Sunday, 29 September 2013

Sturgis and the War of Independence

The Last Days of Dublin Castle. Ed: Michael Hopkins.

This review was written on December 13th 2003

This is some writing I did on holiday in Cyprus on the 25 May 2001 while staying with Paddy and Valerie Hogan at their villa in Paphos. Intensely warm, perfect weather, nice villa overlooking a fine pool. Since leaving Dublin on 20 May I have been reading The Last Days of Dublin Castle edited by Michael Hopkinson. Having read the first half of the book, I wrote the following commentary:

The Last Days of Dublin Castle contains the diaries of Mark Sturgis, who was a senior official (to some extent without portfolio) in Dublin Castle between July 1920 and January 1922. It is the first work I have read from the British point of view about this critical period and it provides me with a few important insights into the history of the War of Independence leading up to the Truce and the ratification of the Treaty.

I was astonished by the incompetence of the British during this time, with widespread indecision, disagreement and jealousy between the military and administrative officials in Dublin, and their colleagues and political chiefs in London. This circumstance in the British administration had two serious consequences.

Firstly, genuine peace feelings from both sides commenced in October 1920 and continued with various degrees of intensity right up to the actual truce on 11 July 1921. The final six months of the War of Independence were the most violent and bloody of the War which compounded the bitterness between the IRA and the British. Furthermore, and significant in relation to the ensuing Civil War, the delay in arranging a truce compounded the differences between those among the IRA and Sinn Féin who were willing to compromise on the constitutional question (and who were supported by the great majority of the Southern Irish population) and the intractable group who were rigidly committed to the republic. There is no doubt that the views of the latter hardened during the last few months of the War.

Patrick Joseph Clune
A major factor in the failure to reach a truce in November 1920 (the Clune initiative) was Lloyd George’s refusal to treat with the Irish without full decommissioning of arms, clearly an unacceptable condition for the Irish and one taken against the advice of some of Lloyd George’s own advisors in Dublin and elsewhere. Yet a truce was arranged eight months later without any reference to the question of decommissioning and despite further deterioration in the bitterness of the conflict.

There is no doubt that the Irish leaders, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins (de Valera was in America at the time), would have agreed a truce in November 1920 if Lloyd George had not insisted on decommissioning and if he was not so deluded as to think that ‘he had murder by the throat’.

Mark Sturgis, bottom right.
There was a second important issue which prolonged the war. It strengthened the hand of the IRA and delayed the truce. The three elements in the British administration were, firstly, in Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant and his advisors and the administrative staff in the Castle; secondly, the police, the RIC,  including the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries, and, thirdly, the army. These three forces were frequently in conflict about policy and strategies, and conflict was exacerbated by the veto of Westminster over the views and policies of the Irish satrap. No doubt the more liberal members of Lloyd George’s cabinet must have been all the time looking over their shoulders at the Tories and the more implacable opponents of Irish self-rule, while Lloyd George had adopted a much less liberal attitude to Irish aspirations after 1916 compared to his strong support of the Irish in his earlier years.

Sturgis refers frequently to the adverse effects of the divisions between the police, headed by Tudor, and the army, headed by Macready, and between them and the administration and the politicians. Neville Macready. head of the British army in Ireland, in his Annals of an active Life (vol 2, p 521 and elsewhere) refers to the conflict between the army and the police represented by the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries. Poor communication, jealousy, rugged individualism and personal animosity were forces which contributed to the incompetence and impotence of a divided authority.

My father, Richard Mulcahy, who was the head of the IRA during the War of Independence, often said to me that, if the British Army had been given full authority and adequate resources under the leadership of Macready, it would have been impossible to continue the guerrilla campaign and an early end of the war would have been inevitable, to the disadvantage of the separatist movement. He stated that the IRA campaign would have lasted a week if the British Army had taken over full control.

It will be found that at this time the military were pressing more and more for permission to make the matter a military job.  Our whole tactics at the time were directed to keeping the struggle at a police level (1)

------evacuated police barracks and tax offices were chosen for burning at Easter 1920 in order to demonstrate that the Volunteers were attacking the British Administration and not the British Army.  They were, he said, not in a position to challenge the British Army (2)

----we have not been able to drive the enemy from anything but from a fairly good-sized police barracks (3).

Sturgis refers frequently to the urgent need to unify all the elements of the British authority in Ireland. It is clear that he was strongly of the opinion that, if the British hoped to defeat the IRA, the answer was a military one with nationwide martial law and with full military control of the police. Despite the pro-military view of Sturgis, shared with other members of  the British establishment, two battalions of  the army were transferred to England in April 1921 at the height of the War, one from Dublin and one from Belfast, in anticipation of a general strike by miners and other worker in England.

Black and Tans
Sturgis would have Lloyd George come out with clear and generous terms of a settlement, such as Dominion status, the basis of which, if Ireland were to refuse a truce and negotiations, would lead to all out war and to the alienation of Sinn Fein by international and much of national public opinion in Ireland. Certainly, it is clear that, if the military with adequate resources were to take control of the situation with full support from Westminster, the reprisals on the British side would have been much fewer and the war might have finished earlier and with less bitterness. A British army in full control would be obliged to adhere to the international code of war and would have prevented the all-too-common atrocities of the Black and Tans and the natural responses of the IRA.

Of course, Lloyd George and his cabinet colleagues refused to admit to the Americans and the outside world that the disturbances in Ireland constituted a war and therefore they may have been reluctant to leave control of the police and the administration to the military. The role of Westminster was also seriously affected by the grossly inaccurate reports supplied by the Irish Secretary, Sir Hamar Greenwood, such as the charge that the IRA was responsible for the burning of Cork City, a charge which was hardly credible to the British and later denied by Macready.

Somebody on the British side, when discussing self government for the Irish, protested that the Irish would be unable to govern themselves. His companion replied ‘Neither can the British’. The story of the British administration in Ireland during the War of Independence is a striking confirmation of this riposte

Asquith is mentioned in the diaries from time to time. He was a dove who approved a more active and conciliatory approach by the British Government, and who thought that the failure of the Clune truce was a big opportunity missed

Sturgis had been Asquith’s private secretary. He was seconded to the Irish Office after Asquith had retired as prime minister. He was wealthy and a prominent social light, closely connected with the establishment, passionate about racing, enjoyed Jammets and the Shelbourne, and enjoyed Ireland and the Irish with a hedonistic streak despite the stresses of his eighteen months in Dublin Castle. It is clear from the diaries that he had a sense of realism and a vision that a reasonable settlement must come, that the British government, with better understanding in Westminster and with generosity, had it within its power to reach agreement which should have satisfied both nations and which should have been achieved before 1921. Whilst agreement and a settlement did come to pass with the Treaty ratification, divisions within the British establishment in Westminster and incompetence in Dublin and London ensured that agreement was only reached when the seeds of our civil war had been sown.

I was half way through the diaries when I wrote the above commentary. I added the following remarks after I had completed the book.

I was intrigued by Father O’Flanagan’s contributions to the continued attempts to arrange a truce from late 1920 onwards. I had been under the impression that O’Flanagan invoked the disapproval of the Sinn Fein and IRA leaders when he intervened during the Clune negotiations because of his ‘premature’ and his ‘unauthorised’ intervention with Lloyd George. I was surprised therefore to find that he continued being involved in truce negotiations for most of the time up to the end of the War, and that he appeared to have the approval of de Valera and others in continuing these informal negotiations. It is clear also at the time that Father O’Flanagan was in favour of a reasonable settlement, such as Dominion status, and yet, when it came to the Treaty settlement, he was one of its most ardent and vociferous opponents. And O’Flanagan was not by any means the only person who bitterly opposed the Treaty and yet who appeared to be satisfied with Dominion settlement during the later months of the War.

Sturgis makes one rather interesting comment in 6 June 1921, referring to the American reaction to de Valera’s involvement in certain truce and peace activities. Sturgis states as follows

It seems that the Irish Americans, who got wind up when Craig and de Valera met during the Truce, wrote and wired that Dev and Sinn Féin were giving away ‘the Republican principle. They appeared to exert considerable pressure’ on the issue (P 185).

One wonders whether Dev’s prolonged stay in the United States might have been responsible for the intractable views of many Irish Americans on the question of the settlement, or did the American rather remote and unrealistic views on a settlement lead to a hardening of Dev’s outlook? Dev’s 19 months in America during the War of Independence, by referring so frequently during his many speeches to the Irish Republic might have had a deleterious effect on Irish American opinion.

Despite de Valera’s return from America at Christmas 1920, it is clear from the diaries that  one obstacle in arranging a truce was the difficulty of contacting de Valera and having him show some initiative in meeting with the British while many others on the nationalist side were active in seeking a truce. Dev remained an ephemeral figure despite the British perception that he was the leader of the separatist movement and that little could be achieved without his active input. This gave rise to Sturgis’s comment that

If we want to deal with England there’s L.G. - if we want to talk to Ulster there’s Craig or Carson, but when we want to talk to S.F. it’s a heterogeneous ‘collection’ of individuals ------ all over the place, and they severally, if they know their minds, which I doubt they certainly don’t, know each other and all fear to act off their own bat. (P188)

It is strange that Dev returned to Ireland unexpectedly just before Christmas 1920 and

Collins, centre, at the treaty negotiations.
 apparently after a tip off from a British diplomat in America that Lloyd  George was anxious for a settlement and yet it was to take another seven    months to arrange a truce. Nothing could be done without Dev on the issue despite the influence of such leaders as Griffith and Collins. Who did Dev speak to on the issue of a truce during these important seven months of the War? Did Childers have any role in the delay after he met Dev on the latter’s return from America?

When Lloyd George eventually wrote the letter inviting de Valera to London, which preceded the truce; it is interesting that it was Erskine Childers who was most opposed to the truce initiative. Sturgis stated on the 27 June 1921 when the truce was pending

The two sources from which alone this morning come shrieks of rage and suspicion are the Morning Post and Erskine Childers who agree from their poles asunder to regard the L.G. letter as a snare of the most traitorous description. (P194).

Sturgis describes an interview Loughnane had with Hugh Martin of the Daily News. In this interview, Richard Mulcahy’s name is associated with Cathal Brugha (Burgess) and Austin Stack as ‘The other extremists in favour of a war to the knife policy ----’. And in the same interview Mulcahy as chief of staff and Burgess as minister for defence are stated to be the persons directly in control of the IRA. He states that Childers, Burgess and Stack are not interested in any settlement ‘they do not hope for success but prefer to fight and fail ---’

Mulcahy may have been in control of the IRA but on the question of extremism his name could never be attached to those of Childers, Burgess and Stack.

Dublin Castle
I finished the Sturgis diaries while I was in Cyprus. I then turned to Lawrence Durrell’s book ‘Bitter Lemons’ about his time in Cyprus, and about Enosis and the end of British rule in the island. The incompetence of the administration there, its naive paternalistic approach to the Cypriot people and the poor understanding of the authorities in Westminster of the Cypriot situation reads like a repeat of the last days of Dublin Castle. It confirms why the complacency of those who are acting on behalf of a colonial power and who are governing an alien people, however paternalistic and benign the administration may be, provides the seeds of the power’s destruction. It is said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to relive it, an adage which certainly applies to the Tory dominated Westminster governments of the early twentieth century.

The earlier part of Durrell’s book, which deals with his setting up house in Cyprus, is over-sentimental and tedious, but the later chapters which deal with the worsening political situation in the island will be of interest to students of the history and demise of the British Empire.

(1)         (Annotation vol I, pp 144, 145)
(2)         (Tape 093 131A 125A)
(3)         (Dail debate on the Treaty, p 143)  

Friday, 20 September 2013

April 27th 1916

Field of Fire – the Battle of Ashbourne. Paul O’Brien. New Island Press, Dublin. 2012, pp 108.

This review was written on November 20th 2012

I read this in one session. It is the most detailed description of the exploits of the 5th Fingal Brigade under the command of Thomas Ashe during the six days of the 1916 rebellion. The 5th Brigade was established outside the City in the more rural part of North County Dublin. The book’s principal chapters, as is evident from the title, provide details of the Battle of Ashbourne which took place during the Friday, the day of Pearse’s surrender to the British. The surrender took place unknown to the members of the 5th Battalion. The battle lasted about four hours in all and was by far the bloodiest of the many events which took place in 1916.

I believe that O’Brien’s account is the most detailed description of the battle which has been published so far and it reminds us that the event was the forerunner of the guerrilla tactics which were to be adopted by the IRA during the subsequent War of Independence.

Thomas Ashe
O’Brien describes the details of the battle and the confusion and frustrations of the 60 odd armed RIC police faced with the highly unconventional methods adopted by the fewer and more lightly armed volunteers who harried them from the cover of hedges and ditches on each side of the roadway occupied by the police in their vulnerable motorcade. The adjacent police barracks, which was being attacked by the Volunteers at the time of the arrival of the cavalcade of armed RIC men, was occupied by about 15 heavily armed colleagues but for some extraordinary reason they failed to assist their colleagues arriving unexpectedly from Slane in Co. Meath. They seem to have adopted an entirely defensive role in the barracks during the entire battle.

Richard Mulcahy
Richard Mulcahy’s initiative, as Ashe’s second in command, in remaining to fight the police despite their obviously superior forces and his direction in leading the attack is clearly presented while Thomas Ashe receives equal mention in accepting Mulcahy’s initiative despite Ashe’s first reluctance to face such unexpected and superior forces.

There are a number of photos of interest including portraits of some of the leading members of the Brigade. There is no doubt that the Battle of Ashbourne was an outstanding example of an effective response to conventional military maneuvers in the context of the Irish countryside with its extensive cover provided by heavy hedgerows and hedgerow trees and particularly by assailants with local knowledge of the area.

Ashbourne was the precursor of the successful tactics necessarily adopted by the IRA during the later War of Independence. It was a confirmation of Bulmer Hobson’s contention, as a leader of the IRB, who differed with his close colleagues on the wisdom of 1916. His approach to Irish independence was civil disobedience followed, if necessary, by guerilla warfare. Like his colleagues who were passionate about Irish independence and who were glad to die for it, he had a more pragmatic and more effective way of reaching the same goal. His refusal to take part in 1916 was considered by some to show lack of courage and lack of patriotism; I thought, reading of his decision, it was due to his pragmatic and more intelligent approach to solving the affairs of Man.

On a more personal note, I often wonder how my father, who was all his life firmly committed to his Catholic upbringing, who was a daily attender at mass and devoted to such ceremonies as evening benediction and weekend retreats, could reconcile his profound belief in the Church with his involvement in the killing of nine innocent policemen, the loss of three of his IRA comrades and the numerous injuries inflicted on many others. Like most other volunteers he must have had little idea that the ‘maneuvers’ which were described as the object of the 1916 weekend would lead to such dramatic and unprecedented events.

Would he have refused Seán McDermott’s insistence that he must remain in Dublin for the weekend despite his intention of visiting his father in Ennis at the time? Why did he refuse to attend the unveiling of the Ashbourne memorial by the President of Ireland, Seán T. O’Kelly in 1959 despite my plea and that of my mother that he should be there? I often think that his crucial participation in Ashbourne may have later preyed on his mind. I am aware that subsequently, as head of the army during the Civil War, he was responsible for the execution of some of the irregular forces but here he was clearly committed to the survival of the Treaty, to maintaining the democratic institutions of the State and he had the backing of the Cabinet. He was willing to go to such ends to maintain the Treaty and to protect the members of the Dáil and the other prominent supporters of the settlement who were under threat of assassination by Liam Lynch and de Valera.

I might have thought that his reluctance to attend the ceremony may have been related to the role of O’Kelly who was a leading politician who rejected the Treaty in 1922. O’Kelly was married to my father’s sister in law, Phyllis Ryan, and was then in the last year of his 14 years as President of Ireland. By 1959 there was a complete reconciliation between our families and, although the reconciliation may have not been as cordial as in a normal extended family, it allowed my father to attend many family functions organized by Phyllis at Aras an Uachtarán where he was always cordial to the President as was the President to him.

Friday, 13 September 2013



by Stefan Zweig, translated by William & Dorothy Rose.
Cassell & Co. London, 1947. pp XIII + 400.

This review was written on November 11 2005.

The date of the original biography is not given but clearly Balzac was personally known to the author during his subject’s later years. The English text is unusually florid and stylised for a translation as late as 1947, which may more accurately reflect the French style of the early nineteenth century.

Honoré Balzac (later to adopt the more aristocratic name Honoré de Balzac) was born in 1799 to a relatively prosperous family in Tours. They were regarded at the time of his birth as members of the haute bourgeoisie. His mother’s family was prosperous and part of the lesser aristocracy, while his ambitious father had recently emerged from more modest peasant stock.

Balzac was perhaps the most famous of the French novelists of the 19th century. He was the first of eleven children. His mother, who outlived him, played an important part in his life. She is described as difficult, mean, spiteful, interfering and showing little sense of love or concern about the welfare of her children, and particularly her eldest boy, although in later years she looked after his chaotic affairs as best she could during his long absences from Paris. He hated her, treated her badly but depended in latter years on her advice, assistance and money.  No doubt his bad behaviour was derived from his earlier relations with his mother.
After he left the family at the age of 17, he lived as an impoverished recluse in Paris where he wished to become a writer, very much against the wishes of his mother and family. His first twelve or thirteen years away from home were marred by his impatience to make money and thus to achieve his freedom. He started his career as a literary hack, reaching the lowest level of writing in order to earn a few francs. No type of literary production and no commission were beneath his dignity during this time.

It was only when he reached the age of thirty that he found his true metier as a great novelist. That was after many misfortunes, mostly self-induced by his ill-judged and unsuccessful attempts to enter the publishing and printing trade, which cost him and his creditors relatively large sums of money. He was immature, untidy in habits and dress, inconsiderate of others, boastful and adulterous, but shortly after his thirtieth year, with the publication of La Peau de Chagrin he became famous overnight and continued to produce novels at an extraordinary rate until the time of his death. Between his novels, short stories, newspapers articles, various literary contributions and other political commentaries, he published at least 70 items in 1830 and 75 in 1831.

During his writing periods, he wrote for up to 18 hours every day, remaining totally reclusive except for an hour or two while he visited the market to purchase his beloved coffee or visit his many lovers. He usually started writing at midnight, after a brief meal and a few hours sleep, and could work continuously until the late afternoon without respite. Since I first read an account in Time of Mario Puza’s writing habits (The author of the Godfather), I became interested in writers’ approach to their trade. I emulated Mario Puza’s strict discipline when I wrote Beat Heart Disease in 1974. I had given myself four to six weeks to write the text and to put it in publishing format but I had it finished in my attic in Provence in eleven days. Starting at 8.0 am, I wrote non-stop until lunchtime. Lunch was followed by a siesta and at 5.0 pm I went running among the orchards and vineyards beside the Durance River, a tributary of the Rhone. Ten to 12 kilometres in the balmy heat of that peaceful countryside provided a euphoric sense of relaxation bordering on the sensuous and an opportunity of conceptualising the next day’s writing.  Since then I have appreciated the importance of the discipline and organisation which is required to become a professional and prolific writer. Unfortunately, I did not have the inclination to adopt this as a lifetime commitment although the few books I have published were the result of such resolution and of a firm decision to adhere to a time limit.

Balzac was an extraordinarily conscientious writer, despite his prolific production. He was addicted to copious quantities of coffee during his work and without this he could neither find inspiration nor the energy to write. His huge coffee intake may have contributed to his early demise. His obsessional insistence on being satisfied with the final text of his novels caused much anger and frustration among his publishers.  In those times of tedious handwriting, he needed to spend much of his time correcting proofs and illustrations. The illustrated copies of corrected proofs are difficult to decipher and must have added to the frustrations of his publishers. It was remarkable that he kept all his proofs which he had bound into folios and which he then presented to friends and acquaintances.  His production was such that it was described by Zweig as equivalent to about 16 printed pages every day.

He is rightly described by Zweig as a genius and as the greatest French novelist of the twentieth century. It appears that his genius was based on an obsessive and compulsive personality, a person who must have had little happiness during his lifetime. He had numerous affairs, both adulterous and otherwise, and was clearly much happier with women rather than men. In fact, apart from one of his sisters and one or two others who helped him in adversity and had faith in his genius, he had few friends among men but he could readily share a few moments of leisure and moments of intimacy with women.

I dictated these paragraphs when I had got to page 140 of the book, I had tired of the author’s style, his constant use of metaphor, and of his constant repetition of Balzac’s failings, misfortunes and personality traits. I doubted if I had the patience or time to finish the book which I had taken from my father’s library because of a dearth of other reading, but a visit to Brazil at the end of May and the travel time involved perforce allowed me to finish its 380 rather tedious pages.

For Balzac, work came even before love. His life was marked by solitude, hard work and self-denial. He was hopelessly extravagant and constantly in debt and under siege by creditors and bailiffs. Yet, because of his deep and passionate commitment to writing, he was able to adopt a schizophrenic attitude to life’s adversity, to his chronic and disastrous financial state and to his many misfortunes. He was best and most productive as a writer when his material circumstances were at their worst. He said

My finest flashes of inspiration always came to me in my moments of deepest anxiety and distress

He had a compelling belief that he could only find peace and happiness by finding and marrying a rich widow. This compulsion was to endure for the latter half of his life, and was to be granted shortly before his death when his health was already in serious decline. His search for the rich widow of his choice lead him into the most ridiculous and humiliating encounters, with the aristocracy in particular, and he understandably became of figure of fun and ridicule among the public. This search for a rich wife caused him to neglect his writing for prolonged periods, particularly during his last remaining years.

His novels covered a vast variety of themes. Apart from his many articles and other contributions, he wrote many droll short stories and longer novels about humanity and success and failure. His metier was the novel based on the history of his own time; the contemporary scene provided the material for his most successful work. He was a brilliant recorder of character, and every type of person, whatever their class, occupation or gender, were his subjects. He portrayed life and character as mirrors of his own experience. Hence the realism of his writing

It particularly emerges in the account of his 18 year affair with Madame de Hanska, the wealthy Ukrainian, how the words liar, mendacious, disingenuous, self-delusion, self-seeking, extravagance and childishness were relevant to his character and behaviour. His death occurred shortly after his last-minute marriage to the reluctant and unsympathetic Madame de Hanska, who had lead him a dance for so long. She showed little compassion for him during his final illness and at the time of his death. Despite his being the greatest novelist of the 19th century in France with his immense contribution to our insight of these times, his story is essentially a sad and unhappy one, largely because of his many personality failings, his immaturity and his appalling judgement in managing his affairs. One might enquire if his novels are of sufficient greatness and insightfulness to maintain popularity 180 years later, and if his writing style (and that of his biographical) has survived the changing taste of modern society.

His breadth and ambition as a novelist is evident from his long-term ambition to finish La Comédie Humaine. This title was based on the Italian magnum opus and epic poem, the Divine Comedy, by Dante. It was to be a comprehensive account of every aspect of French life in the 19th century, from life in Paris and the cities, the countryside; life among the many professions, politics, the law, medicine and business; the lives of men and women, children, old people, and finally an overview of early 19th century French society.. The many hundreds of characters in his novels were based on those whom he had known during his lifetime and some were clearly based on those whom he wished to praise or to deride or ridicule. Much of this ambitious project was achieved but it is a measure of his intentions and ambition that there were still 50 titles which remained unwritten when he died prematurely at the age of 50 years. His early death was a blow to France and French literature

Difficult relations with his colleagues in the literary and media world, the jealousy of his contemporary writers, his boastful, improvident and erratic lifestyle, and his subservient attitude to the aristocracy and the wealthy, were only some reasons why he was denied public honours, such as membership of the Académie Francaise or recognition by the head of state. Most of those who were elected to the Académie during his time have been long forgotten while the name of Honoré de Balzac remains fresh in the minds of his countrymen and of the literary world.

The biography includes a short chronological summary of his places of residence during his lifetime and the titles and dates of publication of his best known novels. It also includes a short bibliography of biographical sources.

Thursday, 5 September 2013


Timebends – a Life. Arthur Miller. Methuen, London 1987. pp 614. Photos.

This review was written in April and November 2005

This book was in my library for some years but I had failed to read it until the turn of the century. I read Miller’s obituary in the Irish Times and Time Magazine and having just completed Paul Johnson’s lengthy history of America and a biography of Franklin Roosevelt,  these readings gave me the urge to read more about this well-known author and playwright.

Miller died in January of this year. He was 90 years when he died. The biography contains a list of his plays, screen plays, prose fiction and non-fiction which were mostly travel books. He had been an admirer of Stalin in earlier years and was arraigned by the McCarthy committee in the 1950s when he was suspected of being a communist. He was an icon of the civil rights movement. Unlike many successful people, he died a happy man at the age of 90 and still in love with his 34 year old girl friend. He had been married three times, including his  second tempestuous marriage to Marylyn Munroe.

He deals with his early life in New York where his extended Jewish family lived in more or less ghetto circumstances. He conveys the ambience of early pre-World War New York society and the extraordinary change which overtook America from prosperity and optimism to the poverty and despair of the Depression, an economic change which was as unexpected as it was overwhelming. Miller gives an insight into this appalling period in the United States, a disaster which took ten years and the World War to achieve a full recovery. One wonders if it could happen again; although less likely now because of a more stable international monetary system. However, a serious shortage of oil, currently looming large if somewhat distantly on the horizon, may be equally disastrous as may world poverty, a swelling refugee problem, food shortage and the burgeoning world population.

Miller grew up as a cynical but politically compassionate person and was quick to realise the problems which beset a materialistic, greedy and competitive society which was America. It was natural to feel a certain sense of depression or ennui when reading about the life and circumstances of people who differed with ourselves in terms of religion, culture and background; but he too might have felt the same ennui reading about Irish society and Irish Catholic lower and middle class families living in the austere times of the 1920s and 1930s.

I found the book heavy going, although aspects of his life were sufficiently compelling to make me continue to its end.  It was difficult to absorb the meaning of many of his convoluted sentences and I was obliged to re-read many. I quote an example

The very leaving behind of the familiar is implicitly erotic and renewing, an opening of the soul to the unknown, a kind of expectance that calls for aloneness, and besides, with so little confidence that I could write another commercially successful play, I needed to conserve money.

There is a lack of easy flow in his writing. He is unusual as a writer in that he does not write in chronological order but continuously shifts back and forth from his early days in New York to his later life when he was well established as a playwright and an icon of the liberal movement. From an early stage he cites the various circumstances which lead to his career as a playwright, and the themes of his plays were obviously closely influenced by his political and social concerns.

There is much in the book about McCarthyism and particularly about the constant threat to liberal people by a widespread intrigue on the part of a right wing society. Those who had more liberal ideas were victimised on trivial evidence and hearsay as communists and of being anti-American. I think that Miller was justified in applying the word Fascist to some of these right wing people. The illiberal trend in America started with the Republican Party and the Democrats were to some extent tainted by the same attitude. It was a sinister if somewhat underground feature of American life in the 1950s and 1960s during the cold war. It reminds us that the Americans, with unique military and industrial power, with a strong Christian fundamentalist tradition and with poor insight into international affairs, not unexpected among a parochial people, may be a serious threat to world society and to future generations.

I have referred previously to American foreign policy, heavily influenced by American industry and the military, and particularly the gradual infiltration of international markets by American commercial enterprises. Long before Iran, Nicaragua and other American adventures into international affairs, and from the beginning of the 20th century, Americans have an appalling history of interference in central and South America where many liberal movements and democratic aspirations were defeated by despotic and dictatorial regimes supported by the Americans and American money. In Johnson’s history of America, the author attributed the traditional instability of the Central and South American countries to their early origins and the failure to set up institutions such as federal administrations and the constitutional basis of government as is evident in the United States and Europe. Yet, one wonders to what degree the instability of some of these countries might be attributed to their failure to develop stable democratic forms of government because of interference by the United States. One of the American leaders who lead the marines in the 1930s told Miller (p253)

I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interest.…I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank to collect revenues in…. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for American fruit companies in 1903

But this naked use of his troops by the bank, jeopardising American lives for private profit, finally changed the marine leader into a critic of American economic expansion. Miller talks about the hypocrisy of the Vietnam War and the denial which was a feature of American life

As a playwright Miller was motivated by strong political, social and moral considerations, and by his ability to express his compassion for society in his plays. The obituary in Time referred to his ‘hero’ in the Death of a Salesman as a man ‘selling his soul and eventually his life to the false values of a materialistic America’. At the period of fear and threat to the liberals during the cold war, Miller became interested in doing a play about the notorious Salem witch hunt of the 17th Century. This play was eventually published as The Crucible and was an account of the hysteria aroused during the Salem Witch hunt. It was a reflection of the hysteria that gripped some Americans in their fear of communism. The violent paranoia which was evident in Salem was reflected among the conservative members of the House un-American Committee which investigated and jailed many on the flimsiest evidence. The Crucible was a metaphor of Salem and the red scare which thrived in the early years of the cold war. The play had a shaky start when first produced in the States but afterwards it became his greatest best seller and is still popular internationally. Its emphasis on indigenous tyranny was appreciated in other countries, such as Poland and China, two of many other countries which  were exposed to the same political tyranny.

His involvement in the Reilly case, where a boy of 18 was corruptly accused of killing his mother by the police, and was put on death row, showed a degree of compassion which was exceptional. He devoted an important part of his time and energies, and probably of money, in investigating and fighting against the boy’s conviction which ultimately was proved to have been a set-up by the police.

Reverting to Miller’s writing policies, his constant shift from one period of time to another and one subject to another reminded me of The English Patient, the film which was beset by numerous flashbacks. Miller is the master of the flashback although his are much less confusing that those in the film. He is curious too in never giving dates, which can cause problems of understanding because of his flashbacks. I have already referred to the difficulties in understanding some of his more turgid sentences and these were not made easier by long monologues of introspective meanderings, some of which I learned to skip read, receiving only a vague idea of their contents.

Miller emerges as a socially and politically liberal person with a genuine feeling for society. He was deeply committed and loyal to his country but deplored its many political and social failings, and the tensions which existed between individuals, institutions and ethnic groups. At the same time he was a very vain person, perhaps no more than the rest of us, but he may have been more willing and more courageous to expose his vanity in his writing. He was an icon not only in his own country but also abroad where his plays had a big influence and where, as the president of PEN, the international writers organisation, he played a large part in bringing writers together from different countries and political systems, and was successful in encouraging a more liberal outlook by government authorities towards writers, including those who were formerly treated as dissidents.

I was glad I read the book. I could say that as a biography it added to the knowledge and insights which I have always derived form good biography. It has certainly added to my knowledge of the United States and to my increasing interest in the dominant part the Americans are likely to play in the destiny of the world – a country which leads the world in its materialistic aspirations, which has a large proportion of people who share a naive fundamentalism, a parochialism and a poor education which makes them easily swayed by fundamentalist ideologies.

Miller contemplates the loneliness of the celebrity, his isolation from the common people; so it is not surprising that so many successful people are unhappy as they grow old and find they are no longer in the corridors of power and in the minds of others. He talks about Steinbech’s unhappiness and restlessness, a reminder of Hemingway’s suicide. He certainly had much to be contented about his life. He was a successful playwright, recognised internationally; he had a proud record as a civic rights advocate when such people were so badly needed by his country. From the personal point of view, he had a successful third marriage with the talented, educated and intellectual Inge Morath, a German who was an internationally recognised and respected photographer.

He deplored the Vietnam War and he talks about the country ‘clutching corruption’, expressed when it sent its sons to Korea, He took part in the bitter anti-Vietnam campaign. It was a war supported by the overriding influence of the conservatives in America. Those who were opposed to the war were victimised and had to remain mute until the anti-Vietnam movement began to gather strength. He thought the Democrats were as culpable as the Republicans in prolonging the war and he had little regard for the Democrats as a liberal party. He railed against the sacking and jailing of so many people who were good Americans but were deemed to be disloyal to their country

He writes much about his years with Marylyn Monroe but here his writing lacks an easy thread of chronology nor is it easy to understand the jumble of his thoughts about her and their complex relationship. Their relationship was a disaster of misunderstandings and incompatibilities. She emerges as a very beautiful and talented person, an extraordinary public icon, but unduly sensitive and unstable, particularly in the highly competitive and adversarial life of entertainment. A lack of confidence and self-esteem may have been personality defects which made her unsuitable for the rough and tumble of the entertainment world and for the adulation of the public and the constant pressures from the media. I suspect her early death may have been related to drug dependency and to the indulgence and enthusiastic interventions of her doctors.

He was conscious of the average American’s lack of profound and intellectual interests. The more serious forms of entertainment had little attraction to them.  To this he attributed the relative failure of his plays in America compared to their popularity in Europe and the rest of the world. The Americans’ unlimited desire for entertainment, their search for new diversions, their icons – their movie stars and those who had made massive fortunes - their compulsive self-gratification and their superficial goals of life, their religious fundamentalism and their idea of a life hereafter, entered through the portals of the New York stock exchange, these are some of Miller’s thoughts, perhaps with a few of my own added!.

He talks about the emergence of the atomic bomb and its possible consequences for humanity and the world. He arranges to meet some of those who were responsible for its development and who now have serious doubts about their role in creating such a threat to humanity. Hans Bethe and Robert Oppenheimer were both depressed and isolated, with feelings of guilt about their role in the destruction of the Japanese cities and in the future potential of the weapon to annihilate the world. Bethe had strongly opposed the dropping of the bomb on living people but had failed to dissuade Truman.

One did not intend what one had done. And yet one was responsible, if only because someone had to be. Why was one responsible if one had no evil intention? But if one had no evil intention, then where did the evil come from? 

This was the dilemma that troubled them. And

---- the fact would not go away that all their marvellous craft had placed in the hands of ignorant, provincial men the destroying power of the gods. ---- left to politicians whose minds and motives were too often petty and unwise.

It was little wonder that these great scientists were dejected and isolated by the result of their genius. It reminds me of the words of the Angel Rafael to Adam in Milton’s Paradise Lost ‘Do not try to understand the stars’. Miller had hoped to write a play about the dilemma of science but I am not sure if he ever did.