Arthur Miller’s death this spring brought back his great moment half a century ago, when he defied the foul fiend. At his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearing in June 1956, he tried to explain himself; all they wanted was names. He got mad and said No! He would gladly accuse himself, but he refused to name anyone else. He knew they would convict him of contempt of Congress. But “I will protect my sense of myself.” It was an eccentric position then.
My conscience will not permit me to use the name of another person. I take full responsibility for everything I have ever done, but I cannot take responsibility for another human being. . .
At the old 72nd Street Newsreel, the whole house cheered. We could see a new politics of conscience being born.
Miller thought the Communist Party rejected him because he believed in the autonomy of art. But he was a misfit for a deeper reason: his vision of the proletariat. It wasn’t big men in boots, but a much bigger bunch: all the people forced to market themselves, to sell their personalities to capital because their personalities were all they had. In Miller’s masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, this is Willy Loman’s story:
He don’t put a bolt to a nut. . . . He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—it’s an earthquake. And then you get a couple of spots in your hat, and you’re finished. . .
Miller intuited that more and more people would be depending on their personalities for their lives. And he knew personality was a resource that had to run out. “They don’t know me anymore”; sooner or later other people are bound to “start not smiling back.” People living on their personalities were alone, “way out there in the blue.” Miller loved one of the most luminous of these people, Marilyn Monroe. Half a century later, there’s a bigger, lonelier crowd than ever. They are a proletariat with no Communist Manifesto, no vision of how they can come together, organize collectively, change the world. But they’re there; “Attention must be paid.” In many ways they are us.
Miller’s The Crucible (1953) is still the best dramatization of McCarthyism: of a time when America became a closed society where “the accuser alone is holy”; of an “Age of Conformity,” as Irving Howe called it, when people could not say what they felt or respond to life freely, when they were turned into rats, tearing at each other, crushed in traps. Miller’s hero ...
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