Miller, Arthur (1915–2005) By Abbotson, Susan C. W.
With a writing career stretching over six decades, including fiction, memoirs, and journals, as well as over two dozen plays, Arthur Miller’s contributions to American and world literature are significant. However, they are nowhere so strongly felt as in the field of drama, where his groundbreaking, now seminal play Death of a Salesman (1949) had a profound impact, both stylistically and philosophically, on the future of American modernist theatre.
Born in New York into a recently immigrant Jewish family who were beginning to live the American dream of success, Miller soon tasted the bitterness of loss as the Great Depression hit and destroyed his father’s prosperous clothing business. This event, later followed by the atrocities of the Holocaust, would strongly influence Miller’s modernist outlook on humanity as deeply flawed, though not without the possibility of redemption if attitudes could be changed. He spent his life trying to change those attitudes through his art.
Enthusiastically embracing socialist principles that in the late 1930s seemed to offer a kinder future, he attended the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, winning several prizes for playwriting. After graduation, he joined the Federal Theater Project to work on radio drama shortly before it was closed down. He continued to write radio plays that ran from conventional patriotic war sagas to the more quirky The Pussycat and the Plumber Who Was a Man (1940)—a comic exposé of political corruption. In 1940 he married his college girlfriend, Mary Slattery, with whom he would have two children, Jane and Robert.