It's easy, and partially accurate, to say Arthur Miller spent most of his career in decline. ''The problem with being Arthur Miller is you write Death of a Salesman in your 30s,'' says director Robert Falls, who shepherded Salesman's acclaimed 50th-anniversary revival to Broadway in 1999. ''Everything you write afterwards is compared to that play.'' Perhaps having penned one of the great American plays really was the problem with being Miller, who died of congestive heart failure on Feb. 10 at age 89. Perhaps the problem was marrying one of the great American movie icons, Marilyn Monroe, and living one of the great American lives in public as exemplar, object lesson, and gadfly all in one. Would that more playwrights had such problems. Would that more of them aspired to be, in the words of Miller's longtime friend Eli Wallach, ''the conscience of this country.''
First performed in 1949, Salesman hit the gleaming grille of the postwar American dream as it roared off the assembly line, and stuck there ever after. Revived three times on Broadway and produced all over the world, it was only Miller's fourth professional show: a grand and tragic hymn to a deluded Everyman that remains the ineradicable counterpoint to our march of achievement and success. This from a man who vastly preferred sports to headier pursuits until age 17. ''In my most private reveries,'' he wrote in his 1987 memoir, Timebends: A Life, ''I was no sallow Talmud reader but Frank Merriwell or Tom Swift, heroic models of athletic verve and military courage.'' Falls thinks this red-bloodedness fortified Miller's art: ''In the right-wing world that defines liberal as bad or weak or unsavory, he was a liberal in the great sense of a humanist, a passionate advocate for America's liberties.''
Born in Manhattan in 1915, Miller came of age in both a family (headed by an entrepreneurial Jewish father scourged by the Depression) and a nation in deep identity crisis, caught between deferred individual responsibility and resultant systemic injustice. As hard times drove the Millers to Brooklyn, young Arthur saw in his community ''conflicting claims of family and vagrant sexuality, idealism and advantage,'' themes that would resonate throughout his career. He responded not with à la mode nihilism, but with action. Working in an auto-parts warehouse, Miller paid for his entry into the University of Michigan, where he studied playwriting and began winning awards and grants for his didactic, left-of-center works. His first New York production, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), attracted little critical love and less revenue. His 1945 novel Focus was considered passionate but pat. Then, in 1947, came All My Sons, Miller's first commercially successful fusion of the personal, political, and universal: A war industrialist, in the name of protecting his family, knowingly sells defective aircraft parts to the military failing to see his bond with the larger human family until it's painfully pointed out to him by his own flesh and blood. Salesman followed two years later: Miller wrote the first act in one day, spurred by the success of another play that his collaborator Elia Kazan was directing, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. (He loved the play, but found the title ''too garishly attention-getting.'')