Archibald MacLeish was an American poet, writer, and Librarian
of Congress. He is associated with the modernist school of poetry.
MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Illinois. His father, Andrew MacLeish,
was a dry-goods merchant. His mother, Martha Hillard, was a college
professor. He grew up on an estate bordering Lake Michigan. He
attended the Hotchkiss School from 1907 to 1911, before moving
on to Yale University where he majored in English and became a
member of the Skull and Bones secret society. He then enrolled
in the Harvard Law School. In 1916, he married Ada Hitchcock.
studies were interrupted by World War I, in which he served first
as an ambulance driver and later as a captain of artillery. He
graduated from the law school in 1919. He taught law for a semester
for the government department at Harvard, then worked briefly
as an editor for The New Republic. He next spent three years practicing
1923 MacLeish left his law firm and moved with his wife to Paris,
where they joined the community of literary expatriates that included
such members as Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. He returned
to America in 1928.
1930 to 1938 he worked as a writer and editor for Fortune Magazine,
during which time he also became increasingly politically active,
especially with anti-fascist causes. He was a great admirer of
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed him Librarian of Congress
in 1939. According to MacLeish, Roosevelt invited him to lunch
and "Mr. Roosevelt decided that I wanted to be librarian
of Congress." MacLeish held this job for five years, and
is remembered as an effective leader who helped modernize the
World War II MacLeish also served as director of the War Department's
Office of Facts and Figures, and as the assistant director of
the Office of War Information. These jobs were heavily involved
with propaganda, which was well-suited to MacLeish's talents;
he had written quite a bit of politically-motivated work in the
spent a year as the Assistant Secretary of State for cultural
affairs, and a further year representing the U.S. at the creation
of UNESCO. After this, he retired from public service and returned
a long history of criticizing Marxism, MacLeish came under fire
from conservative politicians of the 1940s and 1950s, including
J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy. Much of this was due to his
involvement with anti-fascist organizations like the League of
American Writers, and to his friendship with prominent left-wing
1949 MacLeish became the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory
at Harvard. He held this position until his retirement in 1962.
In 1959 his play J.B. won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
From 1963 to 1967 he was the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at
MacLeish greatly admired T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and his work
shows quite a bit of their influence. In fact, some critics charge
that his poetry is derivative, and adds little of MacLeish's own
early work was very traditionally modernist, and accepted the
contemporary modernist position holding that a poet was isolated
from society. His most well-known poem, Ars Poetica, contains
the line "A poem should not mean / but be.", a classic
statement of the modernist aesthetic.
later broke with this position. MacLeish himself was greatly involved
in public life, and came to believe that this was not only an
appropriate but an inevitable role for a poet.
“We are deluged with facts, but we have lost or are losing
our human ability to feel them.”
is more important in a library than anything else — is the
fact that it exists."
man who lives, not by what he loves but what he hates, is a sick
are as great as our belief in human liberty -- no greater. And
our belief in human liberty is only ours when it is larger than
infantile cowardice of our time which demands an external pattern,
a nonhuman authority...."
hard enough to take among the poor who have to practice it. A
rich man's piety stinks. It's insufferable."
business of the law is to make sense of the confusion of what
we call human life -- to reduce it to order but at the same time
to give it possibility, scope, even dignity."
is not in the world of ideas that life is lived. Life is lived
for better or worse in life, and to a man in life, his life can
be no more absurd than it can be the opposite of absurd, whatever
that opposite may be."
peculiar disease of intellectuals, that infatuation with ideas
at the expense of experience, that compels experience to conform
to bookish expectations."
have learned the answers, all the answers: It is the question
that we do not know."
see the earth as we now see it, small and beautiful in that eternal
silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the
earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the unending
night -- brothers who see now they are truly brothers."