My wife and I recently went to see the Arthur Miller play, A View from the Bridge, at the Guthrie theater in Minneapolis. I wasn’t familiar with that particular play, although Arthur Miller was one of the many corridors I went down as I explored Important American Writing in high school and college. I first read The Crucible, a play everyone reads in high school, and went on to read several others and doing a big report on him for 11th grade AP English. The Death of a Salesman is, I still think, the definitive American drama, one which critiques the American character without failing to find something sorta lovable about it.
My political consciousness was forged more by 20th Century Literature than by television or newspapers. The best political literature — like Miller’s, or Steinbeck’s, or Orwell’s — shows politics on the subterranean level, how they are both informed by and affect people’s lives. Such books are good for raising political passions, not so much for arming a person with the rhetorical flourish to make a point in a political debate.
So I was (and am) politically passionate but mostly inarticulate in political discussions. Nevertheless, I think they get at deeper truths than make it to political dialogue. Just because it’s difficult to carry on a reasonable conversation about economic policy when your only position is that people shouldn’t go through what the Joads did, doesn’t mean that what the Joads went through isn’t what it’s really all about.
Fortunately for my readers, I’ve abandoned the idea of writing anything overtly important or worth cycling through a few generations of high school English. It wasn’t that my early efforts were especially high-toned or screechy (I had my college newspaper column for that!), but that my attempts to fathom people’s political convictions enough to write about them made such stories ambiguous and aimless. I’d like to say that my issue story in a literary journal enraged people on both sides, because it would have meant I prompted discussion, but it’s more accurate to say it confused both sides. Maybe it’s because by the end of it, I wasn’t sure where I stood anymore. Or I did know where I stood, but it where I stood was a swimming pool full of jello.
The talent Arthur Miller has is for plumbing the depths of a character like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, or Ed Carbone in A View from the Bridge, without losing his footing. Maybe his convictions are firmer than mine. Maybe, also, he was a better writer.