Literary daybook, Jan. 22

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 22, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 22, Norma makes her best fry bread.
-- "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" (1993)
By Sherman Alexie

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day, 15 years apart, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" (1953) and Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" (1938) premiered. Although both were poorly reviewed to start, "The Crucible" would win a Tony and "Our Town" a Pulitzer; and both would become not only classics of American theater, but classic, opposite statements on the idea of community living.

Miller's researches into the Salem witch trials of 1692 were conducted while he and many of his colleagues were under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Though still young, Miller had the success of "All My Sons" (1947) and "Death of a Salesman" (1949) behind him, and the courage to pursue a conviction that he knew could bring ruin to his professional and personal life. In his autobiography, "Timebends," Miller describes how even these apprehensions left him unprepared for the cold shoulder he got from the opening-night audience in New York:

"... an invisible sheet of ice formed over their heads, thick enough to skate on. In the lobby at the end, people with whom I had some fairly close professional acquaintanceships passed me by as though I were invisible."

Despite the indifferent reviews and dwindling audiences, the production struggled on for some months as "an act of resistance" by many of the actors, many of whom soon worked for little or no pay. Miller recalls one memorable performance when, just at John Proctor's execution, the audience stood up and bowed their heads for several minutes; the puzzled cast were finally informed that the Rosenbergs were at that moment being electrocuted in Sing Sing. When "Death of a Salesman" was revived in 1955 it ran for two years, and has since become Miller's most produced play. Miller received his own reprieve, too: Though convicted in 1956 of contempt by HUAC, he appealed and won.

If George Rockwell lived in Salem, Norman Rockwell lived in Grover's Corners. Wilder described himself as "temperamentally undiscourageable," his play as an attempt "to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life." At the beginning of Act 3 the "Our Town" stage manager admires the Salem folk, compared to the tourists and city slickers at any rate:

"Over there are the old stones -- 1670, 1680. Strong-minded people that come a long way to be independent. Summer people walk around there laughing at the funny words on the tombstones ... it don't do any harm. And genealogists come up from Boston -- get paid by city people for looking up their ancestors. They want to make sure they're Daughters of the American Revolution and of the Mayflower ... Well, I guess that don't do any harm, either. Wherever you come near the human race, there's layers and layers of nonsense ..."

The "nonsense" in Salem has been explained in various ways. One theory ties it to rye bread mold, which can cause LSD-type visions; a more recent theory (Mary Beth Norton, "In the Devil's Snare") ties it to the political and economic fallout from the Indian wars; and not to be left out is "The Lottery," by small-town New Englander Shirley Jackson.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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