When Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller were neighbours

They crossed paths while living close together in Reno - but the two heavyweights differed more than shared.

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“Arthur Miller is to American drama what Saul Bellow has been to the American novel,” Christopher Bigsby, a Miller specialist, wrote in 2004; and neither the comparison nor its implication of heroic achievement would have been taken as the least bit controversial. Miller and Bellow, a pair of second-generation Jewish immigrants, born in the same year, 1915, had brought new energy and purpose to forms that were suffering from the decline of a dominant figure – Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway – and had in return been consistently rewarded with badges, medals and honorary degrees. But when both writers died in 2005, less than two months apart, it was clear who was considered the greater loss.

Miller, who died first, in February, was then exclusively associated with a far­away time, the two decades following the Second World War. This was when he wrote his best plays, starting with All My Sons in 1947 and continuing, two years later, with Death of a Salesman, his requiem to Willy Loman, who after a lifetime of graft is disposed of like “a piece of fruit”. This was when Miller tackled McCarthyism – through an analogy with the Salem witch trials – in The Crucible, which premiered in 1953; when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to give the names of American communists. And this was when he married Marilyn Monroe, the star of The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot and finally The Misfits, a script that Miller, barely a playwright at all during that period, wrote in order to console her after a miscarriage.

His fortunes turned in 1964 with After the Fall, which was widely regarded as an attack on his former wife, who had died two years previously. Directed by his old friend Elia Kazan, in their first collaboration since their rift over McCarthyism, the play marked the point at which Miller started being treated as a spent force.

By the time of his death, Miller’s prospects of a healthy afterlife rested almost entirely on four old plays (the other being A View from the Bridge, initially staged in a one-act version in 1955 and extended the following year). There was also Timebends, his monumental autobiography, in which, over 600 pages, Miller provided a dignified portrait of his life and times; not just McCarthyism and Monroe but his apprentice reading of the ancient tragedians, from whom he borrowed, to quote his account of his narrative method, the “structural concept of a past stretching so far back that its origins were lost in myth, surfacing in the present and donating a dilemma to the persons on the stage, who were astounded and awestruck by the wonderful train of seeming accidents that unveiled their connections to that past”.

In 2005, the influence of this structural concept was in decline. Neither of Miller’s anointed successors, David Mamet and Tony Kushner, had produced a significant play in over a decade. Meanwhile, Edward Albee, who toppled the tragedy form favoured by Miller and Tennessee Williams with the absurdism of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, had returned to Broadway after years of exile with The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? – and his own successors, among them Bruce Norris, Neil LaBute and Paula Vogel, were going strong. Bigsby has tried to argue that Two-Way Mirror, a two-part play Miller wrote in the 1980s, was “as radical as anything else going on at the time”. But in matters of cultural reputation, the vague impression has more weight than the nuanced argument and the prevailing view was of Miller as a flyblown figure, whose later plays had little to offer to current practitioners.

And so what if his early plays were constantly being studied and revived? It wasn’t his famous work that was in question. It was everything else he had done. Around the time of Miller’s death, Kevin Spacey, in his new role as artistic director of the Old Vic, invited the film-maker Robert Altman to direct Miller’s play Resurrection Blues, which had premiered in Minneapolis in 2002. If ever there was a chance to shake up Miller’s reputation, this was it – a satirical comedy staged by a director from a non-Broadway background synonymous with free-form impudence. Michael Billington’s Guardian review, typical of the coverage, began: “I feel sorry for Arthur Miller.”

 

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Saul Bellow, by contrast, was riding a wave of adulation as high as at any point in his career. He had published a widely enjoyed novel, Ravelstein, as recently as 2000, when he was 85, the year after becoming a father for the fourth time – a fact taken by some as proof of his supernatural potency. Ravelstein marked an unexpected return to the exuberance, poignancy and intellectual synthesis displayed in The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift (which won the Pulitzer). In 2005, those vibrant, elating, structurally unsound novels were five, four and three decades old but they maintained a continuing influence over the pre-eminent American writer Philip Roth and his English counterpart Ian McEwan, whose novel Saturday, published just before Bellow’s death, began with a 200-word epigraph from Herzog, a comedy about an intellectual who, stunned by his wife’s affair with a friend, starts writing letters to “everyone under the sun”:

...[What] it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities.

Here was the “analysis of contemporary culture” that the Swedish Academy had cited when bestowing the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature. But on the whole, McEwan, like most of Bellow’s public fans, celebrated him less for his ideas about the devaluing effects of mechanised savagery than for what he did to the English language. As McEwan wrote in an obituary tribute, “[We] honour the musicality, the wit, the lovely beat of a good Bellovian line.”

Exhibit A in the case for Bellow as a champion stylist is Augie March, in which the narrator, a Jewish eccentric from Chicago, recalls his life so far as a series of menial jobs, fanciful schemes, family obligations – and American vastness:

The rest of us had to go to the dispensary – which was like the dream of a multitude of dentists’ chairs, hundreds of them in a space as enormous as an armory, and green bowls with designs of glass grapes, drills lifted zigzag as insects’ legs, and gas flames on the porcelain swivel trays – a thundery gloom in Harrison Street of limestone county buildings and cumbersome red streetcars with metal grillwork on their windows and monarchical iron whiskers of cowcatchers front and rear.

In later life, Bellow practically disowned the book. “I can’t read a page of [it] without flinching,” he told Martin Amis, who had recently published an essay pronouncing Augie March to be the Great American Novel. “Search no further,” Amis wrote, with his usual respect for alternative viewpoints. “All the trails went cold 42 years ago.” The trails hadn’t seemed quite so cold a decade earlier, when Amis called Augie March “a lecture on destiny fed through a thesaurus of low-life patois”. But according to the logic of Bellow fever, vices are liable to become strengths and Amis had simply been slow to notice that speaking about spiritual quests in the language of the street, allowing poets and academics to fraternise with wise-guy lawyers and violent gangsters, had been one of the gifts that made Bellow the greatest American novelist and the most American of great novelists.

The Augie March creation myth is frequently invoked. In 1948, Bellow was in his early thirties, married with a son and the author of a pair of tidy novels, Dangling Man and The Victim. During a miserable extended stay in Paris, he started work on a manuscript that spoke in the American vernacular he missed so much and embraced the freedoms he had previously denied himself. The opening words of the finished book provide both an expression and an embodiment of Bellow’s aim: “I am an American, Chicago-born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way...” Bellow had found a voice – or so the story goes – not just for himself but for a nation of writers.

In Timebends, Miller, who started writing Salesman around the same time, exposed this sort of myth as a kind of national propaganda: “No writer anywhere else seems to arrive on the scene in quite the American style – as though the tongue had been cut out of the past, leaving him alone to begin from the beginning... American writers spring as though from the ground itself... the better to write not the Great American Novel or Play, but verily the First.” But in the decade before Bellow’s death, no praise was too silly, implausible, or high.

As a writer, he was First and Great – maybe the Greatest. And as a man, he was a victim of mud-slinging. Rumours of bad character haunt literary reputations for centuries, a brief bout of syphilis overshadowing any number of mots justes. In 2000, James Atlas, a long-time member of the Bellow cult, became the cultists’ arch-enemy with a biography presenting Bellow as a philanderer, a negligent father, a snob and a racist.

In the opening pages of his newly published book The Life of Saul Bellow (Jonathan Cape, £35), which is authorised by the estate and billed as the “first major” account, Zachary Leader refers to “the note of resentment some have heard in Atlas’s book” before providing a gentler account. But if Atlas could be moany and cynical, he nonetheless provided a gripping narrative, whereas Leader’s 800-page riposte, which only covers the first 50 years (he doesn’t make it to the snob/racist days), is heavy with odd detail. Leader writes that “essences grow out of particulars, many of them social”, but he stretches this category to justify the inclusion of virtually any fact he happened to come across, any thought that pops into his head.

When we reach the writing of Augie March, Leader, a Romantic scholar, devotes a page to drawing a “parallel... with the experience of Wordsworth”. But when he gets to the period in 1956 when Bellow and Arthur Miller were neighbours in Reno, Nevada, sitting out the six-week residency required to gain a divorce, Leader shuns the opportunity to define Bellow in relation to an exact contemporary, also at odds with his background (Bellow read Lenin in a coal delivery office; Miller read Tolstoy between fixing cars), also involved in Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, also rejected for military service, also reared on Marxist theory and concerned with the fragile status of the individual man in a city, a century, a mass, and so on. In a book bursting with allusions to forgotten book reviews, he doesn’t mention that Bellow had written about Miller’s novel Focus. (He complained that the heroism of Miller’s central character was “clipped to his lapel like a delegate’s badge at a liberal convention”.)

Life in Reno was quiet. The “biggest event” of a typical day, Miller recalled, came when Bellow spent “half an hour up behind a hill a half-mile from the cottages empty­ing his lungs roaring at the stillness, an exercise in self-contact, I supposed”. Once a week, Bellow drove him to town in his Chevrolet to do shopping and laundry.

The writers, two decades after starting out, a decade after making their first mark, were at the pinnacle of their professions, Miller a Pulitzer winner, Bellow a National Book Award-winner. But Bellow’s second wife, Sondra, in a letter that Leader doesn’t quote, recalled that she “never heard a single literary exchange” between the two writers, not least because Miller “talked non-stop” about Marilyn Monroe – “her career, her beauty, her talent, even her perfect feet... all quite enlightening since neither Mr Bellow nor I had ever even heard of her before this”. Back in New York, the couples became friends. One night, at dinner in Little Italy, an area where Monroe, having recently left Joe DiMaggio, was unpopular, they had to make a quick escape to avoid potential mob violence. (Bellow and Monroe later dined alone: “I have yet to see anything in Marilyn that isn’t genuine,” he wrote. “Surrounded by thousands she conducts herself like a philosopher.”)

Sondra Bellow said that if there was a “bond” – her quotation marks – between Bellow and Miller, it had less to do “with their being writers, and more to do with their being in somewhat the same place”. She also recalled that Bellow didn’t consider Miller “a real intellectual (like the Partisan Review crowd)”. Miller would have agreed. In Timebends, he wrote that Bellow, who spent most of his life teaching in universities – Bard, Princeton and, for more than 30 years, Chicago – had brought with him a library of books “large enough for a small college”. (When Miller packed up his things, all his possessions – apart from his typewriter – could be carried in a single valise.) On the whole, Miller was more practical-minded. He saw no benefit in ideas as an end in themselves and thought hard about art’s importance in a changing society. He called Trotskyism, the creed that Bellow and the Partisan Review crowd belonged to before their rightward shift, “a New York literary phenomenon rather than anything else”.

Looking back – speaking not of the Partisan Review group but the Tuley High School gang, Chicago schoolyard crazes rather than New York literary phenomena – Bellow separated his ideological from his literary interests: “Through ‘revolutionary politics’ we met the demands of the times for action. But what really mattered was the vital personal nourishment we took from Dostoevsky or Herman Melville, from Dreiser and John Dos Passos and Faulkner.”

For all they shared, their writing shows a chasm in temperaments. Miller spoke about changing minds, Bellow about transforming souls. Miller wanted to tell rigorously constructed stories of grey-faced representative figures: Willy Loman is “a” salesman, just as for the people of Manhattan, life in Red Hook is just a view from the Brooklyn Bridge. Bellow wrote with unbuttoned fluency about candy-coloured “superior men”, men who, in their total specificity, demand to have their name in the title. If Miller’s vision is tragic, Bellow’s is manic-depressive – hysterical high spirits and crippling lows.

And though Miller’s America is to some extent a failed utopia, a gigantic lie, he believed that a reformed society would be the site of man’s fulfilment. In Bellow’s work, especially Mr Sammler’s Planet, Humboldt’s Gift and The Dean’s December, the world out there, the “moronic inferno” (a phrase he took from Wyndham Lewis), is a betrayal of America’s spiritual potential, a permanent enemy of the inner life. A newly published book of Bellow’s essays – misleadingly billed as “Collected Non-Fiction” but nonetheless full of eloquent, thrilling stuff – carries the characteristic title There Is Simply Too Much to Think About.

 

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Today, Miller’s approach doesn’t seem any more relevant or vital than it did a decade ago but death is kinder to writers who have long been out of fashion. Recent form and continuing influence become matters of no concern. No one minds if a dead writer’s lore or legend belongs to a faraway period. (“That Scott Fitzgerald is so 1920s.”) In the past decade, there have been Broadway productions directed by Gregory Mosher, Simon McBurney and Mike Nichols – and featuring Scarlett Johansson, Katie Holmes and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And the RSC summer season has opened not with Lear or Shylock but Antony Sher’s red-faced, cranky Willy Loman, limping and wheezing through his memory vault to discover where it all went wrong for his marriage, his career, his former hero-jock son Biff.

Back in 2005, Bellow was enjoying a boom that still could have turned to bust – and did. In the years since his death, his name has shrunk so much that one of his loudest admirers, Lee Siegel, recently referred to his “fall from literary grace” without even bothering to back up the assertion. No one has successfully knocked Bellow down but he is no longer a pervasive force, the mainstream’s tutelary spirit. Roth is retired; the McEwan moment has passed. When self-consciously American fiction was in the ascendant, it helped Bellow to be seen as a father or grandfather figure, the first through the door. If American cultural imperialism has not disappeared, it has grown a sense of self-consciousness, even shame, and become less besotted with its own Americanism. And so for the moment Bellow seems, as Miller once did, like a creature of a particular time – roughly, 1956, the summer he went grocery shopping with Arthur Miller. Recent books by Lawrence Buell, Mark Greif and Edward Mendelson, prominent academics working on the US east coast, have presented him as an ethnic, philosophical and moral writer of a specifically mid-century American kind.

The problem with abstracting Bellow the stylist from his cranky metaphysics (he fell for every passing fad) and unhelpful politics (first idealistic, then paranoid) is that it leaves his reputation vulnerable to the prevailing winds of the “literary” culture. As Joan Acocella put it not long before Bellow’s death, “Augie is no longer riding a wave of progressive politics. One must love the book on artistic grounds.” In an age of environmental crisis, corporate mendacity, political confusion and technological mania, that doesn’t seem quite enough.

Of the two writers, it is Miller who, in writing about man’s earthly and economic relations, seems more often eligible for the benefits provided by topical resonance. In 2002, during the Enron scandal, he was engulfed with requests to stage All My Sons, a play that turns on an act of destructive cost-cutting. The same year, Richard Eyre’s Broadway production of The Crucible was given an op-ed dimension, after the passing of the Patriot Act. In his essay “What Makes Plays Endure?”, Miller noted that a Salesman revival staged in Paris was better received than the original run because the French were by that point suffering “the chromed anxiety of a society where nothing deserves existence that doesn’t pay”. And now, in its ongoing Stratford run, Miller’s wrenching tale of hardship surely acquires an extra layer of unease by playing to an austerity audience that, somewhere in the back of its collective mind, must be ruing the cost of the ticket.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!