- Historic Sites
America Was Promises
An Interview With Archibald MacLeish
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
Well, it seemed to me so then. My younger brother, for whom my son Kenneth was named, signed up with what was called the Yale Unit, which was the beginning of naval aviation. Ken, who was killed in the war, turned out to be one of the really superb fliers of that group. He believed in the war completely and entirely, and the volume of his letters which my mother published is full of that belief. He died in that belief. He died also in about the worst possible way. He was flying with a British unit over Belgium, ran into one of the very famous German outfits, and was shot down and lost. There was no word. Nobody knew what had happened to him. He disappeared for three months until the water—this was midwinter—drew off the land and his body was found in a barnyard. There was no plane anywhere near it. My reaction to the combination of things—his death, the manner of his death, his attitude toward the war, what his death did to my mother—was… well, it was frenzy, it was frantic, and I said quite a lot of angry things at the time.
I had been under fire myself just enough to feel a lack of real purpose, only a presence of accidental mechanical purpose, and it colored the whole experience for me. Going back to France to live shortly after the war and living there for five or six years put me in touch with young Frenchmen of my age, almost all of them shot up in one way or another. There was no family without uncountable numbers of the dead. The war took on a quality of real beastliness. Real beastliness. Whereas I feel very differently about the Second World War, in which we behaved magnificently, and where we won a great triumph. It was an essential war. It could not have been avoided.
Did you find it hard to go back to law school?
I finally got discharged from the Army in the spring of 1919. By that time I was a captain and had a battery of my own. I came back to a special course that the law school ran that fall. All I remember is law. Law, law, law. I’ve still got the damned books up in the attic. Though I was in considerable doubt as to whether I could get through, I did.
All you did was to graduate first in your class.
Yes, I did. As a matter of fact, I got the Fay Diploma.
I can even quote the citation. It reads: “For the member of the graduating class of the Law School who … ranks highest in scholarship, conduct, and character, and gives evidence of the greatest promise.” It’s the first time, by the way, that your name turns up in The New York Times.
I’ll be damned.
You went to work for Choate, Hall if Stewart, one of the most prestigious firms in Boston. What made you suddenly—and finally —give up the law?
One night in the winter of 1923 I left work and began walking back to Cambridge, where we lived. This was the occasion when the cold moon and the cold sky pulling me out along the river produced a consequence of talk between Ada and me, which resulted in our decision to give up the law and go to Paris with whatever we could lay our hands on—Ada being at that point an extremely good singer.
Our decision had an ironic, fairly comic conclusion. I got up very early in the morning to talk to Mr. Choate. When I arrived, I was asked by his secretary to go into his office. All his partners were there, and Mr. Choate said, “Archie, we’ve just elected you to the firm.” I realized that I would either speak then or forever hold my peace. So I said, “Mr. Choate, I didn’t know about this meeting. I came here early to tell you that I’ve decided to leave the law.” I can still see the red going up his neck. Speak of horrible moments. …
Could a person live on poetry alone in those days?
I was betting on the fact that my father would help us as much as he could. I resigned from the law first and then went off to see him—which was perhaps not very good practice but he said he would do what he had done for me in law school. He would give me three thousand dollars a year, apparently with the idea that four—I had two children by then—could live as cheaply as one in Paris.
Do you think it’s still possible for people to give up a secure career and go somewhere to write poetry?
It sounds awful.
Why do you think that the Paris of the 1920s has so caught our imaginations?
This is a place where your father [Malcolm Cowley] and I have always disagreed. He regarded the Americans in Paris as refugees from an unlivable country. I have alway seen it exactly the opposite way. What lured us to Paris and held us there was the fact of the magnificent work being done by people from all over the world and in all the arts. This was a period really like the great Quatrocento, the great years of—perhaps not Athens, but certainly the great years of Rome and Florence. It was a period of extraordinary achievement. There were a lot of fakes, a lot of phonies, and there undoubtedly were people who had come as refugees, exiles. But what I remember are the individual human beings whom I had the luck to know. The people who were good seemed to respond to that fever of greatness by becoming great themselves.
This period of such great energy and creative achievement, why was it so brief? You compare it to the Renaissance, and yet it might have lasted ten years at most.