Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $75 hb, 739 pp
If you felt there was a touch of hubris in Baz Luhrmann’s naming his movie Australia, you may think the opening sentence of Christopher Bigsby’s biography of Arthur Miller even more startling in its pretensions: ‘This is the story of a writer, but it is also the story of America.’ Not, observe, ‘a story’, but ‘the story’. This grandiose proposition helps to account for nearly 700 dense, uncompromising pages – and they only take in the first half of Miller’s long life (1915–2005).
The big facts of Miller’s life are dealt with in such exhaustive detail that one feels it will be a long time before another biography will be needed. The Jewish background, the left-wing sympathies, the emerging writer, the marriage with Marilyn Monroe: these are the towering ‘facts’ which help us to keep our bearings in the sometimes cluttered landscape of the book. Bigsby habitually relates the writing to the life, in this matter echoing Miller himself, who claimed that his plays constituted ‘a biography of his awareness of the world’. This then is a book that makes large claims: ‘he did, indeed, change the world and continues to do so.’ Intrepidity on this scale compels both admiration and wariness.