America Was Promises

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Librarian of Congress, presidential confidant, Assistant Secretary of State, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes and the Medal of Freedom, distinguished Harvard professor—and incidentally, lawyer and football player—MacLeish was a twentieth-century Renaissance Man, as revealed in this last interview with him

Archibald MacLeish was two weeks shy of ninety when he died this spring. He was born on May 7,1892, in Glencoe, Illinois. His father, a Scottish immigrant boy from Glasgow, in the prescribed Horatio Alger manner founded the successful Chicago department store, Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company and was also a founder of the University of Chicago. MacLeish’s mother had been the young president of Rockford Institution—later Rockford College for Women—when she married. From the start, education played a large part in MacLeish’s life.

MacLeish went to Hotchkiss and Yale, where he was on the football team, edited the Yale literary magazine— The Lit —and was elected to Skull and Bones. In 1916, while he was at Harvard Law School, he married Ada Hitchcock, a concert singer.

MacLeish’s first book of poems was published in 1917, while he was in the field artillery. After the war he finished law school, practiced law in Boston, and then abruptly gave it up to go to France and write poetry. He seemed to know everyone in those days: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Joyce, Thornton Wilder, Gerald and Sara Murphy. But then, Archibald MacLeish always had a talent for knowing people who matter—I say that not to disparage but to admire.

He returned to the United States in 1928, won his first Pulitzer Prize, for Conquistador , a long, narrative poem, and worked at Fortune. In 1939 Franklin Roosevelt appointed him Librarian of Congress, and MacLeish became a member of the President’s inner circle. Roosevelt soon had him running not only the library but the first wartime propaganda organization, the Office of Facts and Figures (which became the Office of War Information). Later MacLeish served as Assistant Secretary of State and, after Roosevelt’s death, ended his public life as chairman of the American delegation to the first general conference of UNESCO in 1946. He won two more Pulitzers—for his collected poems and for his verse play J.B. (which also won a Tony Award). In 1977 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom.

For thirteen years (from 1949 to 1961), MacLeish occupied one of the most distinguished academic chairs in America, the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. There he taught, among other courses, a writing seminar that anyone with literary aspirations struggled to get into: for some of us, admission to English S was better than making the football team and certainly gave as much social clout.

When I saw Archibald MacLeish last fall in Conway, Massachusetts, twenty-six years had passed since I took his course. The MacLeishes bought the large, white farmhouse where they lived most of the year during a trip back from France in 1927. It was almost winter. MacLeish came out to meet me wearing the kind of Scottish cap with the ribbons crossed in back that bagpipers wear.

“Old age is filled with many a booby trap,” he said. But if his pace was stiff er, his looks were eerily unchanged after all those years. Everyone who saw him seemed to notice that. His face, as always, had the healthy color of a man who has spent much time outdoors, and his voice—that clear, even, gentle instrument, boyish yet authoritative, with its Midwestern intonations and its New England turns of phrase—was the voice I remembered. He did not look and sound like a man who had less than five months to live.

We sat in Ada MacLeish’s music room, where he worked in one corner. He would disappear upstairs at regular intervals to see his wife; she was too sick to come down that day. He talked about her constantly, wistfully; she was the one people worried about. As the afternoon darkened, sleet began to tap like fingers on the windowpanes.

 
My mother read aloud the Bible, stories of the Old Testament, practically all of Shakespeare, and, believe it or not, Dante’s Inferno .

What are your earliest memories?

They all relate to a piece of land. In Glencoe, a little suburb twenty miles out of Chicago, Father bought a place on Lake Michigan. It had an eighty-foot bluff overlooking the lake and deep ravines all around it. I was born and brought up there. At the time he bought the land in the 189Os, it had a marvelous frontier situation. The Canada geese spent their daytimes over in the Skokie, which was a vast marsh, and their nights safely out in the lake, floating around and talking to each other. I came to imagine that everything really old—as, for example, the Iliad and the Odyssey —had occurred on the shore of a lake where there were geese talking. Horrible forest fires driven by east winds were destroying upper Michigan: all the great disasters smell to me like oak trees burning in an east wind. Those associations with the land—and the lake, fires, smoke, geese talk—are absolutely valid memories for me.

It sounds as though you already were a voracious reader.