Lahr, John. Arthur Miller: American Witness. New Haven: Yale UP, 2022. ISBN 9780300234923. £16.99 cloth. 244 pp.
The cover of John Lahr’s new book on Arthur Miller, American Witness, is striking in its originality. Often photographed in middle age, and almost always wearing glasses, the classic image of Miller is that of a stern, deep-thinking moralist; it is no coincidence that the word “Lincolnesque” has been used by many to describe him, or at least how he wished to portray himself. The Miller that looks calmly, with a hint of a smile, from this cover is a more relaxed man: wearing a flannel shirt and without pipe or glasses, he seems less invested in consciously constructing an image at this moment. The typewriter in the background is more incidental than deliberate; this isn’t a scholar or philosopher posing for a book cover, but rather someone who has accidentally entered the office of an author whose work he barely comprehends, or cares about. In short, the cover promises much to those who are familiar with the common narrative of Miller’s life and are hopeful that it can be expanded to consider a broader vision of him than the man who wrote Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, stood up to McCarthyism, and married Marilyn Monroe. While the book does not fulfil this promise, there is much to admire about Lahr’s approach, and he has done some original archival work that helps to illuminate the influence of Miller’s personal life on his plays. Lahr is also never afraid to point out moments that cast Miller in a less-than-flattering light – he is correct to note that on “the issue of autobiographical elements in his plays, Miller always boxed clever” (192) – but more focus on the later plays would have been welcome and truly original.
This book is not the first about Miller to be notable for its cover picture. The first volume of Christopher Bigsby’s biography featured a “muscular Miller in a white T-shirt,” an image which “came as a bit of a shock” to Guardian reviewer Vanessa Thorpe. The second volume, featuring an older, balding Miller, complete with pipe and glasses, rifling through papers, was far more congruent with the standard image of the writer. Image was important to Miller, as it is to Lahr’s study of him, which flits between biography and critical assessment of his most famous plays, alongside a welcome section on his early novel, Focus, and some discussion of unpublished works such as “The Best Comedians.” Lahr links Miller’s preoccupation with image to his mother’s “suffocating ardor” and writes that even “at the age nineteen, Miller understood that his persona was a writer was a kind of co-production” (26). That his “co-producer” was his mother, a cultured woman with an interest in art, music, and literature, caused a considerable degree of shame for the young writer, as it carried an implicit (and often explicit) rejection of his father, an illiterate immigrant who ran a highly profitable coat manufacturing business before the Wall Street Crash forced the family to move from their Central Park apartment to relatively rural Brooklyn in the early 1930s. Lahr sketches these family dynamics with skill in this highly readable work, showing how Miller’s early family experiences haunted his most famous texts. While this is occasionally overblown in Lahr’s analysis of the plays, the book is a useful resource for the undergraduate student or casual reader seeking to learn more about Miller.
Lahr’s acknowledgement of Miller’s interest in his own image and reputation is one of the highlights of the book, as he understands and addresses the sheer egotism that drove Miller. After a decade of trying to make it as a writer, Miller had huge successes with All My Sons and Salesman in the late 1940s, and he was lauded as more than an artistic great; indeed, he was elevated to a moral ideal. As Lahr writes, “Implicit in Miller’s principled stance as a public intellectual was his moral rigor; his reputation for goodness was central to his identity” (130-131). Miller’s role as a “principled,” “moral” actor was one he accepted with relish, but it’s notable that when he stopped trying to present himself this way, his writing loosened up considerably, and in later years he wrote plays that were funny, ironic, and self-aware, if generally ignored by critics and scholars, who, in Robert Scanlan’s words, had a “tendency to stand Miller in his own shadow” (181). The recent documentary by his daughter Rebecca Miller, Arthur Miller: Writer (2018), featured many home movies that showed a relaxed, humorous Miller who was happiest when joking with his family. This is a far cry from the man who in 1959, when explaining his decision to not attend his nephew’s bar mitzvah, wrote, “if I seem blinded at times it is not that I do not see or feel but that at any one time there is but one thing to do, one quest to pursue and all else, at such times, is and must be distant … with any less ‘selfishness’ there would be fewer results” (189-190). Miller’s self-seriousness was at times overwhelming, and while the admiration for his writing is clear, Lahr does not ignore these personal or moral failures. This is a frank assessment of portions of his life, not a hagiography.
This attitude does not stray into needless or vindictive iconoclasm, partly because much of the ground has been covered before by Bigsby or previous biographer Martin Gottfried, so Lahr has little new concrete material. He occasionally leans on an unpublished work, Relations, by Miller’s nephew, Ross, that is at best suspect, and at worst possibly motivated by personal resentments that are not relayed to the reader. Miller’s older brother, and Ross’s father, Kermit, sacrificed his place at university to help their father’s failing business, despite being the better student. Kermit never went back to school, even though they made an agreement that Arthur would return to New York to let Kermit finish his education. Although he seemed destined for a writing career himself, Kermit’s ambitions were thwarted by his need to work, and fighting in the Second World War left him physically and mentally damaged; he underwent electroconvulsive therapy in the late 1940s and worked as a carpet salesman for the rest of his life.
While these family dynamics undoubtedly played a huge role in the life and work of Miller – not least in his 1968 play, The Price, which is evidently a dramatisation of this clash – Lahr leans far too heavily on the perspective offered in Relations. Uniquely among writers on Miller, he quotes extensively from Relations, but he takes almost everything said in it at face value. Although Lahr was perhaps excited by exploring a previously ignored source, there is far too much uncritical acceptance of what is only one unverified perspective. Ross Miller writes that his “father’s nobility of character drove Arthur crazy,” and asks how “can you oppose a ‘prince of a man,’ who gives up his own ambitions to save others?” (85), yet this is presented unopposed – Lahr describes Kermit as “a man of almost pathological honesty” (85) and never finds cause to speculate about the motivation for Ross’s opinion of his uncle. There is also a point at which this kind of material becomes irrelevant; not only is the perspective of Arthur Miller’s nephew going to be biased, but it fails to teach us more about the man or his work. Aside from unsubstantiated assertions, such as describing Miller’s dedication of his book Situation Normal to Kermit as symptomatic of a “mutual cannibalizing [sic] of each other’s experience that is both the source of Arthur’s art and the slow paralysis of my father’s ambition” (66), little that Lahr quotes Ross as saying will be new to any serious Miller scholar.
The book also leaves gaps that are both unwelcome and inexplicable. Bizarrely for a book published in Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series, there is very little examination of the impact or presence of Judaism in Miller’s plays. There is a welcome amount of attention paid to Focus, which centres on anti-Semitism in mid-century America, but Lahr rarely returns to the issue, and he never does so in depth. As with other studies of Miller’s life, he also disregards the latter portion of his career – it effectively ends after The Price, leaving almost 40 years to be dealt with in six pages. This is not surprising, as others have taken similar routes, including Gottfried, and there is a common misperception that the later plays, overshadowed by Salesman and The Crucible, are of little scholarly or dramatic value. There is a huge amount to explore in Miller’s life and work from this period, but Lahr dismisses it in favour of rehashing familiar stories about the cabin in which he wrote Salesman and his marriage to Monroe. This leads to an uncertainty about what this book adds to existing historiography of Miller, as the subtitle, and Miller’s role as an “American Witness,” is never sufficiently explored. For casual readers who are interested in Miller’s work, it should prove to be an engaging read, but for scholars or postgraduate students, there is little here that cannot be found in other works.
Bigsby, Christopher. Arthur Miller. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2008.
—. Arthur Miller: 1962-2005. London: Orion Books, 2011.
Gottfried, Martin. Arthur Miller: His Life and Work. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2003.
Scanlan, Robert. “The Late Plays of Arthur Miller.” Arthur Miller’s America: Theatre & Culture in a Time of Change, edited by Enoch Brater, University of Michigan Press, 2008, pp.180-190.
Thorpe, Vanessa. “Now Miller’s tale leaps off the page.” The Guardian, 14 December 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/dec/14/biography-arthurmiller. Accessed 1 February 2023.
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