- Historic Sites
America Was Promises
An Interview With Archibald MacLeish
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
My mother was largely responsible for that. She was a clergyman’s daughter. She began reading aloud to my older brother. I wasn’t going to let him get ahead of me, so I paid attention and so did my younger brother, Kenny. Mother started out with no watering down of tha gruel. She read the Bible, the stories in the Old Testament. She read practically all of Shakespeare and, believe it or not, she read a translation of the Inferno . She was easily the foremost educational influence in my life.
Her insistence on reading those books that had meant most to her—regardless of the discrepancy of thirty years between herself and her children—was the greatest piece of luck ever. I’ve often wondered how much it had to do with my commitment to poetry. I think I have a guess.
When did you write your first poem?
I don’t know that. But I’m sure I began it, in of all impossible places, the Hotchkiss School. God, how I did not like Hotchkiss! I’m sure it was much better than I thought, but it did not lead you toward pine groves, or palm groves, or any kind of groves. There was one master, an Oxford graduate, who was about six feet six inches tall and was mad about—God, what was his name?—a very well-known, but to our generation very second-rate, English poet who was so lyrical that he almost came off in the wash. Oh, Swinburne—to think I could forget Swinburne. This Master introduced me to Swinburne. It took me quite a while to get rid of Swinburne.
I had a schoolmate at both Hotchkiss and Yale called Douglas Moore, and he was a composer, and a very good composer. We would work on songs together—that is, I would try to write songs for him, which was not easy, and he would try to do the same thing with the music for me. But that was educational at the same time because you learned a lot about how the rhythms of music differ from the rhythms of verse. I would say probably that I had committed myself about as clearly as a very young man could to the writing of verse long before I went to Yale.
But weren’t you also something of an athlete in those days?
Yes, I was regular center on the freshman team, which doesn’t seem probable, but it’s true. I thoroughly enjoyed football, I loved football. It satisfied some need. I weighed only 165 pounds, but the advantage of being small and light was that I could move faster. I remember the game between our freshman team and the Harvard freshman team in 1911. Harvard was absolutely magnificent, with players like Charley Brickley, the great dropkicker, Eddie Mahan, probably the best halfback they ever had, and Jeff Coolidge at end. But largely because it was a rainy day, we held them to a nothing-to-nothing tie. Later we went into the Tourraine Hotel in Boston to have a drink. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a loud voice right in back of me, a quite drunken loud voice, and the pressure of a huge hand on my shoulder. The voice said, “Dirtiest Ii'1 center I ever saw.” It was the coach of the Harvard freshman team.
What did people at Yale feel about your poetical ambitions?
They didn’t think much of them. In fact, the theory then was that a man ought to know what he was going to be. If he was going to be a stockbroker, he ought to have that constantly in mind. He shouldn’t be doing two things so different as football and the writing of quite vague little lovelies.
The combination obviously didn’t bother some powerful people. After all, you were elected to Skull and Bones, the secret society of secret societies. How do you explain it?
I don’t know. What struck my own classmates as being somewhat odd may have struck the class above mine as being at least novel. But it was a question I sedulously never put to myself while I was in New Haven.
What is so special about Skull and Bones?
Skull and Bones can’t be dealt with as you’d deal with the other secret societies at Yale. It can’t be dealt with as it was dealt with by the young radicals of my time. They made a terrific fuss about the Bones, thought it was undemocratic and uneverything, and all announced that they were going to refuse invitations—which a couple of them actually did. But the quality of the institution is not to be found along those lines. As nearly as I can make out, the Bones was started in the early part of the nineteenth century by some Southern Yale men who had read Walter Scott and also Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy . The whole vocabulary of the institution derives from those writers and is very humorous. The alarming discovery of any newly elected member is that the Bones is full of humor and warmth and humanity, all of which has quite a good, sound literary background.
Well, I suppose I can’t ask you what goes on in Skull and Bones.
No, but I’ve given you a pretty good idea.
Did you know what you were going to do, even then?