For more than a decade after Arthur Miller’s death, the country’s stewards of literary history vied for more than 200 boxes of the playwright and former Roxbury resident’s journals, drafts and correspondence. Last month, the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin acquired the Miller trove, uniting the 200-some boxes with manuscripts and letters that Miller gave to the center from the 1960s until his death in 2005.
The Ransom Center staved off a late push from Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library for the Miller papers, though Stephen Enniss, the center’s director, said they were “compelled to match” the Beinecke Library’s offer of $2.7 million.
“It’s a very high price tag,” Enniss said, the most the Ransom Center has paid for a literary acquisition and eclipsed in price only by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate Papers, which the center purchased in 2003 for $5 million.
In 1947, Miller moved from Manhattan to Roxbury, in rural Litchfield County. He built a small studio on the grounds of his Roxbury farmhouse; there, he wrote “Death of A Salesman,” his melancholy appraisal of the American Dream.
“He fell in love with the land,” said Julia Bolus, Miller’s former assistant and director of the Arthur Miller Trust. Miller would live in Roxbury for the rest of his life.
In 1961, not long after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe, Miller approached a New York agent about donating some of his papers to secure a tax break. The agent steered him to the Ransom Center, and from 1961 to 1962 Miller shipped about a dozen boxes of manuscripts and letters to Texas.
After Miller’s death in 2005, the Ransom Center pursued the playwright’s remaining papers. Though Yale also expressed interest in purchasing the archive, offering the Miller estate $2.7 million, Enniss said his center wanted to keep Miller’s paper trail whole and in one place. They matched the offer.
“It’s a widely recognized principle that it benefits researchers and students if archives aren’t broken up and scattered,” Enniss said. “We were committed to following that practice. There’s also the fact Miller had documented his intention to leave his archive in the care of the Ransom Center.”
A Yale spokesman said the Beinecke Library “responded with due diligence when the Miller estate reached out, given that Arthur Miller is an essential artist of the American experience.”
“Authors and estates often engage with the Beinecke Library in conversations about their archives,” he added, “as the library is recognized for especially broad and deep holdings of the American theater.”
The newly acquired trove will be available to the public within two years, Enniss said.
One person who’s seen the papers is Eric Colleary, the Ransom Center’s curator of theater and performing arts. Though he’s only just begun going through the 200-some boxes, Colleary said they contain journal entries, letters, drafts, undeveloped story ideas, contracts, photographs from productions and photographs from Miller’s own life. Together, they offer a glimpse into how Miller arrived at some of the 20th century’s most enduring works of theater and literature.
“Miller has key scenes that he wants to depict, and he fits them together in handwritten drafts during the production process,” Colleary said. “And then, once he hears what works and what doesn’t quite work, he goes back in typewritten drafts to tighten the dialogue. He’s masterful with language.”
Bolus, who began working for Miller in 1995, said the playwright knew his drafts, notes and letters would one day be combed for insight into his creative process.
“He was meticulous about keeping a record of his work,” she said. “He knew it would be studied. He knew he was crafting an archive as he worked.” The archive contains early drafts of plays that didn’t arrive on stage until decades later, Bolus said, along with story ideas that were never published.
“He was very strict with himself and his work,” she said. “Even if he liked a story, he was strict about what he was willing to publish.”
The boxes shipped to Texas last month also include correspondence from the period when Miller was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Commission, an ordeal he drew on when writing “The Crucible.” The oldest paper in the archive is a letter the 19-year-old Miller wrote to his family from the University of Michigan, Bolus said.
More than 50 years after they were first performed, Miller’s plays continue to be a popular pick for theater groups around the world, Colleary said. And the playwright born in 1915 remains part of the American lexicon, his name a stand-in for the struggle against mass hysteria.
“When Trump writes a tweet about witch hunts,” Colleary said, “you’ll see people respond by saying, ‘Read Arthur Miller.’ ”