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Arthur Miller's Moving Ode to the University of Michigan

As the Pulitzer celebrates its centennial today, we take a look at renowned playwright Arthur Millerís student days at the University of Michigan, recaptured in his moving ode to his alma mater.
BY Deepak Rikhye |   18-04-2016

Arthur Miller in 1966

Today, 18th April, the Pulitzer Prize hosts its centennial celebration. In its 100 years, the prize has recognized the best in journalism, music and literature. America’s pre-eminent playwright, Arthur Miller, was one among the Pulitzer luminaries. He won a Pultizer award in 1949 for Death of a Salesman. But that was not Miller’s only recognition. All My Sons won him the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best play in 1947.

Miller’s career began with No Villain, a play he wrote when he was a student at the University of Michigan. No Villain won the University’s Hopwood Award for creative writing. This would have undoubtedly given a shot in the arm to the budding playwright. And indeed, many years later, Miller wrote a fine ode to his alma mater, filled with inspiring thoughts and fond memories of this renowned institution.

Interestingly, Arthur Miller’s application had been rejected twice by the University of Michigan. Miller had failed Algebra while in high school at Brooklyn. Rejected by the University, Miller took two years off and worked in a warehouse for US$15 a week. He applied to the university again, writing to the Dean that this experience had transformed him into a more serious fellow. The Dean reversed his decision and Miller was accepted.

Later, Miller wrote that he could never have conceived a Dean from Columbia or Harvard University reversing a decision in the way that the University of Michigan had.

Thus, began Miller’s academic career. This was 1934, and the Great Depression at its lowest ebb. He paid $1.75 a week for an on-campus room and squeezed the rest of his allowance to pay for his books, laundry and movies. He washed dishes in the cafeteria and that helped pay for his meals. The Health Service paid for his eyeglasses. Years later, as he looked back, he was convinced that the University of Michigan was the best a student could ever hope for. He wrote that it was the ideal place to study, especially for those who aspired to become writers.

He mixed happily with other students. Among his friends were sons of dressmakers, farmers, ranchers, bankers, lawyers, doctors and unemployed relief recipients. Most students came from different parts of the country and arrived with their “own prejudices and wisdoms!” Even today, the institution has a large percentage of international students from Japan, Turkey, China and Europe.

In his ode, Miller writes about waking up each morning with an enthusiasm for learning something new. Kagawa, the Japanese philosopher, was only one of the many intellectuals he was privileged to hear at the university’s Hill Auditorium.

With his enthusiasm, Miller combined a sense of discrimination. Professors, he observed, were flawed too, and not necessarily encyclopaedias. When he left in 1938, Miller asserted that he “knew at least how much I did not know.” The small world of this university was gentler than the real world, but was “tough” on its own.

In later years, his memories of this wonderful institution remained “sweet,” even as many things gradually altered. Buildings replaced lawns as development continued through the passage of time. But, as Miller noted, this university steadily maintained its top position in disciplines as diverse as forestry, medicine, creative writing, and others.

University of Michigan Hill Theatre

At the university, a student writer with potential could connect to a radio or television station and try his scripts, could aspire for a Hopwood Award in poetry, drama, the essay or the novel. Miller had a special place in his heart for the awards which are hosted in June every year.

Miller observed that in the past, during his time in university, a lot of research and thesis was done by individuals. Today, there are departments where dissertations are linked to research projects. While he knew this was evocative of the changing times, he regarded his university as “The Harvard of the West.”

For Miller, the university was a testing ground for all prejudices, beliefs and ignorance that helped him to lay out the boundaries of his life. A function he was sure it could perform for every other student too, as long as they were willing to explore the unknown. That, to him, was education.



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