Archibald MacLeish

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Archibald MacLeish
Archibald MacLeish

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 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize three times.


  • 1 Biography
  • 2 Literary work
  • 3 Awards
  • 4 Quotations
  • 5 External links


MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Illinois. His father, Andrew MacLeish, worked as a dry-goods merchant. His mother, Martha Hillard, was a college professor. He grew up on an estate bordering Lake Michigan.

He attended the Hotchkiss School from 1907 to 1911, before moving on to Yale University, where he majored in English and became a member of the Skull and Bones secret society. He then enrolled in the Harvard Law School. 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. He graduated from the law school in 1919. He 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, where they joined the community of literary expatriates that included such members as Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. 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. He was a great admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed him Librarian of Congress in 1939. According to MacLeish, Roosevelt invited him to lunch and "Mr. Roosevelt decided that I wanted to be librarian of Congress." MacLeish held this job for five years. Though his appointment was officially opposed by the American Library Association because of his lack of professional training as a librarian, he is remembered by many as an effective leader who helped modernize the Library.

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 cultural 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.

Despite a long history of criticizing Marxism, MacLeish came under fire from conservative politicians of the 1940s and 1950s, including J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy. Much of this was due to his involvement with anti-fascist organizations like the League of American Writers, and to his friendship with prominent left-wing writers.

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 Chronicles, Vol. 1.

Literary work

MacLeish greatly admired T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and his work shows quite a bit of their influence. In fact, some critics charge that his poetry is derivative and adds little of MacLeish's own voice.

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 the line "A poem should not mean, but be", a classic statement of the modernist aesthetic.

He later broke with this position. 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.


  • 1933: Pulitzer Prize for poetry (Conquistador )
  • 1953: Pulitzer Prize for poetry (Collected Poems 1917–1952)
  • 1953: National Book Award ( Collected Poems, 1917–1952)
  • 1953: Bollingen Prize in Poetry
  • 1959: Pulitzer Prize for Drama (J.B.)
  • 1959: Tony Award for Best Play (J.B.)
  • 1965: Academy Award for Documentary Feature (The Eleanor Roosevelt Story)
  • 1977: Presidential Medal of Freedom


"We are deluged with facts, but we have lost, or are losing, our human ability to feel them. Which means that we have lost or are losing our ability to comprehend the facts of our experience."

"What is more important in a library than anything else — is the fact that it exists."

"A man who lives, not by what he loves but what he hates, is a sick man."

  • The Paris Review interview series
  • Preceded by
    Herbert Putnam
    Librarian of Congress Succeeded by
    Luther H. Evans
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