Arthur Miller and the Culture of the Popular Front

Poster advertising the first Broadway production of All My Sons

 

Arthur Miller is best remembered, of course, as the writer of some classic plays of the American repertory–Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge.  These plays have become stage classics and, in some cases, staples of the high school English classroom.   Although All My Sons was recently revived in New York–in a prodcution with John Lithgow and Katie Holmes–it is a less celebrated play.  But it was Miller’s first big success, and it may reflect more directly than his later work the cultural and political milieu from which Miller emerged. 

That milieu was one of a populist leftism that was critical of the injustice and intolerance of the capitalism and sympathetic to the Communist Party and to the Soviet Union.

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New York Intellectuals of the 1940s in the News Again

Irving Kristol in 1981, by Keith Meyers of the New York Times

As I’ve mentioned–in class and in the post below on Daniel Bell–one of the striking features of New York City intellectual life in the 1940s is the fact that a rather small group of largely Jewish,  Trotsykist intellectuals from working-class, immigrant backgrounds began their careers in this world and surprisingly ended up exercising outsize influence on American culture and politics.

As it to emphasize the point, today The New York Times Sunday Book Review runs  a piece on the career of Irving Kristol–along with Bell, one of the renowned members of the “New York Intellectuals.” 

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“Cheerful and filthy and crowded”

Charles Cushman, Broome Street and Baruch Place, 1941

 

One point about New York City in the 1940s that E. B. White and Jan Morris both emphasize, and that On the Town briefly refers to, is the fact that, although the city was thriving economically, it still had large tenement districts that housed African-Americans (almost entirely in Harlem), Puerto Ricans (especially in East Harlem) , and the descendents of Eastern and Southern European immigration (mainly on the Lower East Side) in often impoverished and frequently crowded and unsanitary conditions.  Many of these neighborhoods, as White points out, would soon by transformed by the construction of large-scale public housing projects.   The tenements were often unsalubrious places, but, by contrast to the projects, they were often praised, at the time and since, for the richness and intensity of their communal life.  “Cheerful and filthy and crowded ” is the way White describes them. 

Below are some images of these neighborhoods made at the time.

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Sinatra at the Nadir

Sinatra at Liederkrantz Hall, as photographed by William Gottlieb

One topic we didn’t discuss fully when considering On the Town is the variety of interesting ways the move was intimately related to the world it depicted.   As mentioned in class, On the Town was first a Broadway musical featuring music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Comden and Green, and choreography by Jerome Robbins–all budding young stars who in the decade to come would become household names.  The movie was a vehicle for Gene Kelly, of course–who had first burst to fame in the Broadway production of Pal Joey, the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical that was made out of stories of New York lowlife by the eminent New Yorker writer John O’Hara.  When Pal Joey itself was made into a film in 1957, it would star Kelly’s friend/film protege Frank Sinatra who at that point in his career was near the apogee of his second phase of stardom. 

When he appeared in On the Town, however, in the late 1940s, Sinatra was at a legendary lowpoint his professional and personal life.  This nadir was all the more striking in that it followed very close on the heels of Sinatra’s dizzyingly rapid rise to pop stardom.

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