Archibald MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Illinois, on May 7, 1892. Some aspects of his early life seem to have influenced his mature concept of the poet. His father was a Scots immigrant, that circumstance perhaps explaining MacLeish’s preoccupation with westward migration and his emphasis on America as a melting pot. More important, both his parents fostered a strong sense of moral responsibility in the young MacLeish. After attending the Hotchkiss School, MacLeish graduated from Yale with a B.A. degree in 1915, showing his propensity for being a well-rounded man by distinguishing himself in sports, academics, and the writing of poetry. He went on to Harvard Law School, marrying Ada Hitchcock in 1916, but his education was interrupted by his enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1917. MacLeish served in France, attaining the rank of captain. He returned to Harvard and received his law degree in 1919 and then taught for a year before joining a Boston law firm. After practicing law and trying to write poetry for three years, MacLeish quit his job and moved his wife and two children to Paris to devote his full efforts to poetry. During the five years of his expatriation, MacLeish associated with other American writers such as Pound, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, the latter becoming a close friend. MacLeish’s poems of this period show the influence of the poetics of Pound and Eliot and also of the spare style of Hemingway. His poems of this period tend also to reflect the introspective influence of the Decadent poets.
Unlike many other American expatriates of the 1920’s, MacLeish never intended to abandon his homeland. Having achieved recognition as a poet, in 1928, he returned to the United States, to a farm at Conway, Massachusetts. From that point on, his writings express a strong patriotic commitment. In the next year, MacLeish traveled on foot and mule through Mexico, tracing the path of Hernán Cortés and preparing to write his epic, Conquistador. In the meantime, he published New Found Land, which, as the title suggests, heralded a renewed affirmation of America. Thus MacLeish turned away from the preoccupation with European tradition and the past that characterized Eliot and Pound, and embraced the promise and the problems of his native land.
MacLeish became increasingly vocal about the problems of the United States in the Great Depression, acting out his belief that a poet must speak to his own time about real issues, rather than to an elite group of aesthetes. He joined the editorial board of the new Fortune magazine and wrote articles of distinction on contemporary social issues. During the 1930’s, he spoke out for the preservation of democracy not only through his poems but also through exhortative verse radio plays and a poetic commentary on photographs illustrating rural poverty. The last work in particular led in 1939 to MacLeish’s controversial appointment by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the post of Librarian of Congress. In the early 1940’s, MacLeish also served as director of the Office of Facts and Figures, assistant director of the Office of War Information, Assistant Secretary of State, and after the war, as head of the United States delegation to the founding of UNESCO. During the political debates of the 1930’s and 1940’s, he remained both anti-Marxist and antifascist, a staunch supporter of American democracy, and a severe critic of the big capitalists who, he felt, were exploiting the land.
In 1949, MacLeish returned to private life and to teaching. He was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard until 1962. From 1963 to...
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1967, he was Simpson Lecturer at Amherst College. During this later phase of his career, MacLeish turned in his plays and poems to the fundamental and universal issues of human life. After the death of Robert Frost in 1962, MacLeish succeeded him as the unofficial poet laureate of the United States, publishing, for example, a poem on the 1969 moon landing inThe New York Times. This poem typifies MacLeish’s concept of the role of the poet. While it describes a specific political and scientific feat, the poem concludes with an ironic twist that broadens the context of this historical event into a reflection on humanity’s universal preoccupation with the mysteries of existence. The moon landing shows technology capturing humankind’s oldest symbol for time, change, and imagination; once on the moon, however, humanity discovers its essence as a symbol of reflection: The man on the moon sees an impossible sight, his own home, the earth, rising like the moon before his eyes. By following seemingly impossible aspirations, humans discover knowledge of themselves and their illusions. MacLeish died in Conway on April 20, 1982.