Arthur Miller: A Biography

Yiddish-speaking playwright who became America's playwright.

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Miller’s work was Jewish in inclination, its interest in ethnicity and family shifting from the Jewish world of his youth to the Italian immigrants of A View from the Bridge (1956) and the anguished Lomans of Death of a Salesman. Only in his 1945 novel Focus did Miller explicitly turn his attention to Jewish characters, and explicitly Jewish subject matter.

The novel’s protagonist, Newman, is a non-Jew who doesn't care much for the Jews and other minorities who are moving into his neighborhood. When the book starts, he buys a new set of glasses, and people begin to mistake him for a Jew. Although the premise sounds comical, the novel quickly changes gears--Newman joins a white-supremacist group called Christian Front and terrorizes Finkelstein, a Jewish candy-store owner. The ending is weirdly tragic and hopeful at the same time: Finkelstein has a bright future ahead of him, but at the cost of his past. Meanwhile, Newman is consumed by the consequences of his bigotry, and eventually loses everything--his wife, his neighborhood, and his self-respect.

In later years, Miller wrote a well-regarded memoir, Timebends (1987), and was the winner of numerous lifetime achievement awards, including the Jerusalem Prize and the National Medal of Arts. Miller’s theatrical style has been enormously influential on a new generation of American playwrights, including Kushner, August Wilson, and Sam Shepard. He died in 2005, one of the most lauded figures in 20th century American letters.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.