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Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller, Now 80, Evokes ‘40s Spirit of Old Left

Book review of Homely Girl, A Life, and Other Stories, by Arthur Miller.

[Originally published in the Miami Herald; not in online archive.]

Whatever became of Arthur Miller? His plays Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, and The Price, written back in the 1950s and ‘60s, achieved the impossible dream, dazzling critics while striking gold at the box office.

That, plus he was married to Marilyn Monroe.

His life always sounded too good to be true, ringing with the kind of irony implied in the title of his first play, The Man Who Had All the Luck.

Where is he now?

Holed up in rural Connecticut, it turns out, and, at 80, still churning out plays despite lukewarm critical Broadway reception (they like him better in London), and venturing into the territory of the short story. Actually, the turf isn’t completely new—two of three short stories in Homely Girl were published in the ‘60s. The last, Fitter’s Night, is a Conrad-esque moral tale about a shipfitter working in New York’s Navy Yard during World War II. It’s a superb story with a setting full of convincing details gleaned from Miller’s days as a shipfitter’s assistant at the Navy Yard. But only the title story is fresh.

Secret Longings

Spanning several decades in 48 pages, Homely Girl is the story of Janice, born with a lisp and a face that looks “a little like Disraeli,” a woman who for most of her life never feels comfortable in her own skin and is uncertain what to do about it. Through her first husband Sam Fink, she gets involved in the uncertainties of 1940s leftist politics, engaging in endless rhetoric-filled discussions, learning to value Rembrandt more for his portrayal of class struggle than for his talent. But, unlike Sam, she never feels a true vocation. She exults in repudiating her bourgeois life of “West End Avenue carpets, silverware, and things,” but she secretly longs for pleasures more immediate and personal than the downfall of Franco, though not without guilt. Failing to turn her zealous husband’s attentions a romantic direction one evening, she reasons that “with Britain and France secretly flirting with Fascism, she could hardly ask him to set her greedy desire ahead of serious things.” She’s miserable, but soon turns to agonizing over Stalin’s pact with Hitler instead.

Despite such extremism, the story is not intended as satire. Like Janice, it seems to have trouble deciding which counts more, the political or the personal.

Sam joins the Army, leaving the couple stranded I Oklahoma, far from their leftist circle, and Janice wonders, “Did we huddle together with one another because we each felt unwanted?” She later admits: “He makes love like mailing a letter.”

Personal Politics

While Sam’s away, she finds solace in the arms of a mutual friend and by the time the war ends, their marriage does, too. Janice drifts aimlessly through postwar New York, flirting with existentialism and a department store heir whose fingers were broken by Nazis. Eventually, by accident, she finds true love in Charles, who listens to classical music, is apolitical and blind. She no longer has to be “holding her breath for the world to look at her and disapprove.”

Somehow, on this huge canvas, with its urgent portrayal of political upheavals, you expect more. Though it raises the question of how far public events should intrude into private lives, the story neither provides an answer nor suggests there isn’t one.

Still, Homely Girl’s evocation of the smoke-filled rooms of the ‘40s and the exuberant spirit of the Old Left burn with the same strange intensity as Willy Loman, and will stay with you long after the vagaries of its plot are forgotten.