Archibald MacLeish Biography

Start Your Free Trial


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Download Archibald MacLeish Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The son of upper-middle-class parents, Archibald MacLeish was born in 1892 in Glencoe, Illinois, where he attended grammar school. His father, a Scot, was a prosperous department-store executive whose wealth allowed his son the privilege of a preparatory-school education at Hotchkiss School before his entrance into Yale University, where he took a B.A. degree in 1915. His mother, his father’s third wife, was graduated from and taught at Vassar College and, before the birth of the poet, was president of Rockford College in Illinois. The young MacLeish was active in both literary and athletic groups at Yale and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa his junior year.

He enlisted for military duty in World War I, entering as a private in an army hospital unit and serving as a volunteer ambulance driver. After transfer to the artillery, he saw active duty at the front in France. He was discharged in 1918 with the rank of captain. In 1916, he married his childhood sweetheart, Ada Hitchcock, a singer. Four children were born to the couple, although one son died in childhood. After the war, he returned to Harvard Law School, which he had attended briefly before his military service. He taught government there for a year after he was graduated first in his class in 1919. Although avidly concerned with his developing poetic career, he practiced three years with a prestigious law firm in Boston.

By 1923, MacLeish had decided to give up the law, despite his election as a member of the firm. With his wife and children, he left for a five-year sojourn in France and Persia, and there he cultivated his artistic taste and talents by steeping himself in French literary culture. He also associated with the coterie of American expatriates then in Paris, among them Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway. MacLeish, however, had no intention of leaving his homeland permanently, and in 1929, he and his family returned, settling in the small New England village of Conway, Massachusetts, where the poet lived as a “gentleman farmer” for the rest of his life.

During these formative years abroad, the years MacLeish considered “the beginning of my more or less adult life,” he matured rapidly as a poet and began to gain an audience for his work as well as critical acclaim. To support his family after his return, he joined the editorial board of Fortune, a new business magazine, work that brought him into intimate contact with influential leaders of business and government. This position provided him with a sense of focus for his increasingly liberal views concerning the destiny of the United States during the New Deal years of the Great Depression and the eve of global war.

In 1939, after holding office as the first curator of the Neiman Collection of Contemporary Journalism at Harvard, MacLeish accepted his first position in public life, serving as librarian of Congress until 1944. During the early war years, he also was a director of various branches of governmental information services and spoke and wrote effectively about the crucial issues of the day. In 1944-1945, he served as Assistant Secretary of State. After the war, he was one of the founders of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and, in 1946, became chairman of the American delegation at its first conference in Paris.

In 1949, MacLeish accepted an appointment as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, holding this honored position until his retirement in 1962. In 1953, he received his second Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Collected Poems, 1917-1952, and he was elected president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1959, he received another Pulitzer Prize for his verse drama J. B., and in 1963, was named Simpson Lecturer at Amherst College, remaining there for four years.

Less than a month before his ninetieth birthday, MacLeish died in a Boston hospital. Even in the final months of his life, he was actively engaged in both writing...

(The entire section is 1,926 words.)