Terry Teachout has a wonderfully contrarian critique of Arthur Miller in today's Wall Street Journal. Obituary writers have been falling all over themselves in their rush to sing Miller's praises, but Teachout resists the urge to beatify Miller and puts his life and work in a larger context:
I wonder how much attention would now be paid to Miller if he hadn't married [Marilyn] Monroe, and if the House Un-American Activities Committee hadn't made the mistake of subpoenaing him in 1956 to testify about his Communist ties (which were extensive, though he always denied having been an actual party member), thereby bringing about his citation for contempt of Congress when he refused to "name names." The one made him a pop-culture footnote, the other a liberal icon.
The irony is that the smartest critics of Miller's own generation, virtually all of whom shared his left-wing views, held his plays in a different kind of contempt. Back then he took his roughest beatings from the likes of Eric Bentley, Mary McCarthy, Kenneth Tynan, and Robert Warshow, who found him heavy-handed and preachy. Tynan, for instance, wrote that "The Crucible" "suggests a sensibility blunted by the insistence of an outraged conscience; it has the over-simplification of poster art." Bull's-eye.
Zing! Having suffered through "The Crucible" along with millions of other high school students, I applaud Teachout's takedown, and if it makes even one 11th grade English teacher rethink her syllabus, the world will be a slightly better place.
But in a larger sense, I wish we would take a closer look at the mid-century artists and cultural figures, like Miller, whose work revolved around a critique of capitalism and the West, who tacitly or explicitly supported Communism, who faced the wrath of HUAC as a result, and who consequently emerged as lions of the left. In 1956, the year Miller was dragged before HUAC, the Soviets invaded Hungary, using tanks against nationalist rebels who fought with kitchen implements and gasoline.
I don't condone the repressive tactics of the McCarthy Era (and I'm disturbed by the resurgence of such tactics today.) But Miller and his compatriots were naifs, fools or villains, and to laud them for their "principled stands" is to ignore what happened to the people who actually had to live under those same principles.