- Historic Sites
America Was Promises
An Interview With Archibald MacLeish
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
And those were full Fortune articles. Wilder Hobson and I even did an entire issue between us in Japan. That was in 1936. Harry Luce asked me to go and sent Ada with me. He said that he had a feeling—people thought Harry had no feelings, but he was full of them—he said, “I have a feeling that Japan is going to be in the center of world history within ten years.”
When I got to Japan I discovered what the American press either didn’t know or had deliberately ignored—that there had already been a fascist coup in Japan. The fascists and the armed services were in control. So, what Wilder and I both knew by the time we were halfway through was that we were writing some dangerous information indeed and that we were going to be lucky to get out of Japan. We had all sorts of devices for justifying our refusal to send anything back by mail. I went into a tailspin when we finished. Then Japanese authorities banned the issue. They said it was because Fortune reproduced the Imperial Chrysanthemum, but it wasn’t the reason. I may sound vain about what we did, but I am still alarmed by the fact that we did it.
I don’t think people have any idea that you were once an investigative journalist.
Well, I had no desire to become one.
What sort of man was Henry Luce? I’ve always found him something of an enigma.
He was enigmatic. He didn’t have much of a sense of humor. The stories that he told of things that had actually happened to him were always told precisely and accurately, just as they had happened, whether funny or not. There is a story Ada loves to tell: When Harry married his first wife, we were still living in Paris. They came to see us on their honeymoon, and we spent a long evening talking. Harry wanted to know where they should go. We both immediately mentioned a town along the Swiss border of France, a small town with a very beautiful church. They were grateful, wrote it down, and then disappeared into southern France and Italy. When they came back, they called on us to report. Ada immediately asked them about the town. Harry replied that it was quite as wonderful as we had said it would be. But it was so crowded, he said, that the hotel could only give them a room with one bed, and his wife had had to sleep on the floor.
You would think that the man who would say that didn’t care too much about human nature. But Harry did, and his consideration for people who worked for him, and who had been put through difficult tasks by him, was quite remarkable. He was a good friend, a devoted friend.
There is one more thing: Harry was the best textual editor I have ever seen. He was perfectly willing to make himself look silly by the questions he’d ask. As a result, any Fortune text that came out from under Harry would make sense all the way. He was a man of simplicity of mind who was determined to know that the unmentioned things had at least been considered.
How, during the thirties, did you manage to stay away from the Communists, when all the intellectuals in America seemed to be flocking to their banner?
I’ve often asked myself about that. I had, being a nicely brought-up young man with well-to-do Christian parents, never seen anything that even remotely approached the misery and anguish and horror of the Great Depression. Things that I thought just couldn’t happen in a human society were happening, and Mr. Hoover’s attitude infuriated me. I remember one night when I almost told Ada that I was going to join the Communist party; something had happened that enraged me. But then I looked at her and realized I couldn’t tell her that because it wasn’t going to be true. I may have been fruit ripe for the picking, but deep down I hated the Communist conception of the relation of the state to the people it governed.
Until 1930 you had been a writer of intensely private, modernistic verse. Then you shifted to a type of poetry that was much more public. What accounted for the change?
I think it’s quite easy to say what accounts for it. I wrote more verse in the decade of the thirties than I ever had before or since. This was largely because, as a result of my experience at Fortune , I had a course in the history, geography, and general appearance of the Great Republic such as I had never had before. I felt a piling up of reaction to that Republic. It was a conviction which came out of a chance remark that Thomas Mann made to me once—that it was in the experience of the language of poetry that the real history of our time was expressing itself. Or to put it the other way round, that the understanding of the time—which poetry had to gain if it were to say what it really had to say—was the political background. That was where the life of the human soul now lay.
I have to add that as I grew older, I found myself going back to the private life, even in its most public aspects. I think that was because of the curiously close relationship I had with Mr. Roosevelt. I saw him as a man suffering and suffering terribly.
When you say that Roosevelt was suffering, in what sense do you mean that?