American Literature Arthur Miller
Susan C.W. Abbotson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0052


Arthur Asher Miller (b. 1915–d. 2005) was born in Harlem, New York. The successful clothing business his immigrant father had built up went bankrupt during the Great Depression, and the family relocated to Brooklyn. After working at an auto parts warehouse to finance college, Miller attended the University of Michigan from 1934 to 1938. He switched his major from journalism to English after successfully winning a university prize for playwriting. After graduation he returned to New York to work on his plays, first for the Federal Theatre Project, until it closed down in 1939, and then for various radio stations. In 1940 he married his college girlfriend, Mary Slattery, with whom he would have two children, Jane and Robert. In 1944 he published his first book, Situation Normal . . . , about his experiences touring army camps, and had his first full-length play produced on Broadway—The Man Who Had All the Luck—which closed after six performances. Miller nearly quit writing plays and turned to fiction, producing a novel about American anti-Semitism: Focus (1945). Returning to drama, he achieved success in 1947 with All My Sons, about a man who tried to cover up selling faulty aircraft parts to the air force, and swiftly followed this with the now seminal Death of a Salesman (1949), which covers the last day of Willy Loman’s frustrated life. Miller continued to write a series of successful modern tragedies, including The Crucible (1953) and A View from the Bridge (1956), as well as a variety of other plays, short fiction, and essays. In 1956 he would divorce his wife to marry the actress Marilyn Monroe, for whom he wrote the screenplay The Misfits (1961). After this marriage collapsed, he wed the Austrian photographer Inge Morath, with whom he would have two children, Rebecca and Daniel, and live happily for the next forty years. Miller’s reputation in America suffered for decades following his marriage to Monroe, even while he was lionized abroad. His drama continues to be regularly produced around the world. As his biographer, Christopher Bigsby, suggests, “[Miller] wrote metaphors rather than plays, and that is why they continue to live on the pulse, constantly reinvented, earthed in new realities” (Arthur Miller 1962–2005 [London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2011], p. xii). Miller has been both hailed and scorned as “America’s conscience,” and his works are rooted in a profoundly humanistic philosophy that is fiercely patriotic, just as it is determined to bring attention to America’s flaws. His driving concern was to make a difference, convinced that theater was a public art that could do that.

General Overviews

Given Miller’s popularity in the classroom, there are a growing number of books geared to offer overviews of his work. This section deals with those more clearly aimed at the college level, though accessible to both beginning and more advanced students, whereas General Overviews: Introductory Guides lists books for a more general audience. Several overviews of Miller were begun before he had completed his oeuvre, which makes their commentary incomplete; others, such as Huftel 1965 and Hayman 1972, remain worthwhile for their clarity or early insights. Welland 1983 offers sensitive and balanced readings of the plays, colored by intimate knowledge of UK productions; Desafy-Grignard 2001 gives a Parisian viewpoint; Singh 1990, an Indian; and the updated Carson 2008 and Viswamohan 2005 are able to cover Miller’s whole career. Bigsby 2005 definitely provides the best general coverage, being the most detailed and researched, and Brater 2013 provides an excellent entrance-level study of Miller’s greatest and best-known plays.

  • Bigsby, Christopher. Arthur Miller: A Critical Study. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    Complete coverage of Miller’s output, vastly expanding the insightful commentary included in Bigsby’s second volume of A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama (1984) to consider the entirety of Miller’s work, including several unpublished pieces. Proceeds chronologically in close detail, from Miller’s student plays to his final contributions, with interspersed discussions of fiction and Miller’s relationship to time, tragedy, and Judaism.

  • Brater, Enoch, ed. A Student Handbook to the Plays of Arthur Miller All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, Broken Glass. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013.

    Contains notes created for the title plays by an assortment of leading Miller scholars, but not the plays themselves. Very accessible overviews of five key Miller plays for the fledgling scholar. Includes a chronology of Miller’s life, along with background, detailed commentary, study questions, and a bibliography for each of the named plays.

  • Carson, Neil. Arthur Miller. 2d ed. Palgrave Modern Dramatists. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    Originally published in 1982. Updates this text to bring it up to Finishing the Picture (2004). Plays and fiction are discussed within political, social, and historical contexts, and Miller’s overall contribution in terms of language, social commitment, and religious vision is assessed. Analyzes individual works, but less engaging and detailed than Bigsby 2005, and more than three hundred pages shorter. Better suited for beginning students.

  • Desafy-Grignard, Christiane. Arthur Miller: La voix dérangeante. Voix américaines. Paris: Belin, 2001.

    Allows us insight into how France views Miller and includes information on French productions. Beginning with biographical details, analyzes several key plays in a nonchronological fashion, emphasizing topical over temporal connections. In French.

  • Hayman, Ronald. Arthur Miller. World Dramatists. New York: Ungar, 1972.

    Dated, but worthwhile for the clear explanations of thematic concerns, structural format, and language of Miller’s work, up to The Price (1968), and for its consideration of Miller from an international perspective. Good representative of earlier responses to Miller, concentrating on the connections to tragedy as well as father-son relationships.

  • Huftel, Sheila. Arthur Miller: The Burning Glass. New York: Citadel, 1965.

    Early, and often anthologized, analysis of Miller’s work, through Incident at Vichy (1964) that pays close attention to characters’ quests for self-knowledge. Of continuing interest are examinations of Miller’s dramatic theory, critical reactions to Miller’s productions both home and abroad, and the transcript of Miller’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, though this is now available elsewhere.

  • Singh, Pramila. Arthur Miller and His Plays: A Critical Study. New Delhi: H. K. Publishers, 1990.

    Begun as a doctoral thesis, this text approaches Miller’s plays as a “theatre of ideas” and elicits how Miller’s liberal imagination attempts to provoke the social conscience of his audience. Solid starting point for beginning students.

  • Viswamohan, Aysha. Arthur Miller: The Dramatist and His Universe. Chennai, India: T. R. Publications, 2005.

    Mildly hampered by difficulties of translation and of acquiring texts in India, this work offers a useful overview of Miller’s artistic life, formative influences, and techniques along with summaries of many of the best-known publications on Miller. More focused on the writing than the playwright, contains descriptions and basic commentary on nearly every play, including later works.

  • Welland, Dennis. Miller: The Playwright. 2d ed. Modern Theatre Profiles. London and New York: Methuen, 1983.

    Originally published in 1979. A founder of American studies in the United Kingdom, Welland wrote the first book-length study of Miller in print—Miller 1961, cited under Primary Texts: Fiction. Here, Miller: A Study of His Plays is revised and expanded to include works up to The American Clock (1980). Film and television are also referenced. Emphasis on Miller within American literary history and on how the plays work as theatrical pieces. Useful listing of American and British premieres.

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