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'Michigan was a place That respected one's confusion which it countered not with doctrine but the freedom to search and the instruments for it.'

'The idea that a university cared that much about writing made it necessary to go there'— Arthur Miller.

(Editor's note: One of the most charming accounts we have seen about how a young man came to Michigan — and what he learned in Ann Arbor — was written a dozen years ago by Arthur Miller, the famed playwright who earned his AB at Michigan in 1936.

The winner of two Avery Hopwood Awards for drama while on campus, Miller, of course, went on to write All My Sons, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, Incident at Vichy and Death of a Salesman.

Miller's reminiscence is especially timely because his new play, The American Clock, is scheduled to open on Broadway this month.

His moving account of why he chose Michigan as his university, his fear of failure, and his early writing efforts first appeared in Our Michigan, a 1966 University of Michigan publication edited by the late Erich Walter. It is reprinted here with permission.)

I graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1932, and after the ceremony walked home the three miles along Ocean Parkway, the broad, tree lined avenue that cuts through Brooklyn from Prospect Park to the beach at Coney Island. It was a great day, and I was scared. I could throw my rumpled notebooks away now, I could spend the summer swimming and doing odd-jobs, but even on that fine June afternoon I could feel winter coming and the neighborhood emptied of my friends who would be off to college or jobs and 'life."

The worry killed a lot of the fun of swimming; it made the summer laughter a little hollow, and by July I was feeling the vagrant wasting of time. I went to Macy's one day for a job; there was a line of nicely dressed young men in front of me. Many of them already had degrees and were hoping for selling jobs. I went to the shipping companies to find a crew I could join, but practiced seamen were leaning against the buildings, unemployed. The father of a friend gave me a job driving a truck for awhile, another friend fixed me up with a job waiting on tables in a hotel. I dreamed of getting rich singing on the radio, and finally I answered an ad and was taken on as an order-filler and crate-opener in a warehouse. The pay was good, fifteen dollars a week for six days.

I had joined an aristocracy, the employed who could open a paper at the front instead of the back where the "Help Wanted" ads were. The warehouse was sweltering in summer, freezing in winter, the air glittered with dust motes. Love and fistfights went on in the freight elevator, people lived and died and no end in sight. Sometimes on Saturday afternoons when the house was empty it was a relief to write letters. They were never addressed to anyone and had no goal. They were simply attempts to freeze the river of words I was hearing all week, to slow down and inspect the changing expressions of the people I worked with. The shape and texture of the great cast-iron floor scale in the shipping room was itself a subject, and the pearly color of the air tinted by the gray unwashed windows and the gold and green rainbows imbedded in the gears we handled. To draw the wrinkles in the manager's eyes could take an afternoon. Without the pleasure of these letters, the fate I sensed in the warehouse was too dry, remorseless, down-going.

The idea of going to Michigan came from an acquaintance who worked in a grocery store and had been at the University for one year. The tuition was within reason, if one saved for a couple of years, but the thing that clinched it was the Hopwood Awards. I felt if I could write I would tell things no one else had ever seen, but I was ignorant and had in fact been a bad student.  The idea that a University cared that much about writing made it necessary to go there. I had never had intellectual companions or so much as laid eyes on a writer. To this day my high-school years are a nearly complete blank. I saved my money for two years and arrived in Ann Arbor terrified I would be sent away very soon. It was not only that I found I could pass tests, but that the students around me were plain people, children of mechanics as well as lawyers, auto workers as well as businessmen — and that the teachers were similarly free of condescension.

The democratic air was both comfortable and a challenge to excel. But probably the best pleasure was the small town itself. Cut-throat New York was far away.  There was the blessing of time here. Without ever formulating it at all, I had come to Michigan for honest, expert answers. Could I hope to become a writer Why had the Depression happened Who was the best writer in America Why What, really, was Fascism Marxism

In the warehouse nobody had known anything. Here there would be an expert for every question.  An order existed if one only knew how to find it.

The freshman year passed and I was not thrown out. But I was running out of money. The University gave me a loan. I took it as an act of respect. There wasn't much of that anywhere else. Across the hall lived Jim Doll, a graduate student and native of Ann Arbor, who made the costumes for the stage productions.  He was six and a half feet tall, thin as a wire, his room was packed with Bishops' costumes for Henry VIII, and the mere fact that he had stepped onto a stage at all made him an expert. What I wanted to know was how long an act of a play usually ran. He said, about half an hour or so.

Spring vacation came. Everyone left. I started writing a letter to no one in particular, this time in dialogue. Suddenly, what I had never been able to make began to make itself — the unspoken feelings between the words people spoke, the lines between the lines. For the first time the changing of a single word made a tremendous difference. There was, in short, a form. I have never again known the total excitement of that discovery and I slept perhaps six hours that week and finished a play.

The next feeling was terror. My English professor, Erich Walter, was a great listener but a very careful agreer. He was capable of liking half a sentence but not the other half, and here I was, handing him a hundred and twenty pages of writing. That he not only had enjoyed reading it, but then read it to the class was high triumph. And when I saw the students laughing, growing tense, absorbed in the miracle of words, the last doubt disappeared. Here was Order. The faces, the words, the silences I had seen in life were frozen, held, brought to climax and dispelled.  All that remained was perhaps a few months and I would be produced on Broadway (somehow) and that was that.

I entered Professor Kenneth Rowe's playwriting class. Not too slowly the truth began to dawn.  There might well be years of work ahead. A few better plays had been written in the world before mine. Rowe administered the kind of criticism that is hardest to take and most necessary of all — based on common sense. For a playwright it is the only criticism that is necessary, the rest is talk. But equally important to me then was Rowe's calm, quiet refusal to encourage dreams of sudden glory and at the same time his sympathy with those dreams. So that after winning two Hopwoods and failing the third time, the blow fell with something less than devastating force. His example had helped to lay up standards and goals of a very private sort for a very public art. The theater was not a carousel one jumped onto but an instrument one had to learn to play.  Rowe did not lead, he accompanied. Maybe that is Michigan's most endearing quality for me. It was a place that respected one's confusion which it countered not with doctrine but the freedom to search and the instruments for it. I hope in this respect it will never change.

The Michigan Alumnus

November 1980, Page 17


By Arthur Miller, ‘36