Arthur Miller was born in New York on this day in 1915. Though an illiterate Polish-Jewish immigrant, Miller’s father had done well with his clothing factory and his stock market investments. Until Miller’s early teens, the family lived in Upper Manhattan with a maid, a chauffeur, and, says biographer Christopher Bigsby, “a smell of money in the air”:
There is a picture of the young Arthur Miller in winter, his trousers tucked neatly into long socks. He is wearing a shirt and tie with a fur-collared sheepskin coat and flat cap and gloves. His shoes look suspiciously new. He is about to throw a snowball and looks for all the world like a young Vanderbilt, or F. Scott Fitzgerald before heading east to an Ivy League Princeton.
The Wall Street crash of ’29 ended any Vanderbilt visions; the family moved to affordable Brooklyn Heights, to the house where Miller would eventually write Death of a Salesman — modeling Willy Loman not on a Gatsby but on one of his father’s drummers, who crashed in pursuit of his version of the American Dream.
Such events lead Bigsby to begin his recent, two-volume, 1,200-page biography of Miller with: “This is the story of a writer, but it is also the story of America.” Bigsby also edits the less ambitious Remembering Arthur Miller (2005), a book of snapshot recollections gathered from Miller’s friends and colleagues: Harold Pinter recalling an outraged Miller in Turkey, arguing against censorship on behalf of PEN; Frank McCourt, Miller’s neighbor in Roxbury, Connecticut, recalling the playwright’s talent for croquet and humor. Bigsby’s Introduction recalls a 1989 talk with Miller in which he reflected on his work:
“I like to believe that the feeling that they have is that man is worth something…. I think art imputes value to human beings and if I did that it would be the most pleasant thought I could depart with…. What does a writer want? He wants to have left his thumbprint on the world.” Asked if that did not sound like Willy Loman he replied, “Who does not want that?”
At the end of Death of a Salesman,Willy is recalled as “a happy man with a batch of cement,” mixed for a new porch or garage; at the end of his Introduction, Bigsby notes that Miller planted thousands of trees on his Connecticut property and made his own furniture from the wood he harvested — once shaping a pair of salad servers from the fallen apple tree that had held his daughter’s swing.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.