Living with Miller

According to Microsoft Word, I wrote the first fifteen pages of the first chapter of my dissertation in November 2003, before life and other projects got in the way. So now I have these fifteen pages (which read quite well, actually) and no idea what comes next. I mean, I know that I have to write about Arthur Miller, but I no longer remember what I had intended to say. And so I’ve spent the last five or six days reading. And reading. With more of the same to come.

After living with Miller for the last few days — after rereading The Crucible and After the Fall and a three inch stack of photocopied criticism — I’ve come to one significant conclusion: I don’t like Miller. His early work shows an obvious knack for wrenching every last drop of sentiment and inevitable heartbreak from a tragic narrative, but, damn, they are really unpleasant to read. His language is starving for poetry.

But Miller is a dramatist of ideas, one might argue, which is true. It’s also the reason that he is the starting point for my project. Certainly no other American writer of the late-1940s and early-1950s was so publicly interrogating the nation’s postwar, capitalist values. But like many of his critics, I find little value in his critique, which seems to offer only ahistorical, liberal platitudes in response to particular historical conditions. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Joe Keller, Willy Loman, John Proctor, and Eddie Carbone all die at the end of Miller’s most famous plays. Suicides, murder victims, and proud martyrs make for good tragic heroes but lousy politics.

That’s why I’m more intrigued by Miller’s work of the 1960s. Gay and Roslyn ride off into an uncertain future at the end of The Misfits, as does Quentin in After the Fall. Miller’s turn toward existentialism and toward the possibility of a life lived in good faith has real political consequences that will be fun to explore in the chapter.