Copiously researched, deftly written biography that expands our understanding of a major figure in American letters.
The success of All My Sons in 1947 gave Arthur Miller (1915–2005) enduring fame and an equally enduring, bifurcated reputation. Some hailed him as an honest, forceful voice in American theater, while others dismissed him as the mouthpiece of leftist pieties. Bigsby (American Studies/Univ. of East Anglia; Neil LaBute, 2008, etc.) gives a remarkably full account of this complex and somewhat remote figure, emphasizing the first half of Miller’s life. (This makes sense, since the playwright repeatedly mined his past for subject matter.) The author draws on unpublished material and private papers, as well as numerous personal conversations and interviews with the playwright in the years before his death. Bigsby dutifully covers the major works—All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible—their productions on both sides of the Atlantic and their critical receptions. He gives particularly illuminating attention to Miller’s university writings, his early life in the theater, his little-known work in radio and published and unpublished fiction. This helps give a fuller picture of the emerging writer, and Bigsby is good at identifying certain themes—a preoccupation with the consequences of actions, for example—that developed early on. Aided by his interviews with Miller, he writes sensitively about the lasting influence of relationships with family, friends, colleagues such as Elia Kazan, and wives, especially Marilyn Monroe. The author judiciously treats Miller’s politics, including a dramatic appearance at the HUAC hearings, and he puts the playwright’s deeply held views in the context of youthful experiences during the Depression. Without scanting Miller’s moral seriousness, Bigsby doesn’t really see him as an intellectual, writing that “he was in fact less concerned to engage with abstract ideas than with observed lives.”
A richly detailed, revealing look at the making of a playwright and a man.