is more existential than I would like, I acknowledge that it explores important concepts of moral responsibility. Unfortunately, like Focus, it is not well executed.

Let's consider The Crucible, ostensibly about the Salem witch trials. Miller denied at the time that it was about Senator Joseph McCarthy but in recent years told The Guardian that it was all about McCarthy. It might have been but the research for this play involved reading two (large) volumes of the Salem witch trials. Some historians have criticized parts of The Crucible for being little more than edited versions of the trials. That is not to say that The Crucible may be partly plagiarized, but is that the mark of a great writer? Take the criticism, though, for what its worth. Neither do I have a problem, as some critics at the time of The Crucible's release did, with Miller raising the age of Abigail Williams or reducing the number of women facing trial for witchcraft. Such liberties and condensing is sometimes necessary in art. In fact, I think it can help one understand the story. But by injecting a romantic (and adulterous) subplot to the story, Miller stands in the way of better understanding of why the Salem witch trials took place; it wasn't about revenge by a jealous lover. Indeed, Miller never seriously explores why the witch hunts occurred. One liberty I don't appreciate is Miller's misrepresenting why Massachusetts moved away from executing suspected witches. It was not an act of moral clarity but a legal question about the reliability of "spectral evidence." That said, The Crucible is perhaps Miller's most consistent work; but unlike Death of a Salesman or even Incident at Vichy, it is dull. Whatever interest this play has stems from its subject and not in anything Miller adds to it.

Or take All My Sons (please), considered among Miller's better works. I'm sorry but the denouement is unconvincing; Joe Keller kills himself because "a man can't be a Jesus in the world" but Keller doesn't believe Jesus is relevant to his life. Too much of Keller's character is unrevealed to make the ending credible and thus it is unsatisfying at worst, dishonest at best. Furthermore, like Philip Roth and Portnoy's Complaint, I'm not sure that Miller understood his own artistic creation. The conflict in All My Sons is not Joe Keller's but his son Chris' as he tries to reconcile who he is and who he wants to be. Keller's suicide is dramatic but pointless; this may be tragedy but it is tragedy for tragedy sake and the result is that All My Sons is terribly unrealistic.

Then there is The Fall and After, considered by some critics to be better than Death of a Salesman. The only surpassing that The Fall and After does in comparison to Death of a Salesman is that Quentin rises to the heights that Willy Loman aspired to -- and beyond. Miller makes some valid observations about man's longing for acceptance, although I think Miller went beyond that and implied acceptance was a human necessity as much as food and shelter. But Miller has trouble turning this deeply personal story of Quentin's self-actualization into anything resembling art. This autobiographical play has trouble becoming anything other than Miller's autobiographical play; no art, just Miller. (That said, Timebends: A Life, is one of the finest and least self-indulgent literary autobiographies I have ever read even if he skirts the issues surrounding being a communist sympathizer.)

I could go on specific work by specific work but won't. But one must consider two more general criticisms of Miller before pronouncing him among the great, both of which ultimately disqualify him as such. 1) I think it was Joseph Epstein who once said that the big problem for Miller is that he seldom establishes the credibility of his protagonists; with the exception of Death of a Salesman, this is true. Keller's motivation in All My Sons is unconvincing; Quentin's pretentious language in The Fall and After seems more Miller than the character and is incredibly self-indulgent. Second, consider Epstein's observation on enjoying books: "Part of the pleasure of reading is in the splendor of language properly deployed." Miller lacks that splendor. Harold Bloom said that Death of a Salesman did not hold him and he found himself reverting in his mind to the play rather than the book. That is, Miller isn't a great read. Furthermore, there is the question of Miller's usage. He was among the first serious authors to verb nouns (i.e. researching) which has been a terrible development in language over the past half-century. Also, Roger Shattuck complained that the playwright employed language much as the illiterate of children of the 1960s did (using depart as a transitive verb or using hanging out instead of hanging around). No "language properly deployed" around here.

What did Miller do well? Not that this is all that important, but what great line did Miller provide eternity? I would suggest just one: "Each man has his Jew; it is the other. And the Jews have their Jews." (Incident at Vichy) But even this was a rip-off of Albert Camus. Of Death of a Salesman, it's greatest achievement is to offer the obvious observation that tragedy can happen to plain folks as easily it can happen to kings and nobles. Thanks for the insight, Arthur. But it is an insight he wrote about masterfully in an essay, "Tragedy and the Common Man." At least Salesman was well-written and works well on stage. But other than Death of a Salesman, nothing in Miller's oeuvre could possibly pass what is the elemental test of good literature; Proust said he would rather spend time with a good book than a friend. Miller doesn't pass the test of putting any friend on the back-burner.

(Cross-posted at Sobering Thoughts)

Posted by Paul Tuns on February 14, 2005 in Books | Permalink


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Tracked on 2005-02-16 10:07:10 AM


Re: "Proust said he would rather spend time with a good book than a friend."

Anyone who would rather spend time with a fiction than with a friend is someone who I would rather not spend time with. Existence exists. Friends exist. Fiction doesn't. Truth is that which exists. That's why Branden trumps Rand.

Posted by: Tony | 2005-02-14 8:39:45 PM

Paul, as usual, you offer some very astute observations. I would only add that Miller served the necessary function of the public’s poet laureate: he did not define public opinion, but was defined by it: he epitomized it, but never transcended it (eg. reading his anti-war poetry on Connie Chung).

An artist’s death allows a true appreciate of his work to begin; but, like most artists who enjoy accolades in their own lifetime, Miller will be most remembered for once being remembered.

Posted by: Eponymous | 2005-02-14 9:57:12 PM

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