The Influence of Arthur Miller on American Theater and Culture and the Global Implications of His Plays
Susan C.W. Abbotson
Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was the author of essays, journals, short stories, a novel, and a children’s book, but is best known for his more than two dozen plays, which include the seminal American dramas Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. A staunch patriot and humanist, Miller’s work conveys a deeply moral outlook whereby all individuals have a responsibility both to themselves and to the society in which they must live. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miller maintained his optimism that despite humanity’s unfortunate predisposition toward betrayal, people could transcend this and be better. In the creation of Death of a Salesman, along with its director Elia Kazan and designer Jo Mielziner, Miller brought a new style of play to the American stage which mixes the techniques of realism and expressionism; this has since been dubbed “subjective realism” and provoked a redefinition of what tragedy might mean to a modern audience. Influenced by the social-problem plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the experimental poetics of Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams, and the inventive staging of Thornton Wilder, Miller created his own brand of drama that often explored macrocosmic social problems within the microcosm of a troubled family. Though he is viewed as a realist by some critics, his work rarely conforms to such limitations, and his entire oeuvre is notable for its experimentation in both form and subject matter, with only his inherent philosophical beliefs to provide connection. For Miller, people need to understand that they are products of their pasts, and that it is inevitable that “the birds come home to roost,” but through acknowledging this and actively owning any guilt attached, individuals and society can improve.
Miller was raised in a largely secular Jewish environment, and his morality has a Judaic inflection and he wrote several plays featuring Jewish characters; however, his themes address universal issues and explore the impact of the past, the role of the family, and a variety of belief systems from capitalism to socialism, along with providing lessons in responsibility and connection, and exploring the abuses and misuses of power. His works provide insight into the heart of human nature in all its horror and glory, including its capacity for love and sacrifice as well as denial and betrayal. Miller was able to see both the comedy and tragedy within the human condition. His driving concern was to make a difference, and it was through his writing that he found his means.
US Latina/o literature is shaped by the hierarchical relationship between Spanish and English in the United States. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, writers working in various genres have explored this linguistic relationship by representing the interaction between English and Spanish in their literary works. Within a broader context of bilingual literary creation, many Latina/o writers have innovated with Spanish and English in ways that trouble the boundaries between these languages and, by extension, their relationship. In response to these literary experimentations, scholars have developed a range of perspectives to analyze writing that cannot be fully described by the term bilingual. Juan Bruce-Novoa proposes the term interlingual to analyze texts that do not treat Spanish and English as separate, independent codes but rather place the languages in a state of relation that makes a purely monolingual reading impossible. Frances Aparicio approaches this writing through the framework of tropicalization, a term that signals both dominant US cultural stereotypes about Latina/os as well as subaltern responses to those stereotypes. While Bruce-Novoa generally focuses on texts that include a high volume of both Spanish and English, Aparicio highlights the work of Latina/o writers, like Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, and Helena María Viramontes, who work primarily or exclusively in English. Aparicio traces the presence of Spanish in seemingly monolingual works through strategies like the use of literal translation and the phonetic representation of accent in English dialogue. She analyzes these strategies as sources of linguistic tension and literary creativity that transform the experiences of both monolingual and bilingual readers. Walter Mignolo offers a third perspective on bilingual writing, approaching it through the framework of decolonial theory. Like Bruce-Novoa, Mignolo highlights the creative use of the space between distinct languages. He argues that writers, like Gloria Anzaldúa, who operate in this liminal space participate in an active process of social transformation by denouncing and re-imagining hierarchical, colonial relationships between languages and cultures. While Bruce-Novoa, Aparicio, and Mignolo offer distinct perspectives on Latina/o writing between languages, they share a recognition of creative work that moves beyond the mere coexistence of Spanish and English to create meaning in the messy interaction between languages. In doing so, these creative and critical writers challenge their audiences to new modes of reading literature as well as of imagining linguistic, cultural, and political relationships between English and Spanish.
Modern Japanese literature emerged as Japan asserted itself as a military-industrial power from the end of the 19th through the early 20th centuries. The subject of modern literature was worthy of a seat at the table of the world’s powers, or so goes the story of a literary canon all too often focused on the legitimacy of elites. But modern literature is not only about a male alienated intellectual failing to have a satisfying relationship. During the international “red decade” (1925–1935), proletarian writers in Japan as elsewhere sought to harness and transform the technology of modern literature in order to represent the hitherto un- or underrepresented women and men, peasants and factory workers, elderly and children in order to bring the masses into consciousness of their collective power. For a decade, nearly every writer in Japan engaged the energetic but often divided proletarian movement as they sought to grasp the challenges of a rapidly modernizing society, transformation in the family and gender, dual economy, worldwide depression, and escalating imperialism.
Largely overlooked during the Cold War, this important decade of modern literature has experienced a well-deserved scholarly and popular revival in a period of 21st-century precarity, protests against privilege, and questioning of media and representation. Two exemplars from proletarian literature—Hayama Yoshiki’s “The Prostitute” (1925) and Miyamoto Yuriko’s “The Breast” (1935)—offer a frame to apprehend the richness of genre, voice, storytelling, experimentation, and ethics in proletarian literature, a vital part of modern literature.
To consider the most influential Argentine writer of the 20th century within the South American cultural and historical framework implies going deeper in a literature that put the periphery—the margins, the minor literature—forward as a particular place of enunciation, not only by destiny but also by choice, as an imaginary place of freedom derived from the lack of cultural tradition tied to a territory.
After some years in Europe as a youth, in 1921, Jorge Luis Borges went back to Buenos Aires, where he took part in avant-garde projects and little magazines, as well as in mass circulation publishing and journalistic endeavors. It was in this junction of Modernism and mass culture that, from the 1930s, he began to create his sophisticated fictions, which fully exploited the resources of a second-hand culture, made of hybrid genres, clippings, displacements, plagiarism, and mistranslations, making artistic innovations from some of the most usual practices in printed culture. In the following decade, his anti-Hispanism and his appreciation of certain forms of Argentinian orality were paradoxically combined with his militancy against nationalism. The peripheral condition he addressed in one of his most famous essays (“The Argentine Writer and Tradition”), which stands as a theoretical and critical locus that could decenter Western tradition in its entirety, was an argument stated from a particular time and place against the realism and the nationalism that predominated in the vernacular literary field. His opinions on literary, cultural, or political matters (veiled, as in “The Aleph,” or more visible, as in his anti-Peronist texts “L’Illusion Comique,” “The Monster’s Feast,” and “The Mountebank”) present a minefield of controversial interventions in the Argentinian disputes of his time and account for a specifically Borgesian way—self-interested, instrumental, strategic—of taking part in the dilemmas of the history and the culture that he was part of.
Borges has sparked various responses throughout time in Argentina. Some milestones are the tributes to him by the Megáfono group, in 1933, and by Sur magazine in the 1940s, the Contorno patricide trial in the following decade, the Borges “for the masses” in the 1970s, and the generalized rejection of his support for military dictatorships (the one that overthrew Perón in 1955 and the one that began in 1976). In 2009, the literary experiment of a young writer using one of the most famous short stories by Borges gave rise to a lawsuit for copyright fraud, which, in turn, triggered intellectual debates on literary heritage in a socially significant and broader sense, reinstating the problematic—and not merely legal—character of literary property. A well-nourished history tells how, in Argentina, consecutive generations of authors, critics, and readers have dealt with one of their most challenging and intense writers, wondering how to read him, how to get away from the fascination he causes, and how to make his powerful legacy their own.
The creative writing of landscape and environment is riding high on the research agendas of a number of scholarly fields. In literary studies, ecocriticism has seen attempts to map a set of characteristics that constitute an environmentally oriented text, often with the result that nonfiction writing (or, less often, poetry) is the form prioritized. By contrast, fiction has been seen as less capable of embracing landscape and environment because it is concerned first and foremost with human affairs and has taken the narrative shapes that typically accompany this emphasis. However, the postwar and contemporary period has seen extensive formal experimentation running counter to this set of assumptions. First, novelists concerned with landscape and environment have found ways to demonstrate the implication of human history in natural history. Second, nonfiction writers have recognized that they might profitably deploy literary forms and techniques usually associated with fiction in their writing of landscape and environment. The upshot has been a generic coalescence and the emergence of landscape writing as a category that straddles habitual divisions in the way that literary forms are conceived. The plasticity of the environment—for better or worse—has registered in urban and rural settings, as well as those that fall somewhere between this (perhaps outmoded) binary. The increasingly unavoidable knowledge of the consequences of human actions upon the environment form an important context for the falling away of older forms such as the nature novel and act as a spur to re-conceptualize both places and ways to write about them.
Joshua Clover and Christopher Nealon
“Value” is a concept structured by confusing relations between its social-ethical and its economic meanings (“I agree with your values”; “the sweater is a great value at that price”). The two meanings cannot be kept separate, but the negotiation of their relation has vexed theories of artistic and literary value since at least the rise of the discourse of aesthetics in the 18th century. Early attempts to separate aesthetic value from its economic counterpart involved analogies between what were understood to be different cognitive faculties (reason and emotion, say), and relations among competing claims to political standing (between the bourgeoisie and the sovereign, most of all). Liberal American conversations about literary and economic value after World War II worried over part-whole relations in terms of debates about the value of individual literary works in what seemed to be an ever-expanding multicultural canon. Postwar literary theories of economic and aesthetic value in a more Marxist vein turned to various narratives of the “subsumption” of social life by economic values: sometimes imagining that subsumption as a fatal error on the part of capitalism, since sociability is too unruly finally to organize according to economic principles, or as a terrible victory for a capitalism that had now transformed into something qualitatively different and more sinister, like a “bio-power.” But even these Marxist literary theories tended to ignore contemporary work in history, historical sociology, and critical theory that identified changes in the relation between what had once seemed to be at least notionally separate aesthetic and economic “spheres” not with subsumption per se, but with a crisis in capital’s ways of producing profitable surplus value, and exchangeable use values. Seen from the vantage of this scholarship, it becomes clear that not only do most discourses on the specific value of the aesthetic tend to lean too heavily on spatialized domain models of art and economics (which conceive of them as occupying, in reality or potential, different regions), but also this persistently demanded separation of art and economics rests in turn on a false distinction between politics and economics. Rethinking the specificity of art and literature without thinking of it as a separate sphere, or as necessarily resistant to capital, is a research project for the coming decades.
What is the literary marketplace, and what is the relationship between literature and the marketplace? The decades since the end of World War II have seen enormous changes in the economics of literary production: the book trade has grown, consolidated, and globalized; chain bookstores have replaced independent booksellers; and technological advancements have transformed how books are produced and how readers shop for, acquire, and read them. With these changes, questions about how the literary marketplace has mattered to literary history have been asked with increasing urgency, and the histories of those institutions that engage in producing, distributing, and selling literature have received increasing amounts of scholarly attention. Where the market was once understood to be a kind of implacable antagonist to literature, and literature once defined by virtue of its opposition to, and essential difference from, goods that are mass-produced, today the fields of book history, the sociology of literature, and literary studies itself frequently highlight the marketplace as a producer of modern and contemporary literature and—for better or worse—as a necessary context for it. What caused this shift, and what are its implications for literary study and for the idea of literature itself? How is a marketplace devoted specifically to the rarefied category of literature distinguished from the book trade generally, and how might one distinguish literature from nonliterature when both are produced by the same set of mostly commercial institutions? Answers to these questions depend in large part on the evolving, and surprisingly elusive, concept of a “literary marketplace” itself.
The continued growth of the Asian American population in the US South has redefined the region in terms of its economy, culture, and identity. While the literature associated with the region predominantly focuses on whites and African Americans, several narratives explore the experiences of Asian Americans. These texts span a variety of genres, including memoirs, young adult fiction, and historical analyses. From Chinese immigrant laborers who migrated to the Mississippi Delta during Reconstruction to second-generation Korean Americans growing up in the suburbs of northern Virginia, Asian Americans in the South engender more nuanced interpretations of concepts like race, region, and place-based identities. Writers of Asian descent like Monique Truong and Cynthia Kadohata as well as non-Asian writers like Cynthia Shearer and Robert Olen Butler illustrate the ways in which Asian immigration complicates long-standing notions of Southern culture and identity. Some of their works address the ambiguities of segregation-era racial politics as those defined as neither white nor African American struggle to navigate their place along the color line. These texts feature local-born southerners who perceive Asians as outsiders and in turn, establish both overt and subtler forms of exclusion and surveillance to maintain control. However, the growing visibility of Asians in the region also hints at the possibility of new multiracial and multiethnic coalitions and new communal identities centered on the shared struggle against economic, political, and social inequalities. Several narratives set in the post-Jim Crow South underscore the global networks that connect the South to the rest of the world. Writers have used and continue to employ the Asian American figure as a means to destabilize the white–black racial binary that has long characterized the Southern literary tradition and position the South in a broader, more global context. The emergence of Asian Americans in addition to Latinos and indigenous populations on the Southern literary landscape highlights the diverse cultures and histories that mark the South not as a monolith but rather as a region experiencing constant transformation.
Few chapters of Australian history reveal more about the shifting social, cultural, and political climate of a nation torn between its European roots and its Asian destiny than the story of Chinese migration and settlement. From the Chinese diggers in the gold rush of the mid-19th century, through the long period of discrimination and exclusion during the White Australia policy (1901–1970s) to recent decades of mass migration and extensive transnational traffic, China has been, and arguably remains, Australia’s privileged Other, and Chinese Australia a barometer for testing the nation’s commitment to the policy of multiculturalism. Chinese Australian writers imaginatively trace and interrogate this history, at the same time reflecting the heterogeneity of the community and debating their allegiance to the host nation and to a real as well as mythical China.
The first literary writing to emerge from the Chinese community in Australia was published in the Chinese language press in Sydney and Melbourne around the turn of the 20th century. It reflected the community’s passionate involvement in the political events of China in the lead-up to the republican revolution of 1911, but also their opposition to the White Australia policy and efforts to educate the lower classes to abstain from cultural practices unacceptable to the Australian mainstream, such as gambling, opium smoking, and polygamy. After a long hiatus, Chinese-language writing again blossomed in the 1990s, a direct consequence of the new wave of migration from mainland China following the opening-up policy of the 1980s and the crushing of the protest movement in 1989. Once again, this writing was community oriented, reflecting both their attitudes to the political climate in China and the challenges facing the new migrants in their integration into an at times hostile host culture.
The story of Chinese Australian writing in English is quite different, in terms of both the writers’ background and the nature of their output. The majority of writers are ethnic Chinese who arrived in Australia from Southeast Asia or Hong Kong, often educated in English and conversant with Western as well as Asian cultures. For these writers, and for those born in Australia, China is a distant, often ambiguous, cultural memory, and questions of identity are tied up with complex individual histories and hybrid ethnicities. From positions at the same time inside and outside the dominant culture, they engage with identity and belonging in innovative ways, writing into being a “Chineseness” that owes less to cultural roots than to their negotiation between community expectations and personal memory. Refusing to be pigeonholed or confined to conventional themes of diasporic writing, Chinese Australian writers respond to their diverse cultural and literary heritage and lived experience by inventing selves, voices, and stories that reflect the complexity of contemporary life at the intersection of local, (multi)national, and global perspectives.
On January 1, 1901, Australia became a nation; six British colonies—New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, and Tasmania—joined to form the Commonwealth of Australia. At the time of Federation, debates raged over who or what constituted a new national type; the forms best suited to convey the values these figures represented; and the proper settings for their stories. These arguments were had not only with aesthetic interests in mind but with a conscious awareness, or conviction, that literature had a special role to play in establishing what was (thought to be) unique about this new nation. Alliances between literature and the Australian nation have been observed, perpetuated, and contested since at least the last decades of the 19th century, and the result has been multiple imaginings of Australia with many conflicting ideas and interests at play. From the notion that Australia, as a “new nation,” might present white women with the opportunity to shed oppressive gender identities to indigenous knowledge systems questioning the very idea and authority of the nation, literary imaginings of Australia speak to national myths and political interventions alike.