Letters of Archibald Macleish, 1907 to 1982

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1790

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...

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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 visible in this volume, usually expressed in asides to Pound and other literary friends.

Only occasionally do the letters adumbrate the themes of MacLeish’s poems, some of the most celebrated of which (the anthology favorites “Ars Poetica” and “You, Andrew Marvell,” for example) date from his European period. Winnick is certainly correct in devoting more than a third of the book to letters of the 1920’s.

The letters of the 1930’s and 1940’s disclose another side of MacLeish. As he approached middle age, he can be seen becoming more like his father, a canny Scottish immigrant turned successful Chicago merchant. He can be seen driving hard bargains with his publisher and dickering with Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway’s editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, over rights to his epic Conquistador (1932): “I am determined that it shall not puddle into oblivion like the rest of my books.” Scribner’s did not get it, but neither did it puddle, earning MacLeish his first Pulitzer Prize. He had already struck a deal with Henry Luce, by which MacLeish might serve as staff member of Fortune with several consecutive months off each year for uninterrupted writing at his new home in Conway, Massachusetts. Subsequently, he bargained for yet better terms, and he did not scruple to lecture the publisher occasionally on articles in Luce’s other journalistic bastion, Time, to which he took exception.

Although MacLeish became a controversial figure at the outbreak of World War II, when his book The Irresponsibles: A Declaration (1940) assailed the American literary establishment for failing to oppose Fascism vigorously enough, the focus of the correspondence in this period shifts to his own public service. There are letters to associate justice of the Supreme Court Felix Frankfurter and President Franklin D. Roosevelt concerning MacLeish’s appointment as Librarian of Congress; revelations of his concurrent duties as director of the wartime Office of Facts and Figures (the tribulations of which occasioned two of his most impassioned and eloquent letters, one to Frankfurter in 1942 and the other the next year to an assistant director of the organization that superseded the OFF); and attempts to solicit Adlai Stevenson as his assistant upon his appointment to the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations. Winnick also prints one of MacLeish’s replies to Stevenson’s frequent appeals for assistance in preparing speeches for his presidential campaigns of the 1950’s.

The most extensive postwar correspondence concerns MacLeish’s sustained efforts to free Pound, the Fascist sympathizer, from Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., Despite Pound’s past scorn for MacLeish’s work and MacLeish’s own contempt for the cause to which Pound had dedicated his services, MacLeish considered Pound’s incarceration a blot on America and an unnecessary insult to a man who, though a traitor to his country in time of war, was now widely considered a harmless old man. Readers familiar with the efforts of such luminaries as Hemingway, Eliot, and Robert Frost in Pound’s behalf will find convincing evidence that MacLeish’s role in the delicate negotiations with Washington officialdom was most important. It was also the most thankless. Fourteen letters to Pound between August, 1955, and March, 1958, show how thoroughly Pound himself tested MacLeish’s diplomatic skills.

There are also rather fatherly letters to younger poets and to students at Harvard University, where the poet served as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric from 1949 until his retirement in 1962. Only a relative handful of letters represent the last twenty years of MacLeish’s life, during most of which he remained active as writer and lecturer.

A chronology of letters can reveal the stages and changes in a life, and these will undoubtedly buttress Winnick’s projected biography of his subject. Even more vividly than biography, however, letters communicate a writer’s substance—that part which endures through the zigzags of maturation, a full career, and the subsequent decline of creative energy. Opinions and interests change, but the voice remains. It is what successive generations of readers find in the great letter-writers to whom their modern brethren are so often unfavorably compared—Horace Walpole, Lord Byron, Henry Adams. While they adjust their style to different readers, they retain an unmistakable epistolary presence. They are always recognizably themselves.

It is probably unfair to compare any twentieth century letter-writer to those who learned the habit before the days of routine air travel and global telecommunications. The differences go far deeper than the development of a preference for picking up the telephone or zooming away to visit one’s friend. It may be doubted whether the development of an epistolary personality is possible in a culture which charges more for a letter than for an electronic message and takes longer to deliver it than the postal service of a century ago, and which reserves the right to interrupt electronically at any moment the concentration of anyone who might be practicing the older and slower form of communication.

With his roots in an earlier age, MacLeish may have escaped or resisted many of the century’s assaults on the habitual writer, but he did not develop the epistolary presence of a great letter-writer. What several reviewers of this volume have described as a “public” quality in his letters, as though he sensed the possibility of a larger audience peering over the recipient’s shoulder, may in fact be a function of that failure, which he feared as a young poet in Paris, to develop his own voice. His letters often take on the coloration of their intended readers, especially those with highly idiosyncratic styles, such as Hemingway and Pound. They read as though he were trying to gratify his correspondents even while disagreeing with them. Close readers of MacLeish’s poetry may find, in his best work, an authentic voice, but whether because of a temptation to pose for an anticipated audience or because he could not overcome the mimicry of a derivative writer or for some other reason, these letters fall short of the highest standard.

They reveal a developed human being with some negative and many admirable traits—a proud, shrewd, versatile man intensely conscious of his duty as a citizen, keenly aware of the claims of his muse; a man whose achievements stand as a monument to industry and human engagement. They also reveal a poet whose reach exceeded his grasp, a man of many letters and friends who, in being different things to different correspondents, never becomes, for the reader of Winnick’s selection, an authentic epistolary personality.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52

American Literature. LV, October, 1983, p. 475.

The Atlantic. CCLI, March, 1983, p. 116.

Choice. XX, April, 1983, p. 1139.

Library Journal. CVIII, February 1, 1983, p. 202.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 30, 1983, p. 1.

The New Republic. CLXXXVIII, January 24, 1983, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, January 2, 1983, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, November 12, 1982, p. 62.

Western Humanities Review. XXXVII, Autumn, 1983, p. 268.

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