illustrated portrait of American playwright Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

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Is American tragedy a distinct subgenre? What is Arthur Miller's contribution to it?

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The notion of American tragedy as a specific sub-genre of tragedy is an interesting one that can be explored alongside the notion of the American dream. Truly tragic stories in American literature are tragedies that echo strains of the dramatic formula of the ancient Greek playwrights who created and perfected this literary form; these American tragedies often concern the negative outcomes that come of pursuing the American dream. The pursuit of that elusive dream, for many, does in fact involve an expectation of security and personal dignity that Miller mentions, making the American tragedy something truly unique in literature.

The tragedies of the ancient Greeks concerned a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, and the tragic heroes of many American tragedies stumble and fall while in search of their version of the American dream. Their tragic flaw is often hope, which can sometimes manifest as blindness, naivety, and even overly optimistic arrogance. Miller's own aging American salesman, Willy Loman, for example, has a dream of middle-class success that drifts away from him as he gets older and less useful to his profession. His mistake is to place too much value on the wrong things in his life and to rely too much on his sense of being popular with others as a source of personal dignity, which wanes as he ages. Willy Loman's dream evaporates, much like the dreams of many Americans who are told that they can be secure and make themselves into anyone they want to be in the land of the free and hard-working.

Americans of all kinds face the kind of tragedy that Miller's Willy Loman faces, and their suffering is exacerbated by the fact that they believe the American dream is within reach. Many immigrant stories meet this description: a lot of American immigrants endure great hardship to come to America and to settle where the dream promises liberty, happiness, and health. Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets depicts the problems many Irish immigrants faced at the turn of the twentieth century, while more recently, writers such as T.C. Boyle write about the plight of Mexican immigrants in works such as Tortilla Curtain. These Americans, or aspiring Americans, come to tragic ends because they believe in the idea of a proper place for them, a place where they can experience personal dignity; the unfortunate reality takes effect when the dream lets them down, and their versions of the American dream shatter. It is difficult to imagine an America without this kind of tragedy, as the American dream persists as a value and a fantasy, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

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