Which is a worse fate, to have a bad family or to have no family at all?


The title of Arthur Miller’s first book, Situation Normal (1944), alluded to a well-known saying in the army—Situation Normal: All Fucked Up (SNAFU)—but it might be applied more widely to Miller’s view of American life in general and American family life in particular. It’s true that Philip Larkin [Hull, page 24] used the same vocabulary to describe English families—“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”—but Miller saw tragedy, not just humor, in the postwar American scene. Perhaps no major writer understood better than Miller why America could not be one happy family. In his plays of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Miller depicts the postwar nuclear family in a state of fission. His characters in All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and A View from the Bridge suffer from a kind of psychological radiation sickness, invisible but deadly. War profiteers, failed businessmen, and dockworkers kill themselves or get killed over secrets they cannot bear to admit to their families or themselves. Foul deeds rise in the collective consciousness of a nation that erases and repeats its history—another way of saying that the sins of the fathers and mothers will be visited on the sons and daughters and unto the generations.

more from J.M. Tyree at Lapham’s Quarterly here.