Letters of Archibald Macleish, 1907 to 1982
Was there really only one Archibald MacLeish? In the 1920’s, he practiced law and later moved to France and consorted with Lost Generation writers. In the following decade, he was a staff writer for Fortune magazine. During the 1940’s, he held several high-level federal positions in Washington. Later, he joined the faculty of Harvard University. His career was unique for an American poet, but it was as an American poet that he wished to be recognized.
R. H. Winnick has garnered nearly four hundred letters spanning three quarters of the twentieth century, a few by the poet’s parents at the beginning, the rest by the poet himself. Winnick indicates neither the number of letters which he read nor the basis of his selection. Of materials in the poet’s possession, the editor reports that he was denied access only to correspondence between the poet and his wife. Although one might expect difficulties with correspondents still living or with the families of those recently deceased, Winnick reports no instance of unwillingness to cooperate in the endeavor, while his list of acknowledgments suggests an assiduous search. The reader is left to guess how representative the published letters are, but they obviously constitute a substantial wedge of MacLeish’s epistolary life. The footnotes are generally informative and unobtrusive, and the index appears complete and accurate. Unfortunately, the letters are unnumbered.
More letters to Ernest Hemingway are printed than to any other single correspondent, a round three dozen from 1926 to 1958. The other correspondents most often represented are the poet’s mother, his college friend Francis Hyde Bangs, Ezra Pound, Dean Acheson, and Robert N. Linscott. Those to the last-named, MacLeish’s editor at Houghton Mifflin Company, suggest that the editor resisted the temptation to include merely perfunctory business letters. The ones to Acheson, a Yale University classmate and lifelong friend, cover more than fifty years, MacLeish’s self-searching letters of the 1920’s being the most interesting. Both MacLeish and the future Secretary of State were cultivated young men who studied, practiced, and showed unusual aptitude for the law, but unlike Acheson, MacLeish could not devote himself to it for love of another vocation.
Whereas the poet and his Ada, whom he married in 1916 while still a law student, were willing to accept a financially precarious life of poetry and music (she was an accomplished soprano) and the necessity of accepting support from his parents, MacLeish could not endure the possibility of being second-rate at his craft, but suspicions that he could not be first-rate persist in the letters of the 1920’s. Many of the best were written from France in the middle of that decade. Although he and his wife spent five years in France, MacLeish never considered himself an “expatriate,” despite a number of friendships with Americans who have been so labeled.
From late 1923 until her death in 1925, MacLeish wrote to Amy Lowell, who had earlier encouraged him, about his efforts to write “poetry with salt in it,” efforts which naturally enough at the time led to study of Pound, T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and poets of the Imagist movement. His struggle to find his own poetic voice also became the subject of several letters to the American poet John Peale Bishop, with whom he had established a firm friendship by the time of Bishop’s return to the United States in 1924. Despite his doubts of success, these years, when the poet was in his mid-thirties, resulted in four books of poetry and relations with two towering literary men, Hemingway and Pound. Both relationships were tempestuous, though in different ways. The letters to Hemingway, who quickly became “Pappy” (the novelist was seven years younger), reveal a deep affection punctuated by frequent quarrels. With Pound, the situation differed. It appears that MacLeish met him only once in Europe, but he admired Pound’s poetry and critical acumen and regularly risked his cantankerousness for the sake of his criticism, although it is clear that Pound never considered MacLeish a successful poet. MacLeish’s high aspirations and self-doubts rendered negative criticism painful, especially when delivered by the young but already influential Edmund Wilson, against whom MacLeish nourished the only deep and abiding grudge...
(The entire section is 1790 words.)