Archibald MacLeish

Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) was an American poet, playwright, teacher, and public official and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Archibald MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Ill. on May 7, 1892. He graduated from Yale University in 1915. After serving in World War I as a field artillery officer, he received a degree from the Harvard Law School in 1919 and practiced law in Boston for 3 years. In 1923 he departed for Europe to travel and write. He lived mainly in France for the next 5 years, publishing several books of poetry during this period, including The Pot of Earth (1925), which echoed T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and The Hamlet of A. MacLeish, an expression of MacLeish's disillusionment with the postwar scene.

During the 1930s MacLeish was a reporter on the staff of Fortune magazine. A strong supporter of the New Deal, he served as adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt while working as librarian of Congress (1939-1944). A vigorous defender of democracy in many articles and speeches, he revealed a growing awareness of the dangers of both fascism and communism. From 1944 to 1945 MacLeish was assistant secretary of state. In 1949 Harvard offered him the Boylston professorship in rhetoric and oratory; he continued to teach at that university until his retirement in 1962.

MacLeish served as a sort of poetic weather vane; for more than 40 years his work reflected the thought and feeling, the poetic environment, of its time. Responding more to the outside world than to any abiding philosophic or esthetic commitment within himself, he expressed, from his earliest published verse to The Wild Old Wicked Man and Other Poems (1968), the cultivated man's changing sense of a rapidly changing world. The conclusion of his poem Ars Poetica (1926) has become the universal motto of New Critical poetic theory: "A poem should not mean/But be." "You, Andrew Marvell" (1930) expressed for the entire generation of modernist poets who came of age with Eliot their debt to 17th-century metaphysical verse.

MacLeish's lengthy poem Conquistador (1932) was, in effect, a summation of the poetic fashions of the 1920s, in style and plan derived from Ezra Pound, in attitudes indebted to Eliot. It won a Pulitzer Prize. Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City (1933) might have served as campaign poetry for the New Deal. His Pulitzer Prize-winning verse drama, J. B., reflected the 1950s concern with existential absurdity in its retelling of the biblical story of Job.

MacLeish's most important critical work, Poetry and Experience (1961), treats esthetic theory and practice. The body of his poetry is included in The Collected Poetry of Archibald MacLeish (1963). His criticism and commentary are in Poetry and Journalism (1958) and The Dialogues of Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren (1964). He died in Boston on Apr. 20, 1982.

Further Reading on Archibald MacLeish

Useful for information on MacLeish are Signi Lenea Falk, Archibald MacLeish (1966), and the section on MacLeish in Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present (1968).

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