453. More Weight: Arthur Miller’s Crucible

About a month ago in a post I mentioned Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Sometimes a passing reference like that can bring old thoughts and feelings to the surface, and send me back for a closer look.

I encountered The Crucible in the winter of 1966. Yes, they had printed books that far back. I was in my first quarter at college, writing what was probably my first college paper, “The Evil of Innocence.” My take was that evil came from the girls’ testimonies despite their essential innocence. I offer no apologies for lack of sophistication; everybody has to start somewhere.

For Arthur Miller, The Crucible was about the McCarthy hearings before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. I remember those days only vaguely, since I was less than ten years old. What I actually remember is going to a public meeting with my parents at my grade school where our principal read from J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It, and gave a talk on how communism was a danger, even in our little town of 121 people.

The adults in my life were author to many nightmares.

I met Arthur Miller’s The Crucible about a decade later than I met J. Edgar, and I didn’t react to the McCarthyism allegory. I didn’t respond strongly to the characters either, except for Giles Corey calling for “More weight!” as they crushed him under stones. John Proctor left me unmoved and the various girls were merely victims. I cut them a lot of slack, for reasons you’ll understand in a moment.

In short, I didn’t react to the words on the page, but to the implications that exploded in my mind as I read them. That happens sometimes.

I had turned atheist just before my sixteenth birthday, and had told no one. I was enmeshed in a Baptist family in a Baptist town in the Baptist State of Oklahoma in the middle of the Bible Belt. I kept my head down and my mouth shut and told no one until I reached college two and a half years later.

So, when I read The Crucible I was a recent escapee from my own personal Salem. For me the main protagonist was not a man, woman, or girl, but Salem itself, seen as a massive, encircling, inescapable miasma of religious intolerance, hovering ready to strike down any who disagreed with its particular version of Christianity.

That isn’t good history. It isn’t even a full reading of The Crucible, but it was the story as I read it. No surprise, really.

Today, being a reasonably honest scholar, I went to Goodreads to see how others had reacted to The Crucible and got an earful. About half reacted to the McCarthyism allegory and gave high marks. About half gave three stars for skillful writing, then trashed The Crucible for its sexism. To be more precise, they trashed Arthur Miller for making his males into characters and his females into cyphers.

It kind of makes you wonder: did Miller write a sexist Crucible to reflect the era of the actual witchcraft trials, or because he was a grown man in the fifties and it seemed normal?

Perhaps there is one thing we can learn about great literature, which The Crucible is no matter how unpalatable it may seem to some of today’s readers. It has many messages, for many people, in many ages, and not all of them were necessarily clear in the mind of the writer. Miller saw McCarthyism. I saw the danger of being different in a small community. Goodreads is full of reviews from readers who can’t get past its sexism.

Maybe we can all agree that Giles Corey was a hero and John Proctor was a weasel?

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