Early last summer Prof. Tom Greenfield began sketching out an “Influence and Legacy of Arthur Miller” course for the first semester of the English department’s new course, ENGL 203: Reader and Text. He knew that most students would have already encountered Miller’s most famous plays, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Adding Miller’s All My Sons
and other plays to a preliminary reading list, Greenfield began addressing the Reader and Text learning outcome of having students “demonstrate an understanding of . . the kinds of questions that are constitutive of the discipline.”
For a course on Miller that meant exploring such issues as:
- the synthesis of Greek classicism and the 19th-century European naturalistic drama of Henrik Ibsen that informs Miller’s most important work
- the compression of 20th-century American drama criticism around Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams as well as attendant debates over inclusion, diversity, and canon
- how relatively recent modes of criticism, such as gender studies or Reader-Response theory, generate new interpretations of established works and invite reconsiderations of their aesthetic value and historical significance
During that period, in a coincidence that arose as if dramatically contrived, Greenfield received in the mail the latest volume of the Arthur Miller Journal (AMJ), the publication of the Arthur Miller Society. “I glanced at the table of contents,” Greenfield said, “and my jaw dropped ”:
All My Sons: A Play by Arthur Miller and Henrik Ibsen
Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: The Magic Informing Both Plays
Death of a Salesman and Postwar Masculine Malaise
“Here,” thought Greenfield, “was all this new research in the field aligned perfectly with my new course outline and delivered in plenty of time for me to use it.
Intending to upload the volume to myCourses, Greenfield sought permission from Dr. Stephen Marino of St. Francis College, founding editor of the journal and a co-founder of the Arthur Miller Society. “On a whim,” Greenfield recalls, “I also asked him if he happened to have 25 additional copies our bookstore could purchase at a discount for re-sale to students as a course text.” Marino was so delighted to learn that a class on Arthur Miller was serving as an introduction to the formal study of English, he donated 25 copies of the journal: “We can’t have your students paying $12.50 each for these volumes,” he said. “They’re yours.”
Fast forward to January 2014. Greenfield’s students take the journals in hand (literally) and put them right to work. Prof. Susan Abbotson’s published review of a recent production of All My Sons provided students with an early opportunity to debate who really owns the meaning of a play’s performed text: the writer or the director (the latter being, first and foremost, a reader). As Teaching Assistant Megan Nolan (English ’14) explains, “Miller opens All My Sons with stage directions to cloister the one-set, modest suburban backyard ‘(with) tall, closely planted poplars which lend the yard a secluded atmosphere.’ Yet, as explained by Abbotson in “Performance Reviews: All My Sons” (The Arthur Miller Journal, vol 8. no. 1, 2013) , ‘There are no poplars and no privacy’” in director Julianne Boyd’s staging of the play.
A 1940’s play about a prosperous manufacturer’s efforts to hide his war-time crimes, All My Sons’ newspaper-era text demands that his secluded yard visually represent the illusion that we can stave off, perhaps forever, public discovery of our secret sins. The 2012 viral video-era production, however, will have none of that.
The students went right at the argument raised by Abbotson’s review. Some contended that by removing the poplars and exposing the protagonist’s yard to full view, a production could shatter the false promise of private life in post-war America while maintaining the integrity of textual interpretation. Others asserted that keeping the poplars both holds faith with the author’s words and establishes the play’s visual landscape from the manufacturer’s compelling but false vision of his home as an inviolate sanctuary from public exposure and moral accountability.
In addition, the AMJ articles provided excellent models for writing literary criticism. Early on, Greenfield had the students read through one opening paragraph after another in class. “As the openings to these articles demonstrated,” Greenfield noted, “critical writing ‘gets down to business’ very quickly. The specificity and sharp analytical focus of the initial paragraphs — even the first sentences — came as a surprise to many students.”
Greenfield is still discovering ways to apply the students’ journals for the class. Besides scholarly writings, the journal posts notices on Society business, information on upcoming “Miller-related” conferences and events, and other cues as to how literary associations support the professional study of literature. “I recall from my own undergraduate and even graduate studies how remote and strange scholarly societies seemed,” Greenfield said. “Having students in possession of their own journals should bridge some of the gaps between the classroom and the profession itself — both of which, after all, are comprised of readers and texts.”