Archibald MacLeish

Archibald MacLeish

Archibald MacLeish (May 7, 1892April 20, 1982) was an American poet, writer and the Librarian of Congress. He is associated with the modernist school of poetry. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize three times.


MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Illinois. His father, Andrew MacLeish, worked as a dry-goods merchant. His mother, Martha Hillard, was a college professor. He grew up on an estate bordering Lake Michigan.

He attended the Hotchkiss School from 1907 to 1911, before moving on to Yale University, where he majored in English and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and selected for the Skull and Bones society. He then enrolled in the Harvard Law School. [Davis, Robert Gorham. [ "Lives of the Poet"] , "The New York Times", August 10, 1986. Accessed December 26, 2007. "MacLeish views the events of his career as imposed, not chosen. His strong-minded mother, a friend of Jane Addams, tore him away from a thriving chicken business to send him to the Hotchkiss School. Hotchkiss led to Yale University, the Yale football team, the secret society of Skull and Bones and lifetime bonding with the shining men on campus.... Out of the Army, with no interest in law except to support his marriage, MacLeish went to Harvard Law School in 1919."] In 1916, he married.

His studies were interrupted by World War I, in which he served first as an ambulance driver and later as a captain of artillery. He graduated from the law school in 1919. He taught law for a semester for the government department at Harvard, then worked briefly as an editor for "The New Republic". He next spent three years practicing law.

In 1923 MacLeish left his law firm and moved with his wife to Paris, where they joined the community of literary expatriates that included such members as Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. He returned to America in 1928.

From 1930 to 1938 he worked as a writer and editor for "Fortune Magazine", during which he also became increasingly politically active, especially with anti-fascist causes. He was a great admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed him Librarian of Congress in 1939. According to MacLeish, Roosevelt invited him to lunch and "Mr. Roosevelt decided that I wanted to be librarian of Congress." MacLeish held this job for five years. Though his appointment was officially opposed by the American Library Association because of his lack of professional training as a librarian, he is remembered by many as an effective leader who helped modernize the Library.

During World War II 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. These jobs were heavily involved with propaganda, which was well-suited to MacLeish's talents; he had written quite a bit of politically motivated work in the previous decade.

He spent a year as the Assistant Secretary of State for cultural affairs and a further year representing the U.S. at the creation of UNESCO. After this, he retired from public service and returned to academia.

Despite a long history of criticizing Marxism, MacLeish came under fire from conservative politicians of the 1940s and 1950s, including J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy. Much of this was due to his involvement with anti-fascist organizations like the League of American Writers, and to his friendships with prominent left-wing writers.

In 1949 MacLeish became the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. He held this position until his retirement in 1962. In 1959 his play "J.B." won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

From 1963 to 1967 he was the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at Amherst College. Around 1969/70 he met Bob Dylan, who describes this encounter in "Chronicles, Vol. 1".

Literary work

MacLeish greatly admired T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and his work shows quite a bit of their influence. In fact, some critics charge that his poetry is derivative and adds little of MacLeish's own voice Fact|date=May 2008.

MacLeish's early work was very traditionally modernist and accepted the contemporary modernist position holding that a poet was isolated from society. His most well-known poem, "Ars Poetica," contains a classic statement of the modernist aesthetic: "A poem should not mean / But be."

He later broke with modernism's pure aesthetic. MacLeish himself was greatly involved in public life and came to believe that this was not only an appropriate but an inevitable role for a poet.


*1933: Pulitzer Prize for poetry ("Conquistador ")
*1953: Pulitzer Prize for poetry ("Collected Poems 1917–1952")
*1953: National Book Award (" Collected Poems, 1917–1952")
*1953: Bollingen Prize in Poetry
*1959: Pulitzer Prize for Drama ("J.B.")
*1959: Tony Award for Best Play ("J.B.")
*1965: Academy Award for Documentary Feature ("The Eleanor Roosevelt Story")
*1977: Presidential Medal of Freedom


"The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself."

"We are deluged with facts, but we have lost, or are losing, our human ability to feel them. Which means that we have lost or are losing our ability to comprehend the facts of our experience."

"What is more important in a library than anything else — is the fact that it exists."

"A man who lives, not by what he loves but what he hates, is an ill man."

"To see the Earth as it truly is small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold--brothers who know now that they are truly brothers."

Listen to

* Archibald MacLeish's [ The Fall of the City] , Columbia Workshop, CBS radio, 1937“There are those I know, who will reply that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American Dream.” – Archibald MacLeish

Literary Papers

Two collections of Archibald MacLeish's papers are held at the [ Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library] : these are the [ Archibald MacLeish Collection (YCAL MSS 38)] and [ Archibald MacLeish Collection Addition (YCAL MSS 269)] .


External links

* [ Archibald MacLeish's Grave]
* [ "The Paris Review" interview series]

succession box
title=Librarian of Congress
before=Herbert Putnam
after=Luther H. Evans


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