Archibald MacLeish (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Archibald MacLeish was born into an upper-middle-class family in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. He was the second son of Andrew MacLeish, president of a large Chicago department store, and Martha MacLeish, who before her marriage had been president of a college for young women. A fractious child, Archibald eventually was sent to an eastern prep school and then to Yale, where he won honors as a poet, scholar, and athlete. At Yale, he was chosen for the most prestigious of the secret societies, Skull and Bones. Determined to be a poet but knowing that he could not earn a living or support a family through poetry, he went to Harvard Law School and, after service in World War I, entered the practice of law in Boston. After a successful start on a career in law, he turned down a partnership in his firm and took his wife and child to Paris in 1923. Financial support from his father made it possible for him to spend the next few years writing poetry.
MacLeish at once became part of the expatriate American community in France, joining such other famous writers as Ernest Hemingway, with whom he had a long and sometimes difficult friendship, poet John Peale Bishop, and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. MacLeish and his wife, a soprano who became known for her skill with the music of such composers as Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky, were social people who soon became intimate with the famous writers, painters, and musicians who made Paris their center of activity in the 1920’s. MacLeish during this period established a reputation as a new voice among poets, although it was noted that his verse owed more than a little to that of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
The MacLeish family returned to the United States in 1928, buying an old farm in western Massachusetts which was to remain their permanent home for the rest of Archibald MacLeish’s life. The stock market crash and subsequent depression made it necessary for MacLeish to find a way of making a living, and by 1930 he was working as a journalist for Fortune, a new business magazine being published by Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Inc., and like MacLeish a graduate of both Hotchkiss and Yale. The job provided MacLeish with a solid income and with enough time to write some of his most impressive poetry during the 1930’s.
By the end of the decade, MacLeish was becoming restive with his responsibilities and disturbed at what he regarded as the pro-Fascist leanings of Time, Fortune’s partner in Luce’s stable of magazines. MacLeish left Fortune to become the first head of Harvard’s Neiman Fellowship program for journalists. MacLeish had become very active politically, speaking and writing on behalf of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and helping to produce the motion picture The Spanish Earth (1937), which some regarded as propaganda for the Loyalist cause. These activities led some people to regard MacLeish as sympathetic to communism.
These suspicions led to difficulties when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1939, asked MacLeish to assume the post of Librarian of Congress. There was bitter opposition to the nomination from those who mistrusted MacLeish’s politics as well as from professional librarians, who pointed out that he was entirely without experience as a librarian. After a hard battle, he was confirmed. He did an excellent job of reorganizing the Library of Congress and bringing it up to date, but as World War II progressed he became more and more active as an aide to Roosevelt, writing speeches and helping to orchestrate the flow of information about the war that was released to the public. Late in the war, MacLeish was appointed as an assistant secretary of state; the confirmation process was again acrimonious, but he was again confirmed. He worked primarily in the process of setting up the formal United Nations organization; he wrote the English version of the prologue to the U.N. charter.
MacLeish left the government after Roosevelt died in April of 1945. For several years, he devoted himself entirely to his poetry and to opposing the activities of those politicians who he believed were creating a “Red scare” like that which followed World War I. Eventually he would be attacked by Senator Joseph McCarthy as one of the many “Reds” or “pinkos” supposed to populate the faculty at Harvard. MacLeish had accepted a position at Harvard in 1949, teaching a writing course and another course in poetry on a part-time basis. He helped develop many poets and novelists who would become prominent, and he was very productive in his own work.
In 1958 MacLeish published J. B.: A Play in Verse, in which he recast the Book of Job in a modern...
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Archibald MacLeish (Magill Book Reviews)
Between 1925 and 1960, Archibald MacLeish in the opinion of some critics, at least was among the finest of modern American poets, ranking with Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Other critics argued, however, that his work owed a great deal to T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and that MacLeish seemed to change his opinions to suit the times. He did win three Pulitzer Prizes, a number of other awards, and many honorary degrees. His reputation as a poet, however, diminished in his later years and has not recovered since his death in 1982.
Scott Donaldson’s biography makes it clear that the most impressive fact about MacLeish’s career is that he was able to write as much significant poetry as he did while pursuing careers in such varied fields as the law, journalism (he wrote many articles for FORTUNE during its first eight years), library work (he was Librarian of Congress), public service (he was an assistant secretary of state during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency), and teaching—he spent more than a decade on the faculty at Harvard. In most of these endeavors he was signally successful.
MacLeish’s personal life was equally fortunate, at least on the surface. He was undoubtedly charming, and he and his wife moved in increasingly exalted social circles. But Donaldson shows, without undue emphasis on the dark side, that MacLeish’s marriage was troubled by his habit of pursuing women other than his wife, and that...
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