Archibald MacLeish (May 7, 1892– April 20, 1982) was an American poet, writer, and the Librarian of Congress. He is associated with the Modernist school of poetry. He received three Pulitzer Prizes for his work.
MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Illinois. His father, Scottish-born Andrew MacLeish, worked as a dry goods merchant. His mother, Martha (née Hillard), was a college professor and had served as president of Rockford College. He grew up on an estate bordering Lake Michigan. He attended the Hotchkiss School from 1907 to 1911 before entering Yale University, where he majored in English, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and was selected for the Skull and Bones society. He then enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he served as an editor of the Harvard Law Review. In 1916, he married Ada Hitchcock. His studies were interrupted by World War I, in which he served first as an ambulance driver and later as a captain of artillery. His brother, Kenneth MacLeish was killed in action during the war. He graduated from law school in 1919, 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 law.
In 1923 MacLeish left his law firm and moved with his wife to Paris, France, where they joined the community of literary expatriates that included such members as Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. They also became part of the famed coterie of Riviera hosts Gerald and Sarah Murphy, which included Hemingway, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Fernand Léger, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, John O’Hara, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. He returned to America in 1928. From 1930 to 1938 he worked as a writer and editor for Fortune Magazine, during which he also became increasingly politically active, especially with anti-fascist causes. By the 1930s, he considered Capitalism to be “symbolically dead” and wrote the verse play Panic (1935) in response.
While in Paris, Harry Crosby, publisher of the Black Sun Press, offered to publish MacLeish’s poetry. Both MacLeish and Crosby had overturned the normal expectations of society, rejecting conventional careers in the legal and banking fields. Crosby published MacLeish’s long poem Einstein in a deluxe edition of 150 copies that sold quickly. MacLeish was paid US$200 for his work.
Librarian of Congress
American Libraries has called MacLeish "one of the hundred most influential figures in librarianship during the 20th century" in the United States. MacLeish’s career in libraries and public service began, not with a burning desire from within, but from a combination of the urging of a close friend Felix Frankfurter, and as MacLeish put it, “The President decided I wanted to be Librarian of Congress.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s nomination of MacLeish was a controversial and highly political maneuver fraught with several challenges. First, the current Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, who had served at the post for 40 years, needed to be persuaded to retire from the position. To be persuaded, Putnam was made Librarian Emeritus. Secondly, Roosevelt desired someone with similar political sensibilities to fill the post and to help convince the American public that the New Deal was working and that he had the right to run for an unprecedented third term in office. MacLeish’s occupation as a poet and his history as an expatriate in Paris rankled many Republicans. Lastly, MacLeish’s lack of a degree in library sciences or any training aggravated the librarian community, especially the American Library Association which was campaigning for one of its members to be nominated. Despite the challenges, President Roosevelt and Justice Frankfurter felt that the mixture of MacLeish’s love for literature and his abilities to organize and motivate people, exemplified by his days in law school, would be just what the Library of Congress needed.
MacLeish sought support from expected places such as the president of Harvard, MacLeish’s current place of work, but found none. It was support from unexpected places, such as M. Llewellyn Raney of the University of Chicago libraries, which alleviated the ALA letter writing campaign against MacLeish’s nomination. Raney pointed out to the detractors that, “MacLeish was a lawyer like Putnam... he was equally at home in the arts as one of the four leading American poets now alive... and while it was true that he had not attended a professional school of library science, neither had thirty-four of thirty-seven persons presently occupying executive positions at the Library of Congress.” The main Republican arguments against MacLeish’s nomination from within Congress was: that he was a poet and was a “fellow traveler” or sympathetic to communist causes. Calling to mind differences with the party he had over the years, MacLeish avowed that, “no one would be more shocked to learn I am a Communist than the Communists themselves.” In Congress MacLeish’s main advocate was Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley, Democrat from Kentucky. With President Roosevelt’s support and Senator Barkley’s skillful defense in the United States Senate, victory in a roll call vote with sixty-three Senators voting in favor of MacLeish’s appointment was achieved.
MacLeish became privy to Roosevelt’s views on the library during a private meeting with the president. According to Roosevelt, the pay levels were too low and many people would need to be removed. Soon afterward, MacLeish joined Putnam for a luncheon in New York. At the meeting, Putnam relayed his desire to come to the Library for work and that his office would be down the hall from MacLeish’s. This meeting further crystallized for MacLeish that as Librarian of Congress, he would be “an unpopular newcomer, disturbing the status quo.”
It was a question from MacLeish’s daughter, Mimi, which led him to realize that, “Nothing is more difficult for the beginning librarian than to discover what profession he was engaged.” Mimi, his daughter, had inquired about what her daddy was to do all day, “…hand out books?” MacLeish created his own job description and set out to learn about how the library was currently organized. In October 1944, MacLeish described that he did not set out to reorganize the library, rather “…one problem or another demanded action, and each problem solved led on to another that needed attention.”
MacLeish’s chief accomplishments had their start in instituting daily staff meetings with division chiefs, the chief assistant librarian, and other administrators. He then set about setting up various committees on various projects including: acquisitions policy, fiscal operations, cataloging, and outreach. The committees alerted MacLeish to various problems throughout the library.
First and foremost, under Putnam, the library was acquiring more books than it could catalog. A report in December 1939, found that over one-quarter of the library’s collection had not yet been cataloged. MacLeish solved the problem of acquisitions and cataloging through establishing another committee instructed to seek advice from specialists outside of the Library of Congress. The committee found many subject areas of the library to be adequate and many other areas to be, surprisingly, inadequately provided for. A set of general principles on acquisitions was then developed to ensure that, though it was impossible to collect everything, the Library of Congress would acquire the bare minimum of canons to meet its mission. These principles included acquiring all materials necessary to members of Congress and government officers, all materials expressing and recording the life and achievements of the people of the United States, and materials of other societies past and present which are of the most immediate concern to the peoples of the United States.
Secondly, MacLeish set about reorganizing the operational structure. Leading scholars in library science were assigned a committee to analyze the library’s managerial structure. The committee issued a report a mere two months after it was formed, in April 1940, stating that a major restructuring was necessary. This was no surprise to MacLeish, who had thirty-five divisions under him. He divided the library’s functions into three departments: administration, processing, and reference. All existing divisions were then assigned as appropriate. By including library scientists from inside and outside the Library of Congress, MacLeish was able to gain faith from the library community that he was on the right track. Within a year, MacLeish had completely restructured the Library of Congress, making it work more efficiently and aligning the library to “report on the mystery of things.”
Last, but not least, MacLeish promoted the Library of Congress through various forms of public advocacy. Perhaps his greatest display of public advocacy was requesting a budget increase of over a million dollars in his March 1940 budget proposal to the United States Congress. While the library did not receive the full increase, it did receive an increase of $367,591, the largest one-year increase to date. Much of the increase went toward improved pay levels, increased acquisitions in underserved subject areas, and new positions.
World War II
Archibald MacLeish also assisted with the development of the new “Research and Analysis Branch” of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. "These operations were overseen by the distinguished Harvard University historian William L. Langer, who, with the assistance of the American Council of Learned Societies and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, set out immediately to recruit a professional staff drawn from across the social sciences. Over the next twelve months academic specialists from fields ranging from geography to classical philology descended upon Washington, bringing with them their most promising graduate students, and set up shop in the headquarters of the Research and Analysis (R&A) Branch at Twenty-third and E Streets, and in the new annex to the Library of Congress.”
During 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 previous decade. He spent a year as the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and a further year representing the U.S. at the creation of UNESCO. After this, he retired from public service and returned to academia.
Return to writing
Despite a long history of debate over the merits of Marxism, MacLeish came under fire from anti-communists in the 1940s and 1950s, including J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy. Much of this was due to his involvement with left-wing organizations like the League of American Writers, and to his friendships with prominent left-wing writers. Time magazine’s Whittaker Chambers cited him as a fellow traveler in a 1941 article: "By 1938, U. S. Communists could count among their allies such names as Granville Hicks, Newton Arvin, Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, Matthew Josephson, Kyle Crichton (Robert Forsythe), Malcolm Cowley, Donald Ogden Stewart, Erskine Caldwell, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish, Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, John Steinbeck, George Soule, many another.”
In 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 Amherst College. Around 1969/70 he met Bob Dylan, who describes this encounter in the third chapter of Chronicles, Vol. 1.
MacLeish greatly admired T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and his work shows quite a bit of their influence. He was the literary figure that played the most important role in freeing Ezra Pound from St. Elisabeths Hospital in Washington DC where he was incarcerated for high treason between 1946 and 1958. MacLeish’s 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 a classic statement of the modernist aesthetic: "A poem should not mean / But be." He later broke with modernism’s pure aesthetic. 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.
MacLeish worked to promote the arts, culture, and libraries. Among other impacts, MacLeish was the first Librarian of Congress to begin the process of naming what would become the United States Poet Laureate. The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress came from a donation in 1937 from Archer M. Huntington, a wealthy ship builder. Like many donations it came with strings attached. In this case Huntington wanted the poet Joseph Auslander to be named to the position. MacLeish found little value in Auslander’s writing. However, MacLeish was happy that having Auslander in the post attracted many other poets, such as Robinson Jeffers and Robert Frost, to hold readings at the library. He set about establishing the consultantship as a revolving post rather than a lifetime position. In 1943, MacLeish displayed his love of poetry and the Library of Congress by naming Louise Bogan to the position. Bogan, who had long been a hostile critic of MacLeish’s own writing, asked MacLeish why he appointed her to the position; MacLeish replied that she was the best person for the job. For MacLeish, promoting the Library of Congress and the arts was vitally more important than petty personal conflicts.
In the June 5, 1972 issue of The American Scholar, MacLeish laid out in an essay his philosophy on libraries and librarianship, further shaping modern thought on the subject:
When he was seventy-four years old the Cretan novelist Nikos Kazantzakis began a book. He called it Report to Greco... Kazantzakis thought of himself as a soldier reporting to his commanding officer on a mortal mission—his life. ...
Well, there is only one Report to Greco, but no true book... was ever anything else than a report.... A true book is a report upon the mystery of existence... it speaks of the world, of our life in the world. Everything we have in the books on which our libraries are founded—Euclid’s figures, Leonardo’s notes, Newton’s explanations, Cervantes’ myth, Sappho’s broken songs, the vast surge of Homer—everything is a report of one kind or another and the sum of all of them together is our little knowledge of our world and of ourselves. Call a book Das Kapital or The Voyage of the Beagle or Theory of Relativity or Alice in Wonderland or Moby-Dick, it is still what Kazantzakis called his book—it is still a “report” upon the “mystery of things.”
But if this is what a book is... then a library is an extraordinary thing. ...
The existence of a library is, in itself, an assertion.... It asserts that... all these different and dissimilar reports, these bits and pieces of experience, manuscripts in bottles, messages from long before, from deep within, from miles beyond, belonged together and might, if understood together, spell out the meaning which the mystery implies. ...
The library, almost alone of the great monuments of civilization, stands taller now than it ever did before. The city... decays. The nation loses its grandeur... The university is not always certain what it is. But the library remains: a silent and enduring affirmation that the great Reports still speak, and not alone but somehow all together...
Two collections of MacLeish’s papers are held at the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. These are the Archibald MacLeish Collection and the Archibald MacLeish Collection Addition.
MacLeish had three children: Kenneth, Mary Hillard, and William. He is also a great-uncle of film actor Bruce Dern and great-great-uncle of film actress Laura Dern.