Welcome to Wilmington, Mr. Miller

“In 1941 Arthur Miller, penniless, got a job with the Library of Congress. [The 26-year-old playwright] was sent South to record accents. Miller arrived in Wilmington, North Carolina, a few weeks before Pearl Harbor….. A huge new facility had just been built to provide ships for the Navy and Atlantic convoys. But the black people who had built the yards could not get work making the ships. There was also strife in textile manufacturing.

“Miller was more interested in what the people had to say rather than in the way they said it. Most striking to Miller… were the people making music out of their experience and struggle — a railwayman singing raw blues and striking women shirt-makers…. He found a hall and recorded several songs and interviews.

“Miller’s recording trip lasted only a few weeks, but it had a profound effect on him. He had never been to the South before and was shocked by the racism and anti-semitism. He was held at gunpoint for being Jewish. Once he made his host, a health care organizer, incandescent with rage by addressing a black man as ‘sir’ rather than ‘boy’ (the man was in his 50s, Miller in his early 20s).”

— Adapted from “Arthur Miller: The Accidental Music Collector” (bbc.co.uk)

According to “Arthur Miller,” a 2009 biography by Christopher Bigsby, Miller also was taken aback by the dietary habits of the health official [who was apparently Dr. T. F. Vestal, state director of industrial hygiene]: “For breakfast he had four small bags of peanuts and two Coca-Colas. In the corner of his office were cases of Coca-Cola. He was the head [sic] of the health service of the state of North Carolina!”

4 thoughts on “Welcome to Wilmington, Mr. Miller”

  1. Dr. Vestal was an expert in lung diseases, especially those caused by dust. So, despite his coca cola breakfasts, he was particularly well-suited for the job of looking in to industrial hygiene in North Carolina given the amount of lung disease caused by textile mills, etc. A native of Randolph County, Dr. Vestal was trained at UNC and the University of Maryland, and later ran the TB program in the state of North Carolina. He is said to have x-rayed several hundred thousand North Carolina chests during the 1940s. Now, back to my breakfast of diet Dr. Pepper and a pack of nabs.

  2. The Bigsby bio also includes this unexpected note:
    “Buried in the Library [of Congress] archive… is a recording of Miller, just turned 26, singing ‘Old Man River’ in an impressive tenor voice…. It appears to be the equivalent of an out-take on a recording [of] songs devised by women garment workers striking for higher wages.
    “Listening to it, it is tempting to think that perhaps the theater’s gain was the bobbysoxers’ loss.”

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