Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Archibald MacLeish (May 7, 1892 - April 20, 1982) was an American poet, playwright, and public official, who served as Librarian of Congress. He was awarded 2 Pulitzer Prizes for collections of his poetry, and a 3rd for a verse play.[2]



MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Illinois. His father, Andrew MacLeish, worked as a dry goods merchant. His mother, Martha 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.[3] In 1916, he married Ada Hitchcock.[4]

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 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 then spent 3 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 Leger, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, John O'Hara, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley.

MacLeish 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.

Librarian of CongressEdit

American Libraries has called MacLeish "one of the hundred most influential figures in librarianship during the 20th century" in the United States.[5] 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, plus (as MacLeish put it), "The President decided I wanted to be Librarian of Congress."[6]

Franklin Roosevelt's nomination of MacLeish was a controversial and highly political maneuver fraught with several challenges. The current Librarian, Herbert Putnam, who had served at the post for 40 years, needed to be persuaded to retire from the position. In order to be persuaded, Putnam was made Librarian Emeritus.

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 whatsoever aggravated the librarian community, especially the American Library Association which was campaigning for one of its members to be nominated. Despite these challenges, Roosevelt and 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 4 leading American poets now alive - and while it was true that he had not attended a professional school of library science, neither had 34 of 37 persons presently occupying executive positions at the Library of Congress."[7]

The main Republican arguments against MacLeish's nomination from within Congress was: that he was a poet and was a fellow traveler (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."[8] 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 63 Senators voting in favor of MacLeish's appointment was achieved.[9]

MacLeish found the Library of Congress to be extremely disorganized, as might be expected(Citation needed) after being run by someone for 40 years constantly trying to increase the size of the collection.(Citation needed) 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."[10]

File:Library of Congress.jpg

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."[11] Mimi, his daughter, had inquired about what her daddy was to do all day, "¦hand out books?"[11] Similar to any incoming executive to a new position,(Citation needed) 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."[12]

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.[13]

Under Putnam, the library had been acquiring more books than it could catalog. A report in December 1939, found that over 1/4 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.[14]

Next, 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 2 months after it was formed, in April 1940, stating that a major restructuring was necessary. This was no surprise to MacLeish who had 35 divisions under him. He divided the library's functions into 3 departments: administration, processing, and reference. All existing divisions were then assigned as appropriate.[15] 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, bringing the library to the center to "report on the mystery of things."[16]

MacLeish worked to promote the arts, culture, and libraries. Among other impacts, he was the 1st 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 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.[17]

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.[18]

Last, but not least, MacLeish promoted the Library 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 Congress. While the library did not receive the full increase, it did receive an increase of $367, 591, the largest 1-year increase to date.[19] Much of the increase went toward improved pay levels, increased acquisitions in under-served subject areas, and new positions.

World War IIEdit

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.

Later yearsEdit

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 left-wing organizations like the League of American Writers, and to his friendships 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.

He was the literary figure that played the most important role in freeing Pound from St. Elisabeths Hospital in Washington D.C., where he was incarcerated for high treason between 1946 and 1958.

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.

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. MacLeish remarked in the essay that libraries are more than a mere collection of books. "If books are reports on the mysteries of the world and our existence in it, libraries remain reporting on the human mind, that particular mystery, still remains as countries lose their grandeur and universities are not certain what they are." For MacLeish, libraries are a massive report on the mysteries of human kind.[16]

2 collections of MacLeish's papers are held at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library: these are the Archibald MacLeish Collection (YCAL MSS 38) and Archibald MacLeish Collection Addition (YCAL MSS 269).

Writing Edit

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



Publications Edit


  • Songs for a Summer's Day (sonnet cycle). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1915.
  • Tower of Ivory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1917.
  • The Happy Marriage, and other poems. Boston: Houghton, 1924.
  • The Pot of Earth. Boston: Houghton, 1925.
  • Streets in the Moon. Boston: Houghton, 1926.
  • The Hamlet of A. MacLeish. Boston: Houghton, 1928.
  • Einstein. Black Sun Press, 1929.
  • New Found Land. Black Sun Press (limited edition), 1930; Boston: Houghton, 1930.
  • Conquistador (narrative poem). Boston: Houghton, 1932.
  • Before Match. New York: Knopf, 1932.
  • Poems, 1924-1933. Boston: Houghton, 1933.
  • Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City. Day, 1933.
  • Poems. London: John Lane, 1935.
  • Public Speech. Farrar & Rinehart, 1936.
  • Land of the Free. Boston: Houghton, 1938.
  • America Was Promises. New York: Duell, Sloan, & Pearce, 1939.
  • Actfive, and other poems. New York: Random House, 1948.
  • Collected Poems, 1917-52. Boston: Houghton, 1952.
  • Songs for Eve. Boston: Houghton, 1954.
  • Collected Poems. Boston: Houghton, 1962.
  • The Collected Poems of Archibald MacLeish. Boston: Houghton, 1963.
  • The Wild Old Wicked Man and Other Poems. Boston: Houghton, 1968.
  • The Human Season: Selected Poems, 1926-72. Boston: Houghton, 1972.
  • New and Collected Poems, 1917-1976. Boston: Houghton, 1976.
  • New and Collected Poems, 1917-1984. Boston: Houghton, 1985.


  • Nobodaddy (verse play). Dunster House, 1926.
  • Union Pacific ((Librettist with Nicolas Nabokoff; verse ballet written for Federal Theatre Project [WPA]), produced on Broadway, 1934.
  • Panic: A play in verse (produced on Broadway, 1935). Boston: Houghton, 1935.
  • The Fall of the City: A Verse Play for Radio (presented on CBS Radio, 1937, and on CBS-TV, 1962). Farrar & Rinehart, 1937.
  • Air Raid: A verse play for radio (presented on CBS Radio, 1938). New York: Harcourt, 1938.
  • The Son of Man (radio play). CBS Radio, 1947.
  • The Trojan Horse (verse play; presented on BBC-Radio, London, ca. 1950). Boston: Houghton, 1952.
  • This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters (verse play). Harvard University Press, 1953.
  • J.B.: A play in verse (produced at Yale School of Drama; produced on Broadway, 1958). Boston: Houghton, 1958.
  • The Secret of Freedom (television play), produced for Sunday Showcase, 1960.
  • Three Short Plays (includes Air Raid, The Fall of the City, and The Secret of Freedom). New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1961.
  • The Eleanor Roosevelt Story (filmscript; produced by Allied Artists, 1965). Boston: Houghton, 1965.
  • An Evening's Journey to Conway, Massachusetts (play; produced for NET Playhouse, 1967). Gehenna Press, 1967.
  • Herakles (verse play; produced, 1965). Boston: Houghton, 1967.
  • Scratch (based on short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, "The Devil and Daniel Webster"; produced on Broadway, 1971). Boston: Houghton, 1971.
  • The Great American Fourth of July Parade: A verse play for radio. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975.
  • Six Plays (contains Nobodaddy, Panic, The Fall of the City, Air Raid, The Trojan Horse, and This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters). Boston: Houghton, 1980.


  • Housing America (articles from Fortune). Boston: Houghton, 1932.
  • Jews in America (first published in Fortune). New York: Random House, 1936.
  • Libraries in the Contemporary Crisis. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939.
  • Deposit of the Magna Carta in the Library of Congress on November 28, 1939. Library of Congress, 1939.
  • The American Experience. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939.
  • The Irresponsibles. New York: Duell, Sloan, & Pearce, 1940.
  • The American Cause. New York: Duell, Sloan, & Pearce, 1941.
  • The Duty of Freedom. privately published for the United Typothetae of America, 1941.
  • The Next Harvard. Harvard University Press, 1941.
  • Prophets of Doom University of Pennsylvania Press, 1941.
  • A Time to Speak. Boston: Houghton, 1941.
  • American Opinion and the War (Rede Lecture at Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, 1942). New York: Macmillan, 1942.
  • A Free Man's Books (limited edition). Peter Pauper, 1942.
  • Report to the Nation U.S. Office of Facts and Figures, 1942.
  • A Time to Act. Houghton, 1943.
  • The American Story: Ten broadcasts (presented on NBC Radio, 1944, and for which MacLeish served as commentator). New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1944
    • 2nd edition, 1960.
  • Martha Hillard MacLeish, 1856-1947. privately published, 1949.
  • Poetry and Opinion: The Pisan Cantos of Ezra Pound. University of Illinois Press, 1950.
  • Freedom Is the Right to Choose: An inquiry into the battle for the American future. Beacon, 1951.
  • Love of This Land: An address. New York: Anti-Defamation League, B'nai Brith, 1954.[21]
  • Poetry and Journalism. University of Minnesota Press, 1958.
  • Poetry and Experience. Riverside Editions, 1960.
  • The Dialogues of Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren (televised, 1962). New York: Dutton, 1964.
  • A Continuing Journey. Boston: Houghton, 1968.
  • Champion of a Cause: Essays and addresses on librarianship (compiled by Eva M. Goldschmidt). American Library Association, 1971.
  • Riders on the Earth: Essays and recollections. Boston: Houghton, 1978.
  • Archibald MacLeish: Reflections (edited by Bernard A. Drabeck & Helen E. Ellis). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.


  • Gerald Fitzgerald, The Wordless Flesh. Cambridge, 1960.
  • Edwin Muir, The Estate of Poetry. Hogarth, 1962.
  • Felix Frankfurter, Law and Politics: Occasional papers, 1913-38 (edited with E.F. Prichard, Jr., & author of foreword). Peter Smith, 1963.
  • (Editor) Leonard Baskin, Figures of Dead Men. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1968.


  • Letters of Archibald MacLeish, 1907-1982 (edited by R.H. Winnick). Boston: Houghton, 1983.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[22]

See also Edit

"Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish

"Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish

References Edit

  • Donaldson, Scott. Archibald MacLeish: An American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company; 1992.
  • Smith, Grover Cleveland. Archibald MacLeish. University of Minnesota Press, 1971.


  1. Archibald MacLeish at Find a Grave
  2. Archibald MacLeish, Encyclopædia Britannica. Web, Nov. 27, 2014.
  3. Davis, Robert Gorham. "Lives of the Poet", The New York Times, August 10, 1986. Accessed December 26, 2007.
  4. "Archibald MacLeish", accessed 3 December 2010
  5. 100 of the most important leaders we had in the 20th century (1999). American Libraries, 30(11), 39.
  6. MacLeish, William. Uphill with Archie. Simon and Schuster: New York; 2001. p. 141.
  7. Donaldson, p.297.
  8. Donaldson, p. 296
  9. Donaldson, p. 298
  10. Donaldson, p.302
  11. 11.0 11.1 Donaldson, p. 309.
  12. Donaldson, p.318
  13. Donaldson, p. 319.
  14. Donaldson, p. 320.
  15. Donaldson, p.321
  16. 16.0 16.1 MacLeish, Archibald. Riders on the Storm: Essays and Recollections. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston; 1978. p.40, "The Premise of Meaning", in American Scholar, (Washington, D.C.), June 5, 1972
  17. Donaldson, p. 327
  18. Alenier, Karen L. "On Archibald MacLeish." Beltway: A Poetry Quarterly. Memorial Issue.
  19. Donaldson, p.322
  20. Archibald MacLeish, Everything2. Web, Nov. 27, 2014.
  21. Love of This Land (1954), Internet Archive. Web, Mar. 3, 2013.
  22. Archibald Macleish, Poetry Foundation, Web, July 9, 2012.

External linksEdit

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