A Writing Exercise

I spent my lunch hour over in the library, where I went snooping for some old Arthur Miller essays. Most have been collected in fine editions, of course, but I like to put my hands on the originals — to grab those bound periodicals from the stacks and flip through their fragile pages, discovering the context within which the words that inspired my work were first published. It’s the wannabe historian in me, I guess.

Unfortunately, Miller’s essays are just old enough that, except for a piece in the July 3, 1954 issue of The Nation — a fascinating McCarthy-era adaptation of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” — I was forced to leave the stacks and venture down into the microfilm room. Contrary to popular opinion, I actually like the microfilm room (though I’ll be the first to admit that it absolutely pales in comparison to the real thing). I like browsing through the rows of tiny carboard boxes, threading the microfilm through the reader, whizzing my way through pages and pages of history at the touch of a button. It makes me feel, well, scholarly.

I spent my lunch hour whizzing mostly through Life, Harper’s, Esquire, and the like. 1958 was an interesting year for Miller. He was married to Marilyn Monroe then, making him America’s most recognizable “serious” artist. In the year-end, double-issue of Life that year, an issue devoted to “Entertainment” that featured a multi-page pictorial of Miss M, Miller contributed a few hundred words: “My Wife Marilyn.” It’s accompanied by a charming portrait of the two together — the Jewish intellectual and his bombshell shiksa wife. The photo is so impossibly metaphoric, so iconic even, that I can’t look at it and see two real human beings. The image, refracted through my mind’s eye, is too blurred by celebrity and tragic history.

I’m most intrigued, though, by the April 1956 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in which Miller published his seminal essay on “The Family in Modern Drama.” For a cultural studies guy like myself, the issue is a gold mine. Miller’s essay is sandwiched between a two-page spread from General Electric — “Progress is Our Most Important Product” — and Averell Harriman’s analysis of “The Soviet Challenge and American Policy.” It’s like a snapshot of my dissertation project. Miller’s liberal critique of American profiteering is impossible to imagine removed from its Cold War context.

I think I’ve found the introduction to my first chapter.