This is the first post in a 7-part series on the great American playwright Arthur Miller’s sojourn in Wilmington, N.C. during the Second World War.
Today I am remembering a visit to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The center is located on a quiet hallway a floor below the great library’s main reading room and contains vast collections of oral histories, music and other audio recordings.
You can hear Mississippi sharecroppers singing the blues there. You can hear Polish immigrants playing polkas. You can hear Navajo sacred songs.
I was there to listen to audio recordings that the playwright Arthur Miller made on the North Carolina coast in the fall of 1941.
Few know about those recordings. Miller later became one of the most important American playwrights of the 20thcentury, but he was a complete unknown in 1941.
At that time, he was 26 years old and barely out of college. He had not yet had any real success as a playwright. He had not written The Crucible, Death of a Salesman or any of the other plays that later made him famous.
He had certainly not yet married his very famous second wife, Marilyn Monroe.
To make ends meet, the young Miller had taken a temporary job doing research for radio documentaries at the Library of Congress.
On his first and apparently only field work assignment, his superiors sent him to Wilmington to record the stories of people living through a boom that had doubled the city’s population in just a few months. That boom was due to the local construction of a colossal army base and a sprawling shipyard in anticipation of the country’s entry into the Second World War.
When I was at the Library of Congress, I found a letter that Miller’s boss, Allan Lomax, wrote to the Library’s director that explained the young playwright’s mission in Wilmington. The Library’s director, by the way, was the acclaimed poet, Archibald MacLeish.
In that letter, Lomax said that he wanted to pioneer “a new function for radio; that of letting the people explain themselves and their lives to the entire nation.”
In the radio script that Miller later wrote about his Wilmington trip, he has one of his supervisors instructing him to “get on the Library Sound Recording Truck and go down to North Carolina. There’s a boom on in a town called Wilmington…. Ask the folks there what’s going on, what they think is wrong and what’s right. Talk to the people. Get records of their answers, their questions…. Get Wilmington, North Carolina into that sound truck.”
That is just what Miller and his sound engineer, Johnny Langenegger, did for three weeks between October 15 and November 5, 1941. Those were the voices I had come to the American Folklife Center to hear.
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To be continued– tomorrow, part 2: “A Shipyard has risen like a bony giant”
Special thanks to Beverly Tetterton, formerly at the New Hanover County Public Library, for first introducing me to Miller’s audio recordings, to Christopher Bigsby, for his wonderful BBC documentary, “The Accidental Music Collector,” and to the curators at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for their research assistance. An earlier version of this series appeared as an essay in the North Carolina Literary Review.