Archibald MacLeish was born in swanky Glencoe on the Lake Michigan shore north of Chicago on May 7, 1892. He became one of the most important American poets of the 20th Century and an extraordinary public intellectual and servant. Yet he is not regarded as an Illinois poet because he was aimed by his parents, particularly his mother, like an arrow for the Ivy League and a place among the Eastern elite.
His father Andrew was the son of a poor Glasgow shop keeper who had emigrated to the U.S. and made a respectable fortune as a Chicago dry goods merchant. But his highly accomplished and ambitious mother Martha, who by the time he was born already been the President of Rockford College, was a Hillard and a direct descendent of the Mayflower’s William Brewster. She felt this distinguished lineage destined her son to deserved greatness.
To prepare him, Archibald was educated from 1907 to 1911 at The Hotchkiss School, a toney private boarding school in Connecticut that existed solely to prepare the right sort of young men for Yale.
At college MacLeish edited and wrote for the Yale Literary Magazine, contributed to the Yale Review, and composed Songs for a Summer’s Day, a sonnet sequence that was chosen as the Prize Poem of 1915. He was duly elected—conspiracy theorist alert—to the secret Skull and Bones Society and Phi Beta Kapa.
Upon graduation in 1916 MacLeish married very suitably to Miss Ada Hitchcock and enrolled that fall at Harvard Law School. By the time Yale University Press published his first full book of poetry, Tower of Ivory which included Our Lady of Troy, the first of his long poems, in 1977 MacLeish was otherwise engaged.
But his steady and dutiful march to just the life his mother envisioned for him was interrupted, as it was for so many by World War I. Like so many other y==oung men who were or would become major writers, MacLeish signed up as an ambulance driver to get to the front in France in advance of the American Expeditionary Force. When it arrived, he transferred to the Army and rose to the rank of captain in the artillery by war’s end.
The war, of course was a shattering experience. MacLeish recognized that the world was changed fundamentally in some way. It took him a little longer to realize that he was, too. He dutifully returned home to resume his life, including his law studies at Harvard. He graduated in 1919, taught law for a semester at Harvard, and then worked briefly as an editor for The New Republic before spending three years practicing business law.
|Ada Hitchcock, a noted singer, and Archibald MacLeish before their move to Paris.|
And then, suddenly, he had had enough. He threw up his job, his mother’s expectations, the shining and respectable career that would have made him, inevitably, a very rich man. In 1923 he packed up his wife Ada and their two children to take up residence in a fourth-floor flat on the Boulevard St. Michel in Paris. Suddenly, he was an expatriate, albeit one who could live more comfortably than say the perpetually broke Ernest Hemingway. But he knew them all—Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso. Others he would meet and hob nob with as a guest of Gerald and Sarah Murphy on the Riviera including John Dos Passos, Jean Cocteau, John O’Hara, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker, and Robert Benchley.
In addition to heady conversation and a bit of suitably bohemian carousing, MacLeish found time to work seriously on his poetry. He embraced the modernists—the new, post-war identity of the imagists—particularly their high priests, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. His style, world view, themes shifted. By 1924 he was able to release a new book, The Happy Marriage, and Other Poems featuring the long title poem and a number of short ones, a combination which confused some readers and critics, but which he continued to employ. Two years later Harry Crosby, publisher of the Black Sun Press issued a first, limited edition of MacLeish’s break out long poem Einstein, a verse exploration of biography, science, and an emerging world. He also came out with Streets in the Moon which contained many of the short poems for which he is now best known, including those coming to grips with his war experience and Ars Poetica which some viewed as a clear manifesto of the modernists art-for-arts-sensibility. But almost as soon as it was published, the world pushed MacLeish in a different direction. He was about to become, most definitely about real things in the world and a voice for change.
When he returned to the States in 1928 he found himself something of a famous poet. He contributed widely to magazines from Poetry, to the New Yorker and The Nation, to popular journals like Collier’s. Many of these short poems, like those in Streets in the Moon, have become widely anthologized and are familiar to those with a survey course understanding of modern American poetry. They ended up in later omnibus collections and, to his regret became more remembered than his very ambitious long poems.
Back in the states, somewhat to his own surprise, MacLeish found that his expatriate status and reputation as a ground-breaking poet, had not entirely destroyed his residual respectability. From 1930 to 1938 he supported his family a writer and editor for that bastion of capitalism, Fortune Magazine. Working, as a later poet would say, in the belly of the beast, the stock market crisis of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression convinced him that capitalism and the free market had collapsed due to the greed and short sightedness of the wealth oligarchs who could not stop themselves-- from continuing to extract milk from the dead cow. The victims of the collapse and the greed, the working and middle classes would understandably turn to panaceas like Marxism and Soviet style Communism. Unlike his friend and associates who had fully embraced Marxism, however, he did not feel that it was historically inevitable or even necessarily beneficial in the long term.
For one thing, the victims might just as easily be conned into an even more dangerous alternative. He saw the specter of fascism rising in Europe and was alarmed. He was among the earliest of American anti-fascists. MacLeish’s hope, and sometimes it seemed a forlorn one, was for a virtually revolutionary makeover of capitalism to defang if of its most vicious aspects and provide both security and dignified full citizenship to the working and middle classes.
Now that he had something to say, MacLeish invented what he called his public voice, more didactic and direct stripped of some of the frills and images of artistic verse, yet powerful. He used this voice in both short pieces and interwove it alternately with his image-filled verse in his longer poems, expanding and elucidating the themes. This work could be found in his books of the 1930’s—New Found Land, 1930; Conquistador, a long narrative poem in ’32; Before Match, also in ’32; Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller’s City about capitalism, public art, and Diego Rivera in ’33; Public Speech, ’36; Land of the Free, ’38; and America Was Promises in 1939.
By mid-decade he was seeking new avenues to project his poetry and actively engage an audience. He turned to radio scripts, reader’s theater style presentation of some of his long poems, and finally full verse drama on the stage. The radio scripts included The Fall of the City, aired in April, 1937 and Air Raid, based on the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War by Nazi airmen flying for Franco and Picasso’s famous painting, broadcast in October, 1938. Panic: A Play in Verse, was a variation on the Cain story set against the background of the Great Depression. Young Orson Welles was cast as McGafferty the everyman who in a blind fury embraces Marxist determinism while the Financier fails. The Blind Man, acting as a Greek Chorus and MacLeish’s Public Voice, commented on the mutual tragedy.
MacLeish was hardly the only one who held these ideas. Among those who shared them was his fellow patrician, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his practical operative, Harry Hopkins. Roosevelt admired the poets work and decided that he needed his services. Their views were so similar that MacLeish earned the reputation as the Poet of the New Deal. Their mutual friend, Felix Frankfurter, was the messenger. As MacLeish put it, “The President decided I wanted to be Librarian of Congress.”
|First day on the job as Librarian of Congress.|
The 1939 nomination was highly controversial. Republicans in Congress were predictably outraged that the job was being offered to a known associate of Communists and a partisan of the President arguing the post should be non-political. Isolationists objected to his aggressive anti-fascism—just the stance that made him so attractive to Roosevelt at this juncture. But noisy and organized opposition also rolled in from the American Library Association and academics. They had spent decades trying to raise being a librarian to a profession at least on the par with teaching and had long argued that only college trained administrators were fit to lead major institutions. And now the biggest, most important plum in the field was being given to someone with no library training at all. Even the President of Harvard, where MacLeish was a respected faculty member, came out publicly against the appointment.
Another obstacle was the incumbent Librarian, Herbert Putnam who had served in the post since his appointment by William McKinley in 1899. Highly respected and a sentimental favorite, Republicans rallied to his cause. Roosevelt enticed him into retirement by naming him Librarian Emeritus with a continuing elder advisor role. In the end, MacLeish was confirmed and Putnam over played his hand, offering to continue to virtually manage the library from his ceremonial office and let MacLeish be a figurehead.
He found a hostile staff of long term functionaries resistant to change, but librarian or not MacLeish turned out to be a more than able administrator. He commissioned committees of experts to examine the vast collection and found that one quarter of the entire collection had never been catalogued and was thus essentially useless. The problem was growing worse with almost indiscriminate acquisition. In time he was able to implement new policies and procedures that ate away steadily at the backlog while refining the collection, including filling out areas where it was shockingly lacking. Eventually MacLeish won over his critics in the Library association for the professionalism of his administration, even if he never won the hearts of Republicans in Congress.
More important to Roosevelt, MacLeish expanded public education programs including lectures and readings—and featured many voices—political, diplomatic, and artistic who sounded the alarm on the threat of the Nazis and Fascists. He also explored things like sponsoring radio programing.
One of his greatest contributions was in establishing the position that became known as the Poet Laureate of United States—officially the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress which was funded from hefty donation from shipbuilding tycoon Archer M. Huntington. Huntington tied his funding to the selection of came from a donation in 1937 from, a wealthy ship builder. Huntington’s largess was tied to the appointment of Joseph Auslander to the post, which was intended to be a life-time sinecure. MacLeish had little regard for Auslander as a poet, but did find his connections useful in brining first class talent like Robert Frost to the Library for readings. Gently, he maneuvered to make the post an annual appointment with the possibility of a second term. That brought a lot of new talent to the library on a regular basis and the publicity surrounding the selections helped increase interest in poetry.
With America’s entry into World War II MacLeish picked up some very important extra assignments. He was called on to assist in the creation of the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Wild Bill Donovan’s predecessor to the CIA. Top academic and their graduate students in many disciplines staffed the branch, which was located in an annex of the Library. It brought sophisticated analysis to the intelligence service, and helped cement the tradition of drawing on Ivy League—especial Yale—alumni in what became a permanent establishment. MacLeish also served as Director of the War Department’s Office of Facts and Figures and as the Assistant Director of the Office of War Information, essentially a propaganda post.
After leaving the Library of Congress in 1944, MacLeish capped off his government service as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and spent a post-war year representing the U.S. at the creation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO.)
During his years of public service, his literary output essentially stopped. After returning to academia he began writing again. Actfive and Other Poems published in 1947 announced his return to verse. It was followed by a career retrospective, Collected Poems 1917-1952. In 1948 Harvard elevated him to Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, its most distinguished endowed chair.
|Raymond Massey and Christopher Plummer in the 1959 Tony Award winning production of J.B. directed by Elia Kazan.|
Increasingly MacLeish was drawn to verse drama. His best known play, J.B.: A Play in Verse, based on the Biblical story of Job, was first mounted by Yale School of Drama and a revised version was produced to wide acclaim on Broadway in 1958. Also noteworthy were the radio play The Trojan Horse first presented on BBC in Britain; the 1960 teleplay The Secret of Freedom; Herakles in 1965; Scratch, based on Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster produced on Broadway in 1971; and a final radio play, The Great American Fourth of July Parade in 1975.
By the time MacLeish died on April 20, 1982 at the age of 89 in Boston he had amassed a slew of honors—three Pulitzer Prizes, two for poetry and one for drama; the Bollingen Prize in Poetry; a National Book Award; a Tony Award for J.B; the French Legion of Honor for his contributions to the Allied cause during World War II, and Presidential Medal of Freedom from Jimmy Carter in 1977.
The would-be scruffy expatriate poet had fulfilled his mother’s dreams after all as the poet of the 20th Century Liberal Democratic Establishment.
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit
As old medallions to the thumb
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown -
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind -
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea -
A poem should not mean
The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died.
They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.
Invocation to the Social Muse
Señora, it is true the Greeks are dead.
It is true also that we here are Americans:
That we use the machines: that a sight of the god is unusual:
That more people have more thoughts: that there are
Progress and science and tractors and revolutions and
Marx and the wars more antiseptic and murderous
And music in every home: there is also Hoover.
Does the lady suggest we should write it out in The Word?
Does Madame recall our responsibilities? We are
Whores, Fräulein: poets, Fräulein, are persons of
Known vocation following troops: they must sleep with
Stragglers from either prince and of both views.
The rules permit them to further the business of neither.
It is also strictly forbidden to mix in maneuvers.
Those that infringe are inflated with praise on the plazas—
Their bones are resultantly afterwards found under newspapers.
Preferring life with the sons to death with the fathers,
We also doubt on the record whether the sons
Will still be shouting around with the same huzzas—
For we hope Lady to live to lie with the youngest.
There are only a handful of things a man likes,
Generation to generation, hungry or
Well fed: the earth’s one: life’s
One: Mister Morgan is not one.
There is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style.
He that goes naked goes further at last than another.
Wrap the bard in a flag or a school and they’ll jimmy his
Door down and be thick in his bed—for a month:
(Who recalls the address now of the Imagists?)
But the naked man has always his own nakedness.
People remember forever his live limbs.
They may drive him out of the camps but one will take him.
They may stop his tongue on his teeth with a rope’s argument—
He will lie in a house and be warm when they are shaking.
Besides, Tovarishch, how to embrace an army?
How to take to one’s chamber a million souls?
How to conceive in the name of a column of marchers?
The things of the poet are done to a man alone
As the things of love are done—or of death when he hears the
Step withdraw on the stair and the clock tick only.
Neither his class nor his kind nor his trade may come near him
There where he lies on his left arm and will die,
Nor his class nor his kind nor his trade when the blood is jeering
And his knee’s in the soft of the bed where his love lies.
I remind you, Barinya, the life of the poet is hard—
A hardy life with a boot as quick as a fiver:
Is it just to demand of us also to bear arms?
Dr. Sigmund Freud Discovers The Sea Shell
Science, that simple saint, cannot be bothered
Figuring what anything is for:
Enough for her devotions that things are
And can be contemplated soon as gathered.
She knows how every living thing was fathered,
She calculates the climate of each star,
She counts the fish at sea, but cannot care
Why any one of them exists, fish, fire or feathered.
Why should she? Her religion is to tell
By rote her rosary of perfect answers.
Metaphysics she can leave to man:
She never wakes at night in heaven or hell
Staring at darkness. In her holy cell
There is no darkness ever: the pure candle
Burns, the beads drop briskly from her hand.
Who dares to offer Her the curled sea shell!
She will not touch it!--knows the world she sees
Is all the world there is! Her faith is perfect!
And still he offers the sea shell . . .
Of what far sea upon what unknown ground
Troubles forever with that asking sound?
What surge is this whose question never ceases?