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What did Willy Loman ever do for me?

Arthur Miller’s brother Kermit said that their family had left Poland clutching sewing machines. Their father, Isidore, arrived at Battery Park with a scab on his head the size of a silver dollar: it was a gruelling crossing. From the very start, Arthur was attuned to the immigrant view of the future, and his Marxism can be seen as a negotiation with his father’s failures as a businessman. The Crash laid waste to his father’s hopes, also to his mother’s confidence in his father’s powers, but out of it came Miller’s understanding of a particularly American experience of delusion. At one and the same time, he appears to have been mortified by his father’s decline and exhilarated, in ways both Freudian and contemporary, by the space it opened up for his own long struggle with reality

Even as late as the 1950s, at the height of his fame as a playwright, Arthur Miller would periodically leave his nice house to hang around the dockyards. He had worked for two years in the 1930s at a car parts warehouse, where he first encountered anti-semitism and suspicion. Reading Russian novels on his way into work, he found, when he considered it later, that the workers ‘feared his intelligence, his application, his ambition and his thrift, taking all these as tokens of his Jewish identity’. Miller’s mother made fun of his radicalism, calling him ‘Artovsky Millensky’, and in 1947, several weeks after his first big success with All My Sons, he applied to the New York State Employment Service, keen to take any job they might have. He was sent to Long Island City to assemble beer-box dividers, earning the minimum wage. He was on the run from a hit Broadway play. ‘I couldn’t stand the idea that I was making money without working,’ he said years later. ‘It was morally disgusting . . . but I couldn’t get past a week. It was not the work; it was the boredom . . . I wanted to be with the salt of the earth, and the salt was in that factory. But these people were totally depressed. It was just awful being there and I would have gone crazy finally.’ In that spirit he continued to pride himself on a certain opposition to the Partisan Review crowd: the Trotskyists, he said, ‘were a New York literary phenomenon rather than anything else. I never heard of them as being active in unions or election politics.’ Miller watched the waterfront, and it would take him years to stop admiring the Soviets.

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