American Poet of Social Purpose
Perceptive biography traces Archibald MacLeish's commitment to human affairs and public service
AMERICA has tended to penalize its most popular poets for doing what they do best: enunciate topical concerns. Each in his own way, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Allen Ginsberg, and Archibald MacLeish - the subject of Scott Donaldson's latest literary biography - foreswore the purely private realm of poetry to address immediate social subjects.
Each was accused of pandering, and of rattling the ear with harsh sounds from the street. In poetry, perhaps more than other kinds of serious fiction, to be current, accessible, and widely read has meant living with the accusation of selling out.
Working from the wealth of materials that MacLeish left behind, as well as from 100 hours of audiotaped interviews with the poet conducted by R. H. Winnick, who is listed as collaborator, Donaldson has constructed a thorough, readable, and largely uninflected account of MacLeish. Unlike Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Cheever, subjects of previous Donaldson biographies, MacLeish was at home in both the literary and political worlds.
In his youth, MacLeish had hoped to be a rarefied aesthetic modernist, drawing artistic sustenance not from the world's doings, but from the history and established subject matter of his craft. In his most celebrated poem, "Ars Poetica," penned in 1925, he expressed this ambition. "A poem," MacLeish wrote, "should be equal to: / Not true." "A poem," he concluded, "should not mean / But be."
But in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the United States lurched into economic instability, and fascism arose in Spain, Italy, and Germany, MacLeish could no longer take pleasure in art for merely art's sake. The form and sonority of poetry had to be wedded to social meaning. Writing to Carl Sandburg, he proclaimed: "You and I have a considerable responsibility. We are poets but we are also men able to live in the world. We cannot escape our duty as political animals."
MacLeish's fundamental assessment of the poet's relationship to the world may have begun in the same month as the crash of 1929. In October of that year, and for the next nine years, full and part time, MacLeish was employed by Henry Luce as a writer for Fortune magazine.
Journalism rekindled the poet's longstanding interest in the world's complexity, but it did not initiate it. As early as 1919 he wrote to his friend, fellow Harvard Law School graduate and future statesman Dean Acheson that it was man's "purpose to act upon the world, not to wait to see what the world will do to him." True to that spirit, MacLeish worked as a lawyer, lived in Paris during the artistic ferment of the 1920s, and traveled to Persia on behalf of the League of Nations.
Working for Fortune allowed MacLeish to view the Depression's social upheavals firsthand. Moreover, his artistic career was heightened in 1933 when he was awarded the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes.
The Pulitzer ignited his confidence and reinforced his desire to phrase his assessments of human affairs through poetry. Just as he had become a prolific poet in the 1920s, writing five books during his five years in Paris, in the 1930s MacLeish took up the challenge to consolidate his poetry with his social philosophy.
In these years, MacLeish's verse and prose brimmed with advocacy for the common man and for poetry itself. "An art which lives by the production of little books to lie on little tables ... is not an art in flower," he warned. Greater public concern got him in trouble with the Marxist faithful, who disdained the absence of a revolutionary edge in his poetry, as well as with the so-called New Critics, like T. S. Eliot, who lamented the presence of the personal in poetry.
In 1938, the year that he left Fortune, MacLeish produced a lengthy colloquial poem to accompany a collection of Depression-era photographs drawn from the Farm Security Administration collection. "Land of the Free" underscored his need to create a forum for his ideas, as did his experimental radio plays.
The new mass media promised a wide audience for his intensifying antifascist views.
On the eve of World War II, MacLeish was appointed Librarian of Congress. The American Library Association spiritedly objected to his not being a professional librarian. The uproar is noteworthy in that a hapless congressman coined the malevolent phrase, "fellow traveler" on the House floor to insinuate MacLeish's supposed Communist sympathies.
The next decade of MacLeish's life was primarily spent in public service. While Librarian of Congress he became President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's informal minister of culture. During World War II, he assisted with presidential speeches, led the Office of Facts and Figures, and served as an assistant secretary of state.
Though he felt his poetic powers slump after the war, his moral resolve did not slacken. As a major advocate for the formation of the United Nations, he wrote sections of the UN charter, and is largely responsible for the eloquence of its preamble. In addition, MacLeish headed the US delegation to the organizational conference of UNESCO. Never one to suffer fools gladly, he opposed the ventures of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and tangled with the red-baiting junior senator from Wisconsin , Joseph McCarthy.
In a new role, as Boyleston professor at Harvard University, a position he held for more than a dozen years, MacLeish offered what became the legendary "English S" writing course. Among its graduates were Robert Bly, Jonathan Kozol, John Simon, Harold Brodsky, George Steiner, and "Adam Smith." His most admired play, "J.B.," was written during that epoch.
Scott Donaldson's new biography successfully sweeps away the prevailing view of MacLeish as a decanonized, middle-of-the-road poet. A person of extraordinary energy and concentration, MacLeish was a public figure who repeatedly launched himself into history's critical junctures. By integrating MacLeish's varied artistic achievements with his public service, Donaldson restores multiplicity and moral vigor to our view of the man and his times.