Echoes Down The Corridor (1), by Arthur Miller*

* I wrote most of this essay in April, 2017, never published it for no particular reason. Despite some obsolescence which I will not repair, I am publishing it in August, 2017.

Like the subject of my previous essay (The Uncollected Edmond Wilson), Arthur Miller’s Echoes Down The Corridor is a collection of essays from a prolific American literary figure. Miller is probably best known as the playwright behind The Death of A Salesman and The Crucible but, like Wilson, he contributed essays to a variety of newspapers and magazines, and advocated for the global literary community. Also like Wilson, he seemed particularly empathetic to ethnic writers in the Soviet Union, whose government suppressed not only their writing, but their language and culture.

While the two were born 20 years apart (Wilson in 1895, Miller in 1915), I see considerable overlap in the topics they chose to write about.  (That, or their editors share market research. Nah, I’m kidding.) Most seem like “no-brainers”; no essayist who lived through these events would not write about them. For example, consider the Depression, socialism and its mutations in the thirties, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and McCarthyism.

I enjoyed both texts, but Miller’s voice appeals to me more than Wilson’s. Even though both authors prepared these essays for publication in newspapers and magazines, Miller’s read less like “reportage” than Wilson’s. No wonder, Wilson’s acted as editor of publications like Vanity Fair and The Atlantic at various times, which suggests a level of traditional professionalism, while Miller contributed in more of an “op-ed” capacity: more freely, less- or un-fettered by the publication’s tone and conventions; more like correspondence from a (naturally eloquent) friend: thoughtfully composed, yes, yet simultaneously somewhat extemporaneous and, as a whole, earnest and unaffected.

Essays seem to be arranged in more or less chronological order, by topic if not when Miller put pen to paper, beginning with an amusing sketch of Brooklyn in the twenties. At various times throughout the decade, while Miller worked as a delivery boy for a baker, his father pulled off at least one amazing prank on his brother (Arthur’s uncle) (pg 2-3) and his grandfather nearly died of “general discouragement” (but went on to live another 10 years as if the scare had never happened) (pg 11).

In the same essay, Miller relates the story of Nick, a amusing and even uplifting Depression-era story. In summary, Miller’s aunt took pity on a vagrant, Nick, who asked if he could wash her windows in exchange for a meal. She also let him sleep in the cellar. The next morning, to her and her husband’s surprise, Nick had set the table and cooked them breakfast. It turns out, he worked in culinary on cruise ships for years. They all hit it off- he lived with them for the next 20 years (pg 11) 🙂

Miller’s humanity is contagious. I smiled while reading about his childhood in A Boy Grew In Brooklyn, and I felt contrite while reading Guilt and Incident at Vichy, an essay about Miller’s impetus for writing the play Incident at Vichy. While it ostensibly concerns Nazism, Miller explains the theme is really “individual relationships with injustice and violence” (pg 70). His take on the theme is an interesting one: ultimately, he wants to explore “those who side with justice and their implication in the evils they oppose” (pg 71), and poses this provocative question:

Is it too much to say that those who do not suffer injustice have a vested interest in injustice?

The implication is: if, while there is injustice in the world, some individual does not suffer from it, what is that individual’s relationship to it?

For example, when we entrust thousands of our dollars in investment products managed by [who knows], might that money finance injustice of some kind? For example, consider Wells Fargo’s 2016 scam (which, in the scheme of things, isn’t the strongest example): in sum, over a period of five years, thousands of employees created millions of (new) accounts for existing customers. Customers did not ask for new accounts, and Wells Fargo (intentionally) did not tell customers they created those accounts. Ergo, fees!

Obviously, the employees who created those accounts are immediately responsible, although many would say they were “just following orders.” As such, responsibility also lies with management, right? (Yes, of course, even though the CEO resigned amidst the fallout with NINE FIGURE severance package.) But even furthermore, management makes decisions to please shareholders, so responsibility must also lie with shareholders.

Now, let’s consider it even more broadly: what about customers? Do the customers of businesses which commit wrongs (even destruction, violence) share the responsibility?

I’m not insinuating something simplistic like “its a scam victim’s own fault he or she was scammed,” but customers who invest their money in a bank expect it to “make” money and to pay interest, and people who borrow (obviously) need the bank to keep soluble (“make” money). In some sense, the role of customers mirrors shareholders, no? They expect the bank to make money- somehow.

In any case, the point is not to level blame, it’s to think about our relationships to unjust systems. I mentioned the Wells Fargo scam isn’t the greatest example- sorry, lazy decision*- but it shouldn’t take too much imagination to apply the theme to other cases.

Here’s a more provocative example posed by Miller:

How much of <a white person’s> sense of personal value, how much of his pride in himself is there by virtue of his not being black? (pg 71)

The question has an underlying framework, which I can easily re-purpose. For example, consider this question: How much of a relatively affluent person’s pride derives feeling of separateness from relatively poor person’s?

The premise is primordial: Are two comparates in a dichotomy co-dependent, or “semantically symbiotic”? For example, does the contrast between “richness” and “poorness”- itself- determines the meanings of those words, and the consequences of the meanings of those words? To what extent does richness benefit from poorness? To what extent does a rich person benefit from a poor person?

Needless to say- gosh, please tell me this is needless to say– I do not suggest a relatively affluent person does not, on average, exercise empathy, charity, or philanthropy for the relatively poor person. Rather, I suggest whether or not one behaves so commendably, they are still the beneficiary of the relationship between richness and poorness.

If pop culture is any indicator, Americans worship billionaires. The subject of the majority of television we (my household) watch is, ultimately, about making money (e.g. Shark Tank, The Profit)- and making money, or spending money (which is contingent on first making money) is a subtext of much of the remainder (HGTV flipping shows).

Whereas, poverty is taboo, and relative poverty is proportionally taboo. Still, taboo fascinates us. We think about it, and extrapolate personal meaning from it, for better or for worse. In Guilt and Incident at Vichy, Miller- and I, in turn, in this essay- only mean to suggest thinking about injustice in this broader way, and the consequences of it.

I’ll pivot here to recall (my memory of) a lesson I learned in synagogue: Maimomedes “Levels of tzedakah (charity).” If I remember correctly*, anonymously giving to anonymous persons constitutes the highest of the the “level.” In such cases- that is, when the benefactor doesn’t know the beneficiary, and vice versa- Maimomedes said the charity is “for the sake of heaven,” as opposed to the benefactor or beneficiary.

* I chose not to research this topic anew, before publishing this essay, because I want to maintain the integrity of my memory in the context of this essay.

In his model, the relationship between “level of charity” and quality of anonymity is inversely proportional. In “lower-level” cases, the charity is not primarily for the sake of heaven- it’s primarily for the sake of the benefactor or beneficiary.

Straying even further from Guilt and Incident at Vichy, and acknowledging Maimomedes does not weight on this, as far as I know, I’ll mention I think supporting social welfare programs with progressive income tax system meets the “spirit” of anonymous giving, and in such a way which aims to redistribute wealth in a minimally disruptive way.

In the next few weeks, I expect the US legislature will attempt to revise the US tax code, if only to reduce income tax rates for persons with incomes greater than $400,000 dollars. In the previous few weeks, the US legislature tried to implement a new healthcare plan. Models suggested it would have led to upwards of twenty million people losing healthcare coverage in the next 10 years, if passed.

(It didn’t pass.)

The subject- providing healthcare to hundreds of millions of people- is complicated. The current (hundred-of-payers) model sucks. High premiums AND deductibles render many coverages practically unusable. Something needs to change- but by most accounts the rejected plan was, if not abjectly terrible, then no improvement whatsoever.

Apparently, certain congressmen pushed it so stubbornly, despite its flaws, because of obvious advantages to “the rich.” In general, it planned to cut Medicaid (a program for “the poor”) in order to fund planned tax cuts (which disproportionately benefit “the rich”). In specific, it promoted use of Health Savings Accounts, a model which disproportionately benefits “the rich,” who can afford to siphon more of their income into such accounts.

Do you have a sense of which dots I want to connect?

I think we can (should!) apply theme of Guilt and Incident at Vichy to the fiscal conservatism, libertarianism and the like. At certain scales, or applied to certain domains, those economic principles are sound and even just, but  applied at other scales, to different topics, the principles seem to lack (or even eschew) humanity and promote injustice.

If our legislatures enact such policies, then certainly the electorate bears responsibility, and it constituent parts- individual voters, no matter how they vote- have some relationship to the consequences. Ultimately, it’s that relationship which Miller or I, as the case may be, concern ourselves with in take play Incident at Vichy, and in the essay Guilt and Incident at Vichy, and in this essay.


From The Uncollected Edmond Wilson

Edmond Wilson was a prolific 20th century writer who variously edited or contributed to publications including Vanity Fair, New Republic, and New Yorker. No joke- it looks like he wrote about SOMETHING ABOUT EVERYTHING contemporary event and theme from 1920 and 1970*. (I lied, or I’m exaggerating- but) He certainly wrote about every major American and European event and theme during that time. Two of those themes seem especially relevant given political events in months: (i) the fight for and against socialism in the States, and (ii) the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, in the 1930s.

Without getting into it (or, without planning on getting into), I’ll mention these themes strike me as particularly resonant now, in the current political climate, particularly in the States. Currently, the president and legislature (i) plan to eliminate many programs ratified during the 1930s (New Deal), and (ii) seem unusually eager to declare “enemies of the state.” (E.g. Steve Bannon declaring the media “the opposition party.”) In fascist of Europe, such pronouncements presaged persecution. Lastly, (iii) the apparent connections between the president and Russian oligarchs, at a time of outright Russian territorial aggression, color these themes germane.

Anywho, From The Uncollected Edmond Wilson is collection of, maybe, 50 short essays (from 2 to 20 pages) spanning from 1911 to 1955. My copy is hardcover- an awkward size*, from 1995.

* Small, for a hardcover.

Wilson was born in 1895, 100 years before this book was published. Had my great grandparents been literary-folk- not busy, first generation immigrants, trying to set up a liquor business- his book reviews would have figured into their reading choices. Instead- because my great grandparents were busy, first generation immigrants, who did manage some success- 100 years later I’m in the relatively comfortable position where can read Wilson’s reviews from the 1930s.

WHY?, I can imagine someone asking. Why not read something contemporary? WHO CAN YOU TALK TO ABOUT THAT?

I’ll ignore the second question,  but I’ll offer this quick take on the first question: All texts are historical documents. Who better to learn history from than well-read, independent-thinking contemporary historical figures? I much prefer that approach to picking up whichever secondary sources happens to grace New York Times Best Seller any given week.

Now without further ado, I’ll tell you about some of his nearly hundred-year-old essays.

(Or, just one more delay- I need to share what I’m listening to: The Joy of Motion by Animals as Leaders. It sounds incredible in my audio-technica ATH-M50s. Listen to the song “Crescent” some time- AT 1:15- MY GOD, SO COOL!)

Detroit Paradoxes makes for a nice first foray into the first of the two unpleasant topics I mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay: the fight for and against socialism in the States. I especially enjoyed this essay because it combines a couple of my past and present interests: (i) 19th and 20th century “robber-barons,” and (ii) “artists as activists.”

The essay begins with a long quotation from Henry Ford in 1922 which ends like so: “It is utterly foolish for Capital and Labor to think of themselves as groups. They are partners” (pg 163). All sounds so very harmonious at Ford Company! But one decade later, in 1932, the same could certainly not be said (unless with extraordinary tone-deafness)*:

* Ivanka Trump [url].

Here’s what happened in 1932: three thousand unemployed workers from Detroit and its suburbs marched on Dearborn (Ford Company headquarters); the Dearborn Police Department tossed tear-gas at the crowd; the crowd retaliated (some threw stones); then police retaliated- THEY TURNED A MACHINE GUN ON THE CROWD!

Thus went the so-called “Ford Hunger March.”

These were not simple times- there never are simple times. Yet some aspects of those times, and current times, seem very simple, no? For some examples, consider inequality and injustice. Without discussing solutions, can we acknowledge those things are “bad”? Problems?

In the 1930s, families in Detroit suffered from hunger, while Henry Ford (I presume) continued to eat like a king in his castle- literally, castle, look it up. Maybe (probably) Ford helped the community in various ways, but if you were starving, wouldn’t it be very easy to blame the man who lives in a castle for not helping enough?

I’m not suggest that’s “fair,” but it’s reasonable, right? It’s easy to reason how someone may feel that way, right?

While reading, I thought about the auto industry then (early 20th century) versus the auto industry now, I wondered about this question: When’s it “OK” to socialize something in the United States?

In the 2000s, when the auto-industry (and banks) needed a bailout, taxpayers provided it. Does it make sense that, among the thousands of jobs “saved” in the course of bailing out those industries were hundred-million dollar executive jobs? Tax payers can feel good about “saving” industries, and “saving” thousands of jobs, can they feel good about stuffing the pockets of the executives who, more than anyone else, were responsible for running the industry aground?? As my old friend Chris would say: Aw hell na!

Why do the some of the same people who disagree with not even the implementation, but the premise of socialized healthcare, laud the socialization of business costs (“corporate welfare”)? For instance, consider the recent Carrier deal: the president basically brokered a deal for Indiana taxpayers to subsidize 700 jobs for 10 years. That deal was lauded, if only for optics, by many of the same taxation-crazed politicians who part which would move to de-socialize healthcare for 50 million people months later (ostensibly, in order to fund tax cuts).

The free market rejected the Carrier jobs, so Indiana decided to fund the difference between market- and above-market value. Ultimately, tax payers foot the bill- whether they pay additional taxes, or the state cuts some other item from its budget in exchange. Were it not for that deal, Carrier would have moved these jobs to Mexico, where labor is less expensive.

Meanwhile, CEO Greg Hayes received more than 10 million dollars compensation last year. (Not all cash- much in stock.)

Forget whether or not the deal was “the best,” as the president alleged, or even “good”- apparently this instance of socialization was “OK,” at least it was OK with many individuals who in many other cases criticized such moves.

Why is it “OK” to socialize costs (labor), privatize profits?

That’s not a question I’ll answer here. I recently watched a PBS documentary called Philip Roth Unmasked, wherein Roth, paraphrasing someone else (maybe Chekhov), said something like “It’s not the writer’s objective to solve the problem; it’s to present it in its proper context.” I believe I have done that, to the extent I desire. Now, more Detroit paradoxes to discuss.

Enter: Diego Rivera.

One month prior to the Hunger March, Rivera had an iffy reputation with the Communist leadership. The New Masses, a Communist literary magazine, published a “scathing expose” of him. Although he was once a member of the Communist Party of Mexico, he was expelled for political opportunism. He accepted various positions within the bourgeois Mexican government (first, Minister of Fine Arts, then Director of the National School of Fine Arts). The party also alleged he compromised his art- not only specific elements in planned works or art, but more generally (and importantly!) because his art no longer seemed to “advance” communism. (The latter was especially debatable, and in fact was debated by various factions of the party.)

That same year, the Detroit/Ford and Rivera storylines merged when Edsel Ford donated money to the Institute of Arts in Detroit for a set of murals. The director of the institute then enlisted Rivera to complete the murals. The result was, controversial. (Google “Detroit Industry Murals” and take a look.)

I think Rivera’s message is apparent: men in images the look less like masters of Detroit manufacturing machines than servants of Detroit manufacturing machines. One member of Detroit City Council described the murals as a “travesty on the spirit of Detroit.” Edsel Ford said, very diplomatically, “I admire Mr. Rivera’s spirit. I really believe he was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit” (pg 167).

Thus, while Rivera beefed with both communists and capitalists at the time, this quotation applied as much to Rivera as to Detroit: “So both from above and below the disintegrating rays of Marxist thought prick the numb and flabby tissue of Detroit” (or Rivera) (pg 167).


Hopefully the preceding paragraphs reasonably colored the political environment of the 1930s- specifically, turmoil between capital and labor. If not, sorry, I proceed taking some things for granted.

One thing I’ll emphasize is Marxism’s assumption- almost like a religious prophecy- Capitalism was destined to fail. This may seem hard to imagine at first, but is it really?? Consider the bailouts we discussed. In a sense, capitalism has failed, and has been rescued by socialistic policy.

But let’s stick to the 1930s- a time before we knew war could (would) impel the States through the Great Depression, and long before we knew corporate welfare could (would) bailed us out of the 2008 financial crisis. Before then, only immense private wealth had bailed out the States (Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan), and this situation was immeasurably worse (i.e. more expensive) by any attempted measure.

Imagine the extraordinary hopelessness and desperation of the people who seemed to face prolonged economic depression. Then, imagine the appeal of- on the one hand- socialism or- on the other- a charismatic leader who claimed he or she could fix everything- make everything great again!

If you don’t understand the 1930s, you don’t understand the antecedents of contemporary attitudes toward socialism, demagoguery and fascism.

In the essay Stalin, Trotsky, and Willi Schlamm, experience the perversion of socialism by Stalin- begin with political assassinations throughout the decade. In Trotsky’s Stalin, learn about the significance of autocratic leaders like Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, and Stalin to modern Russian politics. Wilson, paraphrasing Trotsky, says:

[T]he pettiest position in American involves a sphere, however narrow, in which the individual must make decisions for himself. The bank teller must decide himself whether or not he will cash your check, but in Russia he cannot decide; he has to appeal to the officials above him, and these appeal to higher officials. Everybody passes the buck, and it finally lands with Comrade Stalin[.] (pg 236)

It’s an exaggeration, but it characterizes- without parodying- the attitude of deference paid to leadership, one inculcated by a pedigree of fascistic national and local mafia leaders.

The essay Comrade Prince illustrates the completeness of the inculcation; it is a sketch of the Russian literary critic and historian D. S. Mirsky. He spent years in the UK, then returned to Russian in 1932 despite the precarious political climate. Undeniably, he was proud of his Russian heritage. At the request of authorities, he consented to renounce many of writings, and even ideas he espoused, during his time in the UK. He endured humiliation under the Stalin regime, including positions in remote outposts teaching Russian culture- he, a premier Russian intellect! Despite his renunciations, authorities did not trust Mirsky, who negotiated the oppressive Stalin regime (or tried to) until his death in a Siberian camp in 1939.

Wilson’s sketch of Mirsky is a sad one, but I believe it must brilliantly capture Mirsky’s essence- a fascinating and complex one. It reminds me of John Steinbeck’s essay about his friend Ed Rickett’s (for which this blog is named*), one of my favorites so-called “character studies.”

* Captain’s Log: A Steinbeck/Ricketts thing.

If you read nothing else of Wilson’s, I recommend reading Comrade Prince.