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Throughout his career, Archibald MacLeish’s verse examined the public and private responsibilities of individual citizens in an increasingly complex world. MacLeish addresses these themes in a wide variety of poetic styles, including sonnets, blank verse, and epics. In addition, he experimented with varied line lengths and speech rhythms in an attempt to create a distinctly modern American voice that would extend beyond the literary world and reach the common people. indeed, MacLeish is remembered as a writer who promoted poetry and humanism in an age of national cynicism.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Yale Poet
MacLeish was born on May 7, 1892, in Glencoe, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago. He attended public schools in Glencoe and a preparatory school in Lakeville, Connecticut. From 1911 to 1915, MacLeish studied at Yale University, where he was a successful football player and swimmer. Also at Yale, he edited and wrote for the Yale Literary Magazine, contributed to the Yale Review, and composed Songs for a Summer’s Day (1915), a sonnet sequence that was chosen as the University’s Prize Poem. Graduating from Yale that same year, MacLeish entered Harvard Law school.
Before he earned his law degree, he married singer Ada Hitchcock in 1916. The marriage lasted until his death.
From Soldier to Lawyer to Expatriate
In 1917, the year America entered World War I, MacLeish enlisted in the U.S. Army as an ambulance driver in France, but he was soon transferred to active duty and rose to the rank of field artillery captain. While MacLeish was in the army, Tower of Ivory (1917), his first full-length volume of poetry, was published in the United States. This collection is notable primarily because it first introduces MacLeish’s idea of humankind’s search to reconcile idealism with reality. When the war was over, MacLeish returned to Harvard Law School, where he was valedictorian of the 1919 graduating class. He remained there for a year to teach constitutional and international law. For the next several years, he was a successful trial lawyer in a Boston firm; however, finding little time to write, he quit his promising career in law to pursue the life of a poet.
In the summer of 1923, MacLeish moved with his wife and two sons to Paris. There, he associated with many of the Lost Generation writers, a group of expatriates who rejected the values of post-World War I America in works that portray humanity’s sense of moral aimlessness. Along with MacLeish, such Lost Generation writers as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and john Dos Passos revolutionized twentieth-century literature. During this time abroad, MacLeish devoted himself to perfecting his writing and learning to read Dante’s epic poem Inferno (c. 1321) in the original Italian.
Back in America
In 1928, MacLeish returned to the United States the same year Streets in the Moon was published. This volume contains MacLeish’s most anthologized poem, ”Ars Poetica,” a modernist manifesto with classical roots that conveys MacLeish’s conviction that a poem is a way of knowing and seeing through the senses, the emotions, and the imagination. MacLeish soon began writing the epic poem Conquistador, a retelling of Cortez’s expeditions in Mexico. Related from the point of view of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a foot soldier in Cortez’s army, Conquistador objectively chronicles the destruction of native Mexican cultures by Spanish explorers. MacLeish won the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts in 1933.
From 1930 to 1938, MacLeish was an editor for Fortune magazine. During that period, he wrote two verse plays for radio in an effort to increase patriotism. He also chaired the League of American Writers, an organization that opposed fascism, a political ideology that calls for a dictatorial government and severe economic and social control. Fascism had taken told of the German, Italian, and Spanish governments, with the first two countries forming the European base of the Axis powers during World War II. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed MacLeish the Librarian of Congress, a position he held for five years. While there, MacLeish both reorganized the Library’s administrative offices and instituted a series of poetry readings at the Library. At the same time, MacLeish served as assistant director of the Office of War Information, which specialized in propaganda. In 1944, he was appointed assistant Secretary of State for cultural affairs. After World War II, MacLeish became the first American member of the governing body of the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and chaired the first UNESCO conference in Paris in 1945. MacLeish wrote many essays during these years, and his voice was powerful and eloquent in its opposition to political indifference and totalitarianism. Not surprisingly, the poetry he published between 1938 and 1948 was also nationalistic and patriotic.
In 1949, MacLeish become Harvard’s Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, a position he held until 1962. From 1963 to 1967, he was Simpson Lecturer at Amherst College. MacLeish continued to write poetry, criticism, verse plays, and screenplays to great acclaim. In addition to the National Book Award, MacLeish won a second Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems (1952). J.B. (1958), averse play based on the book of Job, earned him a third Pulitzer. In 1965, he received an Academy Award for his work on the screenplay of The Eleanor Roosevelt Story (1965). MacLeish continued with his writing and public speaking appearances until his death in April 1982 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Works in Literary Context
Much of MacLeish’s early work reflects the influence of poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. MacLeish’s The Pot of Earth (1925), for instance, has been compared to Eliot’s The Waste Land for its inclusion of the Adonis myth from Sir James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890-1915). Additionally, MacLeish’s Streets in the Moon (1926) reflects the themes of alienation, despair, and World War I’s destruction of cultural traditions that Pound addresses in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920). MacLeish’s later thematic explorations of the process of aging and the spiritual and physical exile of modern humanity have drawn comparisons to Irish poet William Butler Yeats and French poet St.-John Perse.
The Fall of Man and Woman
In Tower of Ivory (1917), his first full-length volume of poetry, MacLeish first introduces the idea of man’s searching, fearing nothing, trying to shape his life through his own efforts after his departure from the Garden of Eden. For the title of Nobodaddy (1926), a twentieth-century interpretation of the Cain-Abel myth, MacLeish uses one of William Blake’s names for God. In the play, MacLeish depicts Adam and Eve emerging from the sleep of Eden, a state in which they had lived in ignorant and unconscious harmony with their surroundings and in obedience to the will of God. Adam chooses to reject God’s inexplicable and arbitrary ways and to seek his own knowledge, alone in a desert. Consequently, Adam knows both good and evil. As in Nobodaddy, the central character in the poem “Act five” (1948) endures life without a god; MacLeish’s man perseveres because his love of life itself persists.
Eventually, MacLeish turns to the Eve figure and her leaving the Garden of Eden in pursuit of knowledge. In ”What Eve Sang,” the first poem in the collection Songs for Eve (1954), Eve is conscious of her selfhood as she seeks the same knowledge Adam did. In this song, she is aware that human existence surpasses space and time. As the progression of Eve’s songs reveals, she is glad to have left the garden and has accepted the wasteland where death is certain. Ironically, however, her knowledge of her mortality permits her to transcend it through the creation of her own world. In the Garden of Eden, ”Waking is forbidden,” and for this reason Eve says she is thankful for the Fall, despite all the sorrows a life of knowledge brings.
Works in Critical Context
From 1925 to 1960, MacLeish, according to some critics, was among the finest of modern American poets, a distinction he shared with Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. However, other commentators argued that his works were too dependent on those of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and that MacLeish had a tendency to change his viewpoint to suit the times instead of sticking to his convictions. In regard to his verse dramas, most academics agree that MacLeish would have earned no enduring reputation as a dramatist at all were it not for J. B. This judgment is severe but apt, considering the fact that all other MacLeish plays combined held the stage for fewer than thirty performances.
The verse play J. B. remains one of MacLeish’s most critically compelling works and has sparked debate in terms of its humanistic thematic concerns. Addressing the tragic aspects of life—points out critic Joseph Wood Krutch, a contemporary of MacLeish—the play puts the universe rather than sociology at center. With this approach, contends Krutch, MacLeish avoids both superficial optimism and bleak pessimism. Scholar Eleanor Sickles argues that J. B. reflects MacLeish’s ”lasting interest in the fall of man from the Garden of Eden.” Sickles views J. B. as a tragic hero whose flaw is a ”smug, arrogant assumption that ‘the God of Galaxies’ is a special friend and patron of his.” The strength of the play, she explains, is that the character J. B. grows to recognize the ”cosmic power and mystery beyond reach of man’s thought,” which leads to his acceptance of his separation from paradise. As a result of its main character’s spiritual realization, J. B. has been remembered for its rarity as a religious verse drama in an age of secular prose.
Detractors such as John Gassner find the resolution of J. B. lacking in dramatic impact, revealing MacLeish to be more poet than playwright. Other negative criticism focuses on MacLeish’s conception of the character of J. B., thinking of him, in John Ciardi’s words, as a ”shallow, self-righteous fathead.” Such characterization generated controversy when the play was produced, especially among those who accused MacLeish of advocating mere sex as a cure for the devastation depicted in the play. Furthermore, in regard to the play’s stylistic elements, critic Kenneth Tynan says J. B. is written in ”bumpy alliterative verse” and deems it medieval in ”narrative technique.”
- Falk, Signi Lenea. Archibald MacLeish. New York: Twayne, 1965.
- Gassner, John. Theatre at the Crossroads. New York: Holt, 1960.
- Mullaly, Edward J. Archibald MacLeish: A Checklist. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1973.
- Smith, Grover. Archibald MacLeish. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1971.
- Ciardi, John. ”J. B. Revisited.” Saturday Review 43 (January 30, 1960): 39, 55.
- Krutch, Joseph Wood. Literature and Utopia.” Nation (October 18, 1933): 442.
- Monroe, Harriet. ”Archibald MacLeish.” Poetry 38 (June 1931): 150-155.
- Sickles, Eleanor. Archibald MacLeish and American Democracy.” American Literature 15 (November 1943): 223-237.
- –. ”MacLeish and the Fortunate Fall.” American Literature 35 (May 1963): 205-217.
- Tynan, Kenneth. The Theatre.” The New Yorker 34 (December 20, 1958): 70-71.
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