American Modernist Poet
Librarian of Congress
Triple Pulitzer Prize Recipient
A man who lives, not by what he loves
but what he hates, is a sick man.
Glencoe, Illinois, Walter Gurnee's envisioned community, also known as the "Queen of Suburbs," is today the 16th wealthiest town in the United States, and Archibald's parents lived on 17 acres of it on Lake Michigan. Their fine house, “Craigie Lea” was built in 1891 to be primarily a summer home but later it became their main residence. A year later Archibald would be born there on the 7th of May.
The Too-Late Born
We too, we too, descending once again
The hills of our own land, we too have heard
Far off—Ah, que ce cor a longue haleine—
The horn of Roland in the passages of Spain,
The first, the second blast, the failing third,
And with the third turned back and climbed once more
The steep road southward, and heard faint the sound
Of swords, of horses, the disastrous war,
And crossed the dark defile at last, and found
At Roncevaux upon the darkening plain
The dead against the dead and on the silent ground
The silent slain—
- Archibald MacLeish
The father, Andrew MacLeish who was the son in 1837 of a Glasgow, Scotland shop keeper, did much better than Dad, getting an education and rising in the mercantile business several years after running away to London then Chicago. He became founder and manager of Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company in Chicago, and founded the University of Chicago. He moved up socially again by marrying third wife Martha Hillard, in 1888. (Number one, Lilias Young died, left Archibald with step sisters, Lily and Blanche. Second wife Louise Little: no one knows what happened, but he had a son, Bruce born 1881, who also managed for Papa's company, as another half relative).
Oh, cruel was the snow that sweeps Glencoe
And covers the grave o' Donald.
Oh, cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe
And murdered the house of MacDonald
-from "Ballad of Glencoe" Jim McLean (1963)
Nicknamed Patty, Mother was from an old family (Brewster) that could boast of Mayflower ancestors. She graduated from Vassar in 1878, and ten years later she had been the head of the Rockford Seminary in Illinois for four years; before that she was teaching at Vassar. She would provide three more siblings to Archibald, Martha Louise, who died a year after her 1889 birth, then Norman Hillard, who became a fine artist and afterwards there was Kenneth, born in 1894, and died in combat weeks before the end of World War I, where he was one of the first major air pilots. His baby sister was Ishbel Marjoribanks born in 1897.
When it was obvious that public school was not enough of an academic challenge for Archibald, his Connecticut Westover School headmistress aunt Mary persuaded him to go to Hotchkiss School, and in 1907 he went to Lakeview in Connecticut to attend. At the Hotchkiss school not only did he miss home, he was slow at first fitting in with the East Coast elite, but in an essay on John Milton he made a prophetic autobiographical profile of himself discussing the dilemma of public service and being a poet. As a graduate of the class of 1911, he was on his way to Yale.
Not only did his academics from preparatory school continue at Yale, but the English major also found time for football and the Skull and Bones Society or Phi Beta Kappa. He was a frat boy, too, in Psi Upsilon . Though he was the first undergraduate to have a poem published in the Yale Review, "Grief,"and have the 1915 University Prize Poem for his whole series of sonnets in Songs for a Summer's Day: he saw the need for obtaining an education for his day job. Therefore after graduating in 1915 he entered Harvard Law School. He must have had a hard time rooting for his favorite football team. This also was the time for finding a life's companion so he courted a Connecticut native recently returned from Paris, Ada Hitchcock. She was a concert singer, but now to be a wife in 1916 to a law student interrupted and turned enlisted man for World War I. They had a son, Kenneth, and then another son who died early, Brewster Hitchcock, (both whose birthdays are a complete blank). He managed to publish his first collection of poetry in 1917, Tower of Ivory. Among them was his first epic poem, "Our Lady of Troy," where he almost autobiographically contemplated and vented angst when sensing the new century and its variety of conflicts.
There's nothing good in the world but the rich will buy it:
Everything sticks to the grease of a gold note——
Even a continent——even a new sky!
Do not pity us much for the strange grass over us:
We laid the steel to the stone stock of these mountains:
The place of our graves is marked by the telegraph poles!
It was not to lie in the bottoms we came out
And the trains going over us here in the hollows...
-excerpted from "Bury Ground by the Ties"Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City (1933)
Archibald MacLeish was an ambulance driver in France instead of chasing one, afterwards he was a field artillery officer before returning home. His brother Kenneth was not as lucky, killed in action on patrol, as mentioned above, and this depressed Archibald to a great extent.
The Young Dead Soldiers
for lieutenant Richard Meyers
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. Remember us.
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
They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you
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.
They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.
However, he returned to finish his Law degree at Harvard successfully in 1919, taught there for a short time, and turned down an offer of becoming a partner at a firm. Ada gave birth to Mary Hillard, their second child, August 24th, 1922. While his interest in the political scene increased, likewise did his desire to write -- as his soul anguished like his poetry's philosophy, so he left law and the U.S.: in 1923, with Ada and the kids, departed for Paris.
In Paris, a very hip place to be in the Twenties, he became friends with fellow expatriates and vivacious socialites, Gerald and Sara Murphy. They introduced him to poets and artists like Léger (a.k.a. Saint-John Perse) and Pablo Picasso, the composer Igor Stravinsky; and writers F. Scott Fitzgerald. He happened to read some work by Ernest Hemingway, and hooked up with him there, and he became an enduring if not still a sometime combative friend. Contrary to the myth about an American community in Paris, he told the Paris Review in '74:
The world center of poetry which held Aléxis St.-Léger down at the Quai d’Orsay in his anonymity as St.-John Perse. That community—real community—drew and sustained the young Americans who lived in Paris in those years, but they didn’t belong to it nor did they communicate with it, except to watch and wonder like the rest of the world. I knew Fargue and Larbaud, and Jules Romains through Adrienne Monnier. Alexis Léger became a close friend many years afterward, when all this was gone and Paris was a Nazi slum. I knew Joyce and marveled at him. But I was not part of that Paris nor were any Americans I knew, with the possible exceptions of Tom Eliot and Ezra Pound, who sometimes appeared. In a touching letter toward the end of his life, Scott speaks of “the last American season” in Paris. If there ever was an “American season” in Paris in the twenties, Paris was not aware of it. Nor, I think, was anyone else.
His poems of this time are influenced by Edwin Arlington Robinson
, and are quasi-Victorian, and not usually brought to light. He did a verse drama in 1926 a kind of an Adam and Eve parallel poetic drama for stage, Nobodaddy
. He did what is a well-known ode to poetry, Ars Poetica, "On the Nature (or Art) of Poetry" not unlike Artes Poeticae 1
in the first Century BC. There were controversies about modern verse and social commentary, where he was noted to lean toward the latter, but he still had that Sartre
feel, especially cogent in the last line" "A poem should not mean / But be."
The fact is that nothing matters ultimately in any art but the work of art—the poem, the fiction. That comes first and it is that which remains at the last.
The MacLeish couple returned to Conway, Massachusetts in 1928 to write for his Hotchkiss alum, Henry Luce, publisher of Fortune. He had now had an "outside the box" observation of America, but began to drink from the well of some American optimism needed as an antidote for his immersion into European existentialism; this was the time he began researching for Conquistador.
STANDING between the sun and moon preserves
A certain secrecy. Or seems to keep
Something inviolate if only that
His father was an ape. -first verses of Einstein
His being influenced by some of these other outspoken auteurs and events in Europe led him to strong anti-Fascist sentiments, prominent in his work; while other modernists were not as concerned with the cultural/political climate. By 1929, especially with "Einstein, " looking at the oxymoron of blending physics and human irresponsibility, he showed he was maturing into the master.
Continually working on his poetry with new vigor, and rejecting the school of poetry that felt poetry should be more personal, rather than cultural critiquing, and thus receiving some scorn, his Conquistador provided his first Pulitzer in 1932.
And the way goes on in the worn earth:
and we (others)——
What are the dead to us in our better fortune?
They have left us the roads made and the walls standing:
They have left us the chairs in the rooms:
what is there more of them——
Either their words in the stone or their graves in the land
Or the rusted tang in the turf-root where they fought——
Has truth against us?
-excerpted from "Prologue" from Conquistador (1931)
Three years later he portrayed, as an aesthetic muckraker, the plight of the Irish and Chinese railroad workers in his ballet, Union Pacific; and using the theater as another social commentary on industry, he wrote the play (his first produced), a sort of modern-day Cain tale (the brother that killed Adam's first son, Able), all in verse, published in 1935, Panic. It was a prophetic warning to the perils of immature and greedy capitalism which wreaked havoc in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Here is the beginning of it:
PERSONS OF THE PLAY
McGAFFERTY -- owner of the country's principal industries and greatest bank; the leading industrialist and financier of his time. A man in his late fifties.
IONE -- his mistress. A woman of thirty.
IMMELMAN -- president of McGafferty's bank. Middle-aged.
GRIGGS -- a steel company lawyer. McGafferty's age or older.
A group of Bankers.
A delegation of Unemployed.
Two Bank Guards.
A Street Crowd: men, women, some well-dressed, some miserably -- people of all kinds and classes.
The action takes place in McGafferty's Office in New York and in a street before an electric news bulletin of the Times Square type -- moving words in lighted letters. Both are represented upon the same stage without division between them: the street upon the apron of the stage with the news bulletin hidden by the proscenium arch above it and visible to the audience only by the moving blurs of light; the office behind. The office, raised by several steps and enclosed on the sides by open square columns, at the back by a double door, consists of a long table, chairs, a news ticker. The whole scene is impersonal, bare, huge -- on a scale to dwarf the shapes of men and women.
Five-thirty to past seven of an evening in late February, 1933.
As the curtain rises The Street is faintly lighted by the jerking flashes of the bulletin. There are a few men and women before it, their raised faces caught by the light. A few more approach. They speak not to each other but as though alone. Words read from the bulletin (printed in italics) are spoken at a regular lagging beat as the machine forms them.
Factories closing doors...
Billions in balances frozen...
Closing as doors close with
Death in a woman's house when the
Wind closes them.
Silent at closed doors.
Silent: the doors closing: the
Comes over us
Slowly with closing of doors: with
Lights put out: with the stoves
Cold: the hands numb.
AN OLD MAN
Slowly the thing comes.
There are many signs: there are furnaces
Dead now that were burning
Thirty years in a town --
Never dark: there are foundries --
In 1937 and 1938 he wrote the radio plays, The Fall of the City and Air Raid, respectively, in keeping with his drive to proselytize art and political provocation to the masses. Air Raid was his verse version echoing Picasso's masterpiece painting, "Guernica", both reactions to Nazi's bombing of that Republican Spanish town during that very sectarian civil war.
Why Archibald would leave a job in 1938, earning him 15K a year, with three months off to go to Harvard to curate the Nieman Collection of Contemporary Journalists at Harvard University, one might answer: because of some kind of loyalty. It paid off, because he had the eye of an old Crimson law mate, Felix Frankfurter, and he suggested to President Roosevelt he be nominated to become Librarian of Congress. And, FDR had to convince MacLeish to accept. Texas Representative Martin Dies founded the House Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities and committee member NJ Rep. J. Parnell (later chairman in the late 40's), tried to accuse him of communist sympathies, but the 37 year old was confirmed in 1939. Fortunately NAZI's were on the hit list, too.
During MacLeish's first years at the Library of Congress, he first observed operations, and by the end of his half decade there, he had established organizational improvements by having separate departments of Processing, Administration, and Reference. He sought for funds, and though he did not receive the million dollar request (during a Great Depression), he did did get their largest grant ever. He used it to get needed books in some lacking areas, and for obtaining staff and salary incentives. He used his position to lecture on the benefits of libraries, added a Folk Music category (Woody Guthrie etc.) and therefore was dubbed the President's "Minister of Culture."
Voices are crying an unknown name in the sky...
-from "Epistle to Be Left in the Earth"
As World War II was getting underway outside the US in 1939, MacLeish published America Was Promises which echoed his many speeches on entering the global fray. His call for the United States to enter the conflagration irritated many left wing and pacifist peers. This venue as national spokesman earned him the honor of becoming FDR's speechwriter for the campaign of 1940. Not only did he contribute to the tribute for the opening of the Lincoln Memorial, but helped write FDR's 1941 inaugural speech. His middle to left leanings left him open to criticisms from the further left as a closet Fascist, and of course, by the right, too close to a Communist. During the wartime, he was responsible for safekeeping thousands of priceless works from possible bomb attack, sending antiquities, such as The Constitution and the Gutenberg Bible to Fort Knox. He was appointed in 1942 to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar, as he was also Assistant Secretary of State. He was Director of Information in the Office of Facts and Figures until he chaired FDR's Committee on War Information.
He left the Library of Congress in 1944 to be Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural and Public Affairs to push the idea of a United Nations. After delegates finally assembled, he was partners with friend Adlai Stevenson to form the United Nations' Charter. MacLeish's main contribution was the preamble, while he also wrote and edited other parts of the United State's section of the UN Charter. He wrote "The Young Dead Soldiers" for a memorial service for the staff who had sacrificed their lives defending their country. After FDR's death in 1945, he became head of the U.S. delegation in London to the organizational conference of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, but left after a year of disillusionment in the global effort of resolving issues.
Take away a poet’s public life by critical edict in a time like ours and what do you leave him? Not, certainly, himself.
His writing during the 1940s was scant while serving his country, but as he found more time during the Post War era, he began anew assuming the role of muse for the present age. He worked with old protege Henry Luce on his Commission on the Freedom of the Press emphasizing responsibility for the press, especially the mainstream media. He commented in later interviews that it was this time that was his real education for knowing how to write. This was evident in his 1948 publication, his first since 1939, of Actfive and Other Poems as he elevates the emotions of the heart over the state. Actfive was an epic styled oeuvre which existentialist humanists' frustrations were given venue. 1949 brought the era of McCarthyism motivating MacLeish's relentless sniping of the paranoid seekers of Red Commies in every closet with "witch hunts," but with also a new position at Harvard, the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. He was especially outspoken about the dismissal of 20 University professors by HUAC's influence. But he received some later criticism for overlooking student, John Updike. He was NYC's Museum of Modern Art, trustee, a lifetime seat from 1940, and from 1949 he was a lifetime trustee for Bronxville's Sarah Lawrence College.
I said something a minute ago about a long breath that sustains itself. If you find anything like that in any poem, then the impulse which drove the poem at the start is still alive in the poem printed on the page. So that the length of that poem is not the length (endless) of the work but the length of the impulse: exhausted—and achieved—in a breath.
In the 1950s, even though to the Beat Poets he was old school, his Collected Poems, 1917-1952 won him a second Pulitzer Prize in 1952. That same year he had presented another verse play on the BBC, The Trojan Horse. In this piece he resurrects characters that he used in Our Lady of Troy, The Happy
Marriage, and The Blind Man. It explores the unfortunate sides of a lying Janus face that his century had shown, not really a jab at Senator Joseph McCarthy et al as some had supposed. He still had time to work for the Feds when he was European U.S. Department of State lecturer in 1957. His next year's work, J.B. was a modern day Job-like figure was good for his third and last Pulitzer for drama with the extra bonus of a Tony Award!
He succinctly explained this suffering man genre to the Paris Review:
Easy enough for Job to get down from his dung heap and walk off—if he could stop being Job, the man with a passion for justice and therefore the need to confront God. Job is the opposite of the existentialist as he is the opposite of the “good Catholic.” His world has to mean, because God made it. It is because he loves God that he is certain there are meanings—not the other way around. What satisfies Sartre won’t satisfy Job. Nor what satisfies Job’s friends. He sees the light and so is prisoner of the glass.
He stayed busy in the 1960s, he had another play, Herakles in 1965 that featured his character, Professor Hoadley, learning that getting strength from humanity was superior to striving to be like the ancient Greek gods which he sought as a pilgrim in Greece. Accolades were sent his way with his 1962 CBS poetry discussion show with old friend Mark Van Doren. He could relate his law background with his artistry with words, as told in this Paris Review response:
To start negatively, “alive” is what is not “literary.” Or, in positive terms, what has a speaker—a voice. No writing is alive which is merely written. Donne, for example. Why is Donne so present? Why is Hopkins so much Hopkins? Or Cummings? Or Mark Van Doren? Or Agee? Cal Lowell? Wilbur? Not because they write well but because they speak. Each with his own voice. There’s a man there, a woman—Emily. The lawyers have a useful word—”fungible.” Wheat is fungible: substitute one bushel for another. Poets can’t be substituted. Each has his own, let’s call it breath, except that it goes on and on with the words—doesn’t end with the man. So that the words remain his. And alive.
He had been given more opportunities in academia from 1963 through to 1967 at Amherst College
as their Simpson Lecturer. He had done their library's dedication, with President John F. Kennedy
for the previous holder of that, Robert Frost
. Kennedy, who had cajoled MacLeish to come back to DC, had also asked him to write for the Centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation
. He authored the commentary for 1965's Academy Award winning documentary, The Eleanor Roosevelt Story
. The next year he did the closing speech for the Pulitzer Prize
's 50th anniversary dinner. Right after that a President Johnson
sponsored “An Evening with Two Poets,” with Van Doren again. Around this time he did a television screenplay, The Secret of Freedom
, and a couple of patriotic pieces, one local open air even, An Evening's Journey to Conway, Massachusetts
, and a radio verse play, the
Great American Fourth of July Parade
In 1971, for his play, Scratch, based on Stephen Vincent Benét's short story, "The Devil and Daniel Webster," he sought out Bob Dylan for some brainstorming. The latter thought the former was too morbid, and MacLeish felt Dylan too light, and after two meetings they were estranged. Dylan used some ideas of MacLeish on his relatively successful album, New Morning, while the poet's play folded after only several runs. MacLeish commented some years later on this effort "...as the whole purpose of which was to try to find out what has become of the Republic in this new world..." Though he was a progressive, he was also indebted and touted the Founding Fathers' values. This was especially evident in his monologue, for the 1975 American Bicentennial in "Beantown," "Night Watch in the City of Boston," exampled in the last stanzas below:
City of Man, Oh, city of the famous dead
where Otis spoke and Adam's heart was bread:
Mother of the great Republic-mother town
before the elms sickened and came down . . .
The darkness deepens. Shrieking voices cry
below these fantasies of glass that crowd our sky
and hatred like a whirling paper in a street
tear at itself where shame and hatred meet.
Show me, old friends, where in the darkness still
stands the great Republic on its hill!
He was not totally retired in his last decades of his life, but he had receded considerably. He did interviews, and one for the Paris Review in 1974 gives his opinion on fame:
In other words, those poems are not works to be published for the glory of A. MacLeish—so that A. MacLeish may be spoken of. Not at all. They are steps in an attempt to stop time in terms of time so that it may be seen. To stop time, but to stop it on its own terms. Let men see it. Make it visible to men. Therefore, whatever you leave behind you exists in terms of those others who have read it, who were aware of it, who were moved by it. And the consequence is that you do have a totally different attitude toward fame. It isn’t that you want to be admired any the less. Of course you want to be admired. Any poet wants to be admired—to be a great poet. But who is a great poet? Maybe a handful in the world’s history. So that’s irrelevant. What’s really going to come out of your work is something else. If you have succeeded at all you have become part—however small a part—of the consciousness of your time. Which is enough. No?
His last book of poems, Riders on the Earth was published in 1978, and his extensive interviews of these last years were published in 1986. He lived 90 full and important years until this (unofficialy) lauded "Poet Laureate of the New Deal" died on April 20th, 1982. His youngest son William Hitchock MacLeish (b. 1928), awkward in the shadow of a famous father, published Uphill with Archie: A Son's Journey in 2001. The "Uphill" part of it was a play on words, as their farm bought in the late 1920's had that name, and William wanted to be an author in his own right.
Reproach to Dead Poets
YOU who have spoken words in the earth,
You have broken the silence,
Sayers in all lands to all peoples,
Writers in candel soot on the skins
Of rams for those who come after you,
Echoed at night in the arched doors,
And at noon in the shadow of fig trees,
Were there not
Were there not words to tell with?
Were there not leaf sounds in the mouths
Of women from over-sea, and a call
Of birds on the lips of the children of strangers?
Were there not words in all languages——
In many tongues the same thing differently,
The name cried out, Thalassa! the sea!
The sun and moon character representing
Brightness, the night sound of the wind for
Always, for ever and ever, the verb
Created after the speech of crickets——
Were there not words to tell with?
What lands these are:
What are these
Lights though the night leaves and these voices
Crying among us as winds rise,
Or whence, of what race we are that dwell with them?
Were there not words to tell with,
you that have
The kings' names and the hills remembered for battles?
1968 -- The Wild Old Wicked Man" and Other Poems
1948 -- Actfive
1948 -- Actfive and Other Poems
1915 -- Class Poem
1952 -- Collected Poems
1932 -- Conquistador
1929 -- Einstein
1933 -- Elpenor
1933 -- Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City
1962 -- Later Poems, 1951-1962
1930 -- New Found Land New Found Land
1976 -- New and Collected Poems, 1917-1976
1926 -- Nobodaddy
1935 -- Poems, 1924-1933
1954 -- Songs for Eve
1915 -- Songs for a Summer's Day
1928 -- Streets in the Moon
1962 -- The Collected Poems of Archibald MacLeish
1928 -- The Hamlet of A. Macleish
1924 -- The Happy Marriage
1972 -- The Human Season, Selected Poems 1926-1972
1925 -- The Pot of Earth
1917 -- Tower of Ivory
1968 -- A Continuing Journey
1943 -- A Time to Act: Selected Addresses
1941 -- A Time to Speak
1939 -- America Was Promises
1942 -- American Opinion and the War: the Rede Lecture
1954 -- Art Education and the Creative Process
1971 -- Champion of a Cause: Essays and Addresses on Librarianship
1951 -- Freedom Is the Right to Choose
1936 -- Jews in America
1983 -- Letters of Archibald MacLeish, 1907-1982
1961 -- Poetry and Experience
1974 -- Poetry and Opinion: the Pisan Cantos of Ezra Pound
1936 -- Public Speech
1978 -- Riders on the Earth: Essays & Recollections
1941 -- The American Cause The American Cause
1964 -- The Dialogues of Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren
1965 -- The Eleanor Roosevelt Story
1940 -- The Irresponsibles: A Declaration
1938 -- Air Raid
1943 -- An Evening's Journey to Conway
1943 -- Colloquy for the States
1967 -- Herakles
1958 -- J.B.
1935 -- Panic
1971 -- Scratch
1980 -- Six Plays
1944 -- The American Story: Ten Broadcasts
1937 -- The Fall of the City
1975 -- The Great American Fourth of July Parade
1938 -- The Land of the Free
1952 -- The Trojan Horse
1968 -- The Wild Old Wicked Man
1953 -- This Music Crept By Me on the Waters
1961 -- Three Short Plays
1934 -- Union Pacific (ballet)
1 -- Here is my own contribution to the Ars Poetica:
There once was a person from Mars,
Who had a bright crimson arse.
Asked, "What's on yer bottom?"
"Don't know where I got 'em."
And thus ends this terrible farce.