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Archibald MacLeish's Life and Career


David Barber

He was born in Glencoe, Illinois, the son of Andrew MacLeish, a prosperous dry-goods merchant, and Martha Hillard, a college professor. Andrew MacLeish was a reserved, stern father whose lack of attention to his son may have generated Archibald's fierce drive to succeed. The influence of Martha MacLeish, who worked to develop her four children's sense of social responsibility, helps account for Archibald's intense involvement in American public life as well as his concern for those in personal or political trouble.

MacLeish spent his childhood on a seventeen-acre estate on Lake Michigan. He was a somewhat rebellious though industrious child who needed, his mother judged, the discipline of a private school; he therefore attended Hotchkiss from 1907 to 1911. At Yale (1911-1915) he majored in English, wrote poetry, and was heavily involved in campus literary, social, and athletic activities. After graduating from Yale, he entered Harvard Law School in the fall of 1915. In June 1916 he married Ada Taylor Hitchcock; they had four children, three of whom survived infancy.

MacLeish's first volume of poetry, Tower of Ivory, appeared late in 1917 shortly after he had left for France and World War I to serve in the Yale Mobile Hospital Unit. He soon transferred to artillery school and eventually saw action in the second battle of the Marne, commanding Battery B of the 146th Field Artillery. He was then ordered back to the United States to instruct draftees in artillery use and was there, a first lieutenant, when the war ended. MacLeish became embittered toward the war when his brother Ken, a fighter pilot, died in combat, but this disillusionment (best expressed in the poem "Memorial Rain" [1926]) would not prevent his appreciating the need to oppose fascism in the thirties.

Returning to Harvard Law School, MacLeish graduated at the head of his class in 1919. He then taught law courses for a semester in Harvard's government department but turned down an offer to teach at the Harvard Law School; he worked briefly, instead, as an editor for the New Republic. In September 1920 he joined the Boston law firm of Choate, Hall and Stewart. He was a successful lawyer, but feeling confined by the profession and craving time to write poetry, he quit the firm on the same day he was offered a partnership in February 1923.

Though he always felt an obligation to society, MacLeish believed at this time that he could pay his debt simply by creating poetry: "it was the art I owed," he recalled in Riders on the Earth. In September 1923 the MacLeishes headed for Paris, he hoping to become an accomplished poet and she to become a professional singer. There they joined the expatriate literary community, meeting writers such as E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. With Hemingway, MacLeish began a long and close though difficult friendship.

Always an organized worker, he established a program of reading to develop poetic style and technique. Perhaps he studied too well, for during the Paris period he wrote several long poems, which sounded much like T S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and other pioneering modernists (The Pot of Earth [1925], Nobodaddy [1926], Einstein [1926, in Streets in the Moon], and The Hamlet of A. MacLeish [1928]). But he also wrote short poems equally notable for lyrical grace and a tone of muted horror at the human experience of spinning on our small planet through the dark and empty universe, as in "You, Andrew Marvell."

This poem and other lyrics--such as "Ars Poetica," "The End of the World," "Eleven," and "'Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments’"--have long been the source of MacLeish's poetic reputation.

The MacLeishes returned to the United States in 1928 and bought a farm in Conway, Massachusetts. "American Letter" in New Found Land (1930) asserts his commitment to the United States, despite the pull of Europe. The long poem Conquistador (1932) presents Cortes's conquest of the Aztecs as symbolic of the American experience. In 1933 Conquistador won the Pulitzer Prize, the first of three awarded to MacLeish.

MacLeish worked for Henry Luce's new magazine Fortune from 1929 to 1938, writing voluminously on the American and international scenes. His production of poems, essays, and plays was also prolific. In them MacLeish carried on a debate with himself about the relation between art and society. He rejected the modernist emphasis on the private individual's experience and the poet's alienation from society. The poet, he came to believe, was inevitably involved in society. Poetry, especially in a tumultuous time like the thirties, should be "public speech." His stage and radio plays of the thirties, notably Panic (1935), The Fall of the City (1937), and Air Raid (1938) aimed at and sometimes reached a wide audience.

MacLeish was strongly criticized during the thirties not only for specific opinions, but for apparent inconsistency. He argued each position as though it were eternal truth, yet from poem to essay to play both his political views and his sense of the writer's social role varied as he worked out, in print, what he believed. By the late thirties he had achieved a consistent position, a vision of human freedom, dignity, and solidarity that was inevitably at odds with fascism, communism, and the excesses of American capitalism. What was wrong with America, MacLeish decided, was that Americans lacked a clear vision of their human potential as well as their national goals. But he believed that poetry could supply it. At times he argued that only poetry could provide a unifying cultural vision. He tried to capture it in poems, plays, and a book of photographs, Land of the Free (1938), for which he supplied the text, but none of his formulations of "an image of mankind in which men can again believe" (Poetry 38 [1931]: 216) caught the public imagination.

He did catch, however, the scorn of modernists for ignoring the supposed separation of art and politics and writing "public poetry" about the need for brotherhood and a common cultural vision. He was criticized also for transforming his poetic theory and practice from the vintage modernism expressed in "Ars Poetica"--"a poem should not mean / but be"--to a public poetry that commented directly on social and political issues, as if the Great Depression and the rise of fascism might not give one second thoughts about fundamentals.

Politically during the thirties MacLeish was developing a liberal humanism that made him admire Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whom he later wrote speeches. Along the way he took hits from all sides; the Left attacked him as an "unconscious fascist" and the Right as an associate of communists. In 1939 J. Parnell Thomas coined the term "fellow traveler" with specific reference to MacLeish on the occasion of his nomination by President Roosevelt to become librarian of Congress. In this position he applied his formidable administrative talents to reorganizing and modernizing the inertia-bound Library of Congress. He also directed an information/propaganda agency called the Office of Facts and Figures in 1941. The agency lasted less than a year and lacked the authority to accomplish much. MacLeish then became assistant director of the Office of War Information (1942-1943). He wrote little poetry during this period but in essays and speeches continued to argue for freedom and communal solidarity, not just to overcome fascism but to promote and exercise the freedoms on which the United States was based.

In 1944 MacLeish resigned from the library and prepared to return to private life. Roosevelt, however, appointed him assistant secretary of state for cultural and public affairs. In 1945 he resigned this position and led the U.S. delegation to the organizational meeting of UNESCO, and in 1946 he served as assistant head of the U.S. delegation to UNESCO. Only after that did he return to private life.

Actfive and Other Poems (1948), MacLeish's first poetic volume since America Was Promises (1939), contained public poems and private lyrics. The hortatory, activist stance of the thirties was gone, replaced by disillusionment with the political world. Actfive asserts that in the failure of the state, science, industry, heroes, and "the Crowd," nevertheless "The heart persists. The love survives." There remains the impulse to be "beautiful and brave," "dutiful and good."

MacLeish became the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard in 1949. He held this position, teaching a seminar in creative writing and a lecture course in poetry, until mandatory retirement in 1962. Teaching only in the fall semesters, he had ample time to write. During the fifties he achieved gratifying successes and a balance between his public and private work. Collected Poems 1917-52 (1952) brought not only his second Pulitzer Prize, but Hayden Carruth's apology for the past carping of critics (Nation, 31 Jan. 1953). MacLeish was elected president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1953. He tried unsuccessfully to involve the academy in confronting the anti-Communist hysteria of the time. He fought McCarthyism during those years in essays, poems, and the play The Trojan Horse (broadcast and published in 1952) and by standing up for those whom Senator Joseph R. McCarthy threatened. After visiting Ezra Pound in 1955, MacLeish worked tirelessly to obtain Pound's release from St. Elizabeths hospital, a goal accomplished in 1958. That same year he published. J.B., his reworking of the story of Job that, as a book and as a Broadway play, became his greatest popular success. J.B. brought MacLeish his third Pulitzer.

After his retirement from Harvard in 1962, MacLeish, always an energetic person, slowed his pace only gradually. He was a public resource in politics as well as literature, writing often for public celebrations and commemorations. And he accomplished a long-frustrated goal, locating in 1968 a vision of human existence that had a broad public impact, when he reflected for the New York Times on the first photograph of the earth taken from beyond the moon (the Apollo 8 voyage). It was an image with whose help "man may discover what he really is": "To see the earth as we now see it, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the unending night--brothers who see now they are truly brothers (Riders on the Earth, p. xiv).

In his later years MacLeish wrote excellent lyric poems that reflect in a direct, personal tone on love and aging. Not that he lost the desire to advise and exhort; the play Herakles (1967) warns of the destructive potential of science. But the short lyrics constitute his best poetry after J.B. It can be argued that these later poems are as good as his famous poems of the twenties. He died in Boston.

Once considered a major modernist poet of the generation that followed Pound and Eliot, MacLeish remains notable as one of those who influenced the development of modern poetry. With his sensitivity to technique and his lyrical gift, he expressed common existential anxieties of the time. And no poem has expressed the modernist sense of art so well as "Ars Poetica" (1926) with its signature statement: "A poem should not mean / but be."

MacLeish's reputation began to decline partly because he rejected the orthodox modernist position when he accepted the poet's complicity in society and politics. Another reason was that his sensitivity to styles and fashions exposed him to charges of derivativeness. But this receptiveness was also a strength, for time and again his instinct for finding the sources of power and vitality led him to the centers of influence and activity: Paris in the twenties, New York in the thirties, Washington in the forties, Harvard in the fifties. If he followed trends, he also innovated in his cultural poetics, in poetry and drama, and in creative uses of media (radio, television, film, the photographic essay). Craving success, he also devoted himself to the common good and dedicated his energies to public purposes. He had a message for Americans, for everyone, and the medium was his art. "Ars Poetica" notwithstanding, even a poem had to mean.

The Library of Congress is the major source of unpublished materials, including notebooks and correspondence. For other sources of the voluminous MacLeish materials, including many tape-recorded interviews with and about MacLeish, see the acknowledgments and bibliography in Scott Donaldson, in collaboration with R. H. Winnick, Archibald MacLeish: An American Life (1992). This biography is the definitive and indispensable work on MacLeish. The most convenient and complete edition of MacLeish's poems is Collected Poems 1917-1982 (1985), which includes poems that MacLeish declined to publish during his lifetime; the most convenient edition of his major plays is Six Plays (1980). Of MacLeish's several collections of essays, the most rewarding today are A Continuing Journey (1968) and Riders on the Earth: Essays and Recollections (1978). R. H. Winnick, ed., Archibald MacLeish: Letters 1907-1982 (1983), is invaluable, and two volumes of conversations and interviews are useful: Warren V. Bush, ed., The Dialogues of Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren (1964), and Bernard A. Drabeck and Helen E. Ellis, eds., Archibald MacLeish: Reflections (1986). Edward J. Mullaly, Archibald MacLeish: A Checklist (1973), is an exhaustive bibliography. An obituary and an editorial tribute are in the New York Times, 21-22 Apr. 1982.

From American National Biography. Ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.


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