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Arthur Miller: depression's fortune

About the author
Christopher Bigsby is professor and head of the School of American Studies at the University of East Anglia (UEA), England.

In 1980 a new play by Arthur Miller opened. It was called The American Clock and was set during the United States's Great Depression at the end of the 1920s. It seemed an odd moment to turn the clock back. I asked him why he had written the play at this time. He replied that he wanted to remind people that it could all go away. As it happened, it nearly did. Soon afterwards, at the start of the Ronald Reagan era, America entered a deep recession. What was really in Miller's mind, however, was his own experience, and that of his family.Christopher Bigsby is professor and head of the School of American Studies at the University of East Anglia (UEA), England

His latest book is Arthur Miller (Orion, 2008; Harvard University Press, 2009)

Among his many previous books are Arthur Miller: A Critical Study Press (Cambridge University Press, 2005), (as editor), The Cambridge Companion to Modern American Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Also by Christopher Bigsby in openDemocracy:

"Kurt Vonnegut : a voice for life" (11 April 2007)

Another political era, that of Barack Obama, has yet to find its literary voice. But Miller, who died in February 2005 at the age of 89, would at least have recognised the America the new president evoked in his address to Congress on 24 February 2009: 

"If you haven't been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has - a friend; a neighbour; a member of your family.  You don't need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day. It's the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It's the job you thought you'd retire from but now have lost; the business you built your dreams upon that's now hanging by a thread; the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope.  The impact of this recession is real, and it is everywhere."    

The timebend

When Arthur Miller was born his family were rich. His father headed a large clothing company manufacturing women's coats. So rich was Isadore Miller that he was approached by a man for a $50,000 loan to start up a business on the other side of the country. Isadore turned him down, not least because he was a "sponger", whose job it was to shrink cloth and who might therefore be suspected of keeping some for himself. The man found other sources and made his way to California. His name was Sam Fox and the company he founded Twentieth Century Fox. In the 1930s, when the Millers had to watch every dollar, trips to see Twentieth Century Fox films were rare.  Decades later, Arthur Miller, in Hollywood to close a deal for a film script, met a young Marilyn Monroe on the back-lot of Sam Fox's studio.

In the late 1920s, Isadore did what many others felt drawn to do. He invested in the stock market. Why would you not? There was more to be made there than in manufacturing. He invested not only his own money but his wife's, theirs being an arranged marriage in which financial arrangements had been negotiated between the two families.  When the market crashed the business failed and Isadore went into bankruptcy. Everything did, indeed, go away - the expensive multi-room apartment at the top of Central Park, the Polish maid, the chauffeur-driven car and a summer place at Far Rockaway on Long Island.  They retreated across the East River to a small frame house in Brooklyn, alongside a cemetery, where a 14-year-old Arthur had to share his bedroom with his grandfather. 

Arthur himself felt immune at first. He had withdrawn his $14 dollars from the bank the day before it failed. He bought a bicycle from one of his friends. The next day it was stolen and he rejoined the rest of America.

In later years he remembered going to the pawnbrokers with his mother's jewels, and the family arguments that at the time filled the air. People would come to the door in search of handouts and for a while one of them lived in their basement. When the mortgage man came around they would hide, closing the doors and windows even on the hottest day. Men would no longer go to work, but spend their days sitting on the stoops instead of making their way to the Culver Line that would have taken them into Manhattan. There were a series of suicides on their East Third Street; even a young boy whose head was full of football noticed.

He thought of running away to sea. When he graduated from high school none of the family attended. College was a distant dream. When he brought the catalogues home he realised for the first time that the door had seemingly closed on that future. By now he wanted to write, but the University of Michigan - which offered prizes to budding playwrights - required a $500 surety. For nearly two years he worked in an automobile parts warehouse in Manhattan to raise the cash, a job he secured in the face of fierce anti-semitism.

Also in openDemocracy on modern American writers:

Tom McBride, "Big ideas and wandering fools: Saul Bellow" (6 April 2005)

Tom McBride, " The United States of Vidal" (28 March 2oo6)

David Hayes, " Bob Dylan's revolution in the head" (24 May 2006)

Angela McRobbie, " While Susan Sontag lay dying" (10 October 2006)

Christopher Bigsby, " Kurt Vonnegut : a voice for life" (11 April 2007)

Kasia Boddy, " Norman Mailer: a boxing life" (13 November 2007)

Angela McRobbie, " Susan Sontag: holding herself to account" (22 January 2009)

James Schiff, "John Updike: singing America" (30 January 2009)

When, finally, he made his way to Michigan he left behind a suicidal mother and a father whose American dream had foundered, a man who had risen to wealth only to see it taken away. When his wife died many years later her obituary described him as a salesman, the role he had played at the age of 17 when he had arrived in America to escape pogroms and reinvent himself.  Here, indeed, was another reason for Miller's sense that it could all go away.  He knew that, at least metaphorically, Jews always kept their bags packed in the knowledge that nothing was secure. In later years, indeed, he would be drawn to writing about the holocaust and see in it something more than an experience located on another continent at another time.

The turning-point

Miller never forgot the Depression. As he told me it was "his time". He lived through it from the age of 14 until war finally rebooted the economy when he was in his mid-20s. It is the shadow behind Death of a Salesman. It is a presence in After the Fall and The American Clock. It shaped his character. He was always careful with money, always conscious of prices. He felt guilty when royalties poured into his bank-account following the success of All My Sons and went to the local employment bureau to ask for manual work, convinced that he needed to keep in touch with the working man (he lasted no more than a few days). That desire for solidarity was another product of the Depression.

At the age of 17 he was introduced to Marxist ideas by a young student. They talked first outside a local drug store and then at Coney Island where the new poor were living under the boardwalk. It came as a revelation. Suddenly, there was an explanation for what seemed to be the failure of capitalism.  There was an alternative model in the Soviet Union, a country whose constitution apparently outlawed anti-semitism. An immediate result was that when his father tried to establish a new company, his son joined the pickets demanding higher wages.

That Coney Island conversation was to prove crucial, as Miller remained loyal to the Soviet Union through the Moscow trials of 1936 and the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. It would be 1950 before he finally he realised the nature of the dream he had embraced. That misplaced loyalty would lead to a critical disdain that would colour responses to many of his plays.

Today, the world - including, sharply and painfully, the United States - faces a recession that may yet deepen to become a depression. I am looking out for productions of The American Clock, a play which drew on the work of the great oral historian Studs Terkel, who died on 31 October 2008. In Hard Times, he gathered together interviews he had conducted with those who lived through the Great Depression.  He quotes one of them as saying of Wall Street: "The Street had general confusion. They didn't understand it any more than anybody else. They thought something would be announced."

As Terkel asks, who could make such an announcement? His question reverberates. Once again, in 2008-09, no one appears to have been minding the store. The new president's rhetoric is valiant, mixing sobriety and uplift with characteristic skill. But millions are hurting, their lives turned suddenly hard and inward. Once again we are all discovering a truth that Arthur Miller - the Jewish boy, the product of the Great Depression - felt obliged to pass on. It can all go away. 

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