Archibald MacLeish '11
Archibald MacLeish '11

Archibald MacLeish '11 *

Profession: Writer; Poet Laureate of the U.S.;
Librarian of Congress

Field: Writing

An Ability to Inspire and an Obligation to Serve

Archibald MacLeish never followed what some might consider an ordinary path. Born in 1892 to a successful merchandiser and a college professor, he was raised on the North Shore of Chicago. When he became school age, he was enrolled in public school and was soon bored. His aunt Mary Hillard, headmistress at Westover School in Connecticut, recommended The Hotchkiss School.

In September 1907 MacLeish arrived in Lakeville. Immediately homesick and struggling with what he perceived to be snobbery and class distinction, he found it difficult to make friends. But MacLeish did make friends and found success in both academics and athletics. At Hotchkiss he wrote “John Milton,” an essay in which he addressed the inner conflict of a man facing the choice between public service and writing poetry. It would become symbolic of his own lifelong struggle between the two. After Hotchkiss MacLeish went on to Yale, where he majored in English, played football, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and had his poem “Grief” published in The Yale Review. It was the first poem written by an undergraduate to be printed in that publication, and when word of it reached Lakeville, Dr. Buehler called a Holiday in his honor.

In 1915 MacLeish was graduated from Yale and met his soon-to-be wife, Ada. Realizing that poetry would not pay his bills, he enrolled at Harvard Law. But World War I intervened, and MacLeish joined the Army, serving first as an ambulance driver and then as a field artillery officer in France. He survived the war, but his brother, Kenneth, was not so lucky. Kenneth and Artemus Gates (both Hotchkiss Class of 1914) and a group of other Yale undergraduates enlisted in the Navy Reserve Flying Corps in 1917. One year later, Gates was shot down in Belgium and taken prisoner. Shortly thereafter, Kenneth set off on patrol and was killed. (Gates was rescued, and eventually became assistant secretary of the Navy for air in charge of naval aviation efforts in World War II.) Kenneth’s death affected MacLeish deeply. Nevertheless, he carried on and was graduated from Harvard Law in 1919. Over the next few years his interest in politics began to surface, and he dabbled in poetry. Then in 1923 he quit his law practice and moved to Paris in order to focus seriously on his writing.  

Paris in the 1920s was a stimulating place. There the MacLeishes became friends with Gerald Murphy (Hotchkiss Class of 1907), an accomplished artist, and his wife Sara. The Murphys, known as “masters of the art of living,” were the hub of Paris’s artistic and literary community. They introduced the MacLeishes to luminaries such as Picasso, Stravinsky, Léger, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. When MacLeish stumbled upon a pamphlet of vignettes written by fellow expatriate Ernest Hemingway, also a Paris resident, he introduced himself, and the two began a lasting, though often tumultuous friendship.

In 1928 the MacLeishes returned to the states, and MacLeish took a job as a writer at Fortune Magazine, published byHenry Luce (Hotchkiss Class of 1916). Covering the government beat for Fortune provided him with a platform to share his anti-fascist political views. He also continued to write poetry and in 1931 completed “Conquistador,” for which he was awarded his first Pulitzer Prize. In 1934, combining his artistic and political interests, he wrote the ballet “Union Pacific” about the Irish and Chinese workers who built the railroads and “Panic,” a play about industry, which was critical of both capitalism and communism. By 1937, MacLeish was earning $15,000 for a nine-month work year, making him one of the best paid journalists in the country.

In September 1938 MacLeish left Fortune to become Curator of the Nieman Collection of Contemporary Journalists at Harvard University. Shortly thereafter Felix Frankfurter, a newly appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court whom MacLeish had known years before at Harvard Law, recommended to president Franklin Delano Roosevelt that MacLeish be appointed Librarian of Congress. FDR convinced MacLeish of the importance of the position, and he agreed to take it. But a storm of controversy followed: The American Library Association questioned his qualifications, and J. Parnell Thomas, member of the House’s Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, accused him of sharing Communist views. Nevertheless, in the fall of 1939 Archibald MacLeish was confirmed as the Librarian of Congress at age 47.

Once MacLeish analyzed the Library’s operations, he created three major departments -- administration, processing, and reference. He asked Congress for an increase of more than a million dollars for three areas: acquisition of books in underrepresented subjects, new positions to reduce the backlog in processing and bolster staff in Legislative Reference Service, and improved pay levels for all employees. He wasn’t given the million dollars, but he did obtain the largest grant the Library of Congress had ever received. During his tenure as librarian, MacLeish wrote articles and gave speeches emphasizing the importance of the library profession. He also secured a grant from the Carnegie Corporation for the documentation of American folk music by activists such as Woody Guthrie, for readings by American poets, and for classical music recordings. Some referred to him as Roosevelt’s “minister of culture.”

In addition to promoting libraries, MacLeish wrote dozens of political essays and made numerous public addresses. His book America Was Promises reiterated his belief that the U.S. should become involved in the war, offending many left-wingers with patriotic, pro-war rhetoric. On the steps of Faneuil Hall in Boston in November 1940, he said, “Democracy in action is a cause for which the stones themselves will fight.” In June 1941 he delivered commencement addresses at Union College, the University of Pennsylvania, Wellesley College, and Stanford. He was becoming a national spokesman. 

Because of MacLeish’s journalistic ties, background, and strong political convictions -- his militant views on the war mirrored those of Roosevelt -- FDR enlisted him as a speechwriter. From this platform he did what he could do to promote FDR’s policies. During the campaign of 1940, MacLeish helped to draft language for the Jefferson Memorial and wrote FDR’s speech for the dedication. He also contributed to the 1941 inaugural address, affirming his passionate belief in democracy.

Then, in December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. MacLeish and his library staff spent two weeks removing the most valuable books and manuscripts to fireproof buildings. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Gutenberg Bible were put in hermetically sealed containers and sent to Fort Knox. 70,000 volumes went to three states, and the nation’s largest repository of books from and about Japan were closely guarded as valuable resources for military intelligence. FDR also asked MacLeish to chair the Committee on War Information to advise on informational matters, to lay down principals regarding security, and to outline general propaganda objectives. MacLeish strongly advocated an international “One Worldism,” an organization to keep peace and advance mutual interests.

In 1944, MacLeish ended his tenure as Librarian of Congress. He was becoming more and more an internationalist. FDR nominated him for Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural and Public Affairs, and the Senate confirmed him. His specific task was to “sell the concept of the United Nations to the American Public.” He wrote seven proposals, “Building the Peace,” and presented them to the American people on the radio in a series of Saturday night broadcasts. Then, when delegates gathered for the UN Conference on International Organization, MacLeish worked with his longtime friend Adlai Stevenson to provide briefings to the press. His biggest contribution, though, was in writing and editing portions of the United States charter, and in particular, the preamble.

When FDR died in April 1945, MacLeish was named to head the U.S. delegation to the organizational conference of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. British Prime Minister Attlee made the keynote address to the group that was made up of mostly educators. His speech included the line, “Do not wars, after all, begin in the minds of men?” which inspired MacLeish’s first sentence in the UNESCO constitution, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” In spite of what seemed a promising beginning, however, UNESCO did not achieve the success that MacLeish had hoped for, and he eventually resigned.

In 1946, sponsored by writers including Thornton Wilder and Robert Frost, MacLeish was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He worked on the report of the Commission on the Freedom of the Press for Henry Luce, in which he stated his belief that the press was obligated to “circulate the widest range of ideas” and emphasized that the ownership of mass media came not with rights but with duties. By 1947, U.S. and Soviet relations deteriorated, and any sympathy or association with communism was cause for suspicion. This gave MacLeish yet another opportunity to defend democratic principles. Although he had left the political arena in 1949 to become the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, a position he held until 1962, he took a public stand against “McCarthyism,” specifically protesting the dismissal of 20 University of California professors.

In the following years, two more Pulitzer prizes followed for MacLeish. In 1952, he published his Collected Poems, 1917-1952, and for it received his second Pulitzer. In the spring of 1957 when the MacLeishes were at the American Academy in Rome, MacLeish wrote J.B., a play based on the story of Job, which ponders the senseless destruction of innocent people during war and questions the justice of God. J.B. would earn him his third Pulitzer Prize, this time for drama.

Still more acclaim followed. In 1962, CBS television hosted a prime time hour called “The Dialogues of Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren” in which the two best friends discussed poetry, love, and American ideals. Shortly thereafter President John F. Kennedy asked MacLeish to come to Washington “to inspire us all.” Kennedy appointed him special ambassador from the U.S. to the inauguration of the Columbian President Guillermo León Valencia Muñóz, and then asked him to write a poem for the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. When Robert Frost died in 1963, and the library at Amherst College was named for him, both MacLeish and President Kennedy were asked to speak at the library’s dedication. MacLeish was subsequently appointed to succeed Frost as the Simpson Lecturer at Amherst and became the unofficial poet laureate.

In 1965 MacLeish wrote the commentary to accompany the film The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, which won the Academy Award’s Best Documentary. The following year MacLeish served as the final speaker at the 50th anniversary dinner of the Pulitzers, and a week later appeared in Washington with Mark Van Doren for “An Evening with Two Poets,” sponsored by President Johnson’s cabinet. MacLeish’s final book of prose, Riders on the Earth, was published in 1978. Then, on April 20, 1982, having long-since resolved Milton’s conflict between politics and poetry, the man with more than 50 published works to his name, an extraordinary ability to inspire, and a heart-felt obligation to serve died at the age of 90. 

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