David Caute

The Millers’ tale

Arthur Miller, 1915-1962, by Christopher Bigsby<br /> <br type="_moz" />

Arthur Miller, 1915-1962, by Christopher Bigsby

Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in Jewish Harlem, the son of immigrants from the shtetl, enjoying comfortable family wealth until his father’s business collapsed. The key events in forming his political outlook were the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the Cold War — and the slow-to-dawn truth about Stalinism. The ever-present corollary is ‘New York Jew’. At the outset of a biography encompassing the man and his work, Christopher Bigsby points up Miller’s recurring debt to the classical Greek theatre, ‘where a society could engage with its myths, its animating principles.’

Tall and strong, Miller remarkably was never conscripted during the second world war. Wishing to join the Navy, he was classified 4F by the Selective Service Board because of a weakened wrist incurred playing college football and ‘a stiffening of the right knee joint’. His elder brother, Kermit, had enlisted in the infantry, emerging with a purple heart, a hero in more spheres than one: he had dropped out of New York University to help with the ailing family business and allow young Arthur to take up a scholarship at the University of Michigan. Miller’s love for his brother shines through the character of Chris in All My Sons.

From November 1942, by now a member of the pro-Communist American Labor Party, Arthur was working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. His FBI file was up and running, but Bigsby is adamant that Miller never joined the Communist party. Given his loyalty to the Soviet Union, this may not have been entirely to Miller’s credit — though the absence of a party card was later to frustrate HUAC and numerous other witch-hunters. Already deprived of a passport by the state department, Miller was finally hauled before the Committee in 1956 and cited for contempt of Congress.

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