Exiles Critical Context - Essay

Michael J. Arlen

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Michael J. Arlen is best known for his work as a television critic, and his articles on the subject have appeared frequently in The New Yorker since the early 1960’s. Arlen has also published three volumes of critical essays on television, Living-Room War (1969), The View from the Highway 1: Essays on Television (1976), and The Camera Age: Essays on Television (1981), as well as Thirty Seconds (1980), a study of the making of a television commercial.

Interspersed with his work as a critic, however, are forays into several fields, including a nonfiction account of racial tensions in Chicago (An American Verdict, 1973) and a novel, Say Goodbye to Sam (1984), which covers much of the same ground that he explores in Exiles. In 1975, Arlen published Passage to Ararat, the book among his works with the closest ties to Exiles. In it he examines his Armenian heritage, the troubled history of the Armenian people, and the effect he believes it had on his father’s character and approach to life. The book is in many ways a natural outgrowth, or perhaps a further exploration, of the issues with which Arlen first dealt in Exiles, and it serves as a companion piece to the earlier memoir.

The distinction between a memoir and a biography is an important one, and Exiles falls decidedly into the former category. Arlen’s objective is not the scope and detail of a biography but rather an intimate portrait that explores his father’s career within the context of his life with his family. In choosing to focus on the family itself, Arlen is able to gain insight into his own actions and emotions as well as those of his parents, a fact which gives the story a special poignancy. The book won critical praise at the time of its release for the honesty and sensitivity with which Arlen approaches his very personal subject.