Arthur Asher Miller was born 17 October 1915 in Manhattan. He was the second son of Isidore and Augusta Miller, both Jewish immigrants from Poland. (His younger sister was born a few years later.) Patriarch Isidore did his best to achieve the American Dream. His clothing company, S. Miller & Sons, was prosperous enough that the family could afford a comfortable apartment overlooking Central Park and a chauffeured car that carried Isidore to work each morning. Unfortunately, the Millers were soon to realize that busts are every bit as American as booms. In October 1929, just a few weeks after Arthur's fourteenth birthday, the stock market crashed. Having invested nearly all his money in the market, Isidore Miller was wiped out. (Funny how history repeats itself, huh?) The family packed up and moved to a simple home in Brooklyn, a more affordable borough.
He graduated as a not-so-stellar student from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1932, and then took on unglamorous work in an auto-parts warehouse, socking away $13 of the $15 he was paid every week for his future college tuition. He also took night classes at New York City College (though he dropped out when the demands of work and school together proved too much) and applied to the University of Michigan (which rejected him twice; judging from his poor high school grades, Arthur seems to have been a much better playwright than a student). Miller finally enrolled at Ann Arbor in 1934. In college, he realized his calling as a writer. In his autobiography Timebends, Miller wrote, "with the possible exception of a doctor saving a life, writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do."5 Over the spring break of his sophomore year Miller wrote No Villain, his first play. The play received the university's prestigious Hopwood Award, which included much-needed scholarship money. A revised version of the play earned him another $1,250 in prize money from the Theater Guild's Bureau of New Plays. Miller entered the Hopwood contest again the following year, walking away with first and second place honors.
Miller graduated from college in 1938 and found a job writing radio plays for the Federal Theater Project, a New Deal program that supported the dramatic arts. In a shadow of the anti-Communist fervor that would engulf the country a decade later, Congress cut the program's budget in 1939 over suspicions about the writers' leftist sympathies. (Though Miller was unabashedly leftist, he never joined the Communist party.) An unemployed Miller went on welfare, and kept writing. A year later Miller married his college sweetheart, Mary Slattery, and the couple moved to Brooklyn. It was a trying time professionally for Miller. He had written two plays, The Half Bridge and The Golden Years, but was unable to find a producer interested in them. Mary supported them by working as an editor and waitress. Miller eventually took on a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, working nights to leave his days free for writing.
Two hard years of professional disillusionment nearly ended Miller's career. In 1943 he was hired as a screenwriter for the film The Story of G.I. Joe, but his Hollywood experience was so disappointing that he quit before the film was done. The next year, Mary gave birth to daughter Jane and Miller's play The Man Who Had All the Luck received the Theater Guild National Award. Its Broadway opening, however, was a bomb. The play closed after only four performances. Miller seriously considered quitting writing. He didn't (obviously, or you wouldn't be reading his biography today) but the experience left him with a lifelong distaste for critics. "I never had a critic in my corner in this country," he later told an interviewer, adding that he never saved reviews of his plays. "I don't know a critic who penetrates the center of anything."6