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America Was Promises

July 2024
27min read

An Interview With Archibald MacLeish

Librarian of Congress, presidential confidant, Assistant Secretary of State, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes and the Medal of Freedom, distinguished Harvard professor—and incidentally, lawyer and football player—MacLeish was a twentieth-century Renaissance Man, as revealed in this last interview with him

Archibald MacLeish was two weeks shy of ninety when he died this spring. He was born on May 7,1892, in Glencoe, Illinois. His father, a Scottish immigrant boy from Glasgow, in the prescribed Horatio Alger manner founded the successful Chicago department store, Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company and was also a founder of the University of Chicago. MacLeish’s mother had been the young president of Rockford Institution—later Rockford College for Women—when she married. From the start, education played a large part in MacLeish’s life.

MacLeish went to Hotchkiss and Yale, where he was on the football team, edited the Yale literary magazine— The Lit —and was elected to Skull and Bones. In 1916, while he was at Harvard Law School, he married Ada Hitchcock, a concert singer.

MacLeish’s first book of poems was published in 1917, while he was in the field artillery. After the war he finished law school, practiced law in Boston, and then abruptly gave it up to go to France and write poetry. He seemed to know everyone in those days: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Joyce, Thornton Wilder, Gerald and Sara Murphy. But then, Archibald MacLeish always had a talent for knowing people who matter—I say that not to disparage but to admire.

He returned to the United States in 1928, won his first Pulitzer Prize, for Conquistador , a long, narrative poem, and worked at Fortune. In 1939 Franklin Roosevelt appointed him Librarian of Congress, and MacLeish became a member of the President’s inner circle. Roosevelt soon had him running not only the library but the first wartime propaganda organization, the Office of Facts and Figures (which became the Office of War Information). Later MacLeish served as Assistant Secretary of State and, after Roosevelt’s death, ended his public life as chairman of the American delegation to the first general conference of UNESCO in 1946. He won two more Pulitzers—for his collected poems and for his verse play J.B. (which also won a Tony Award). In 1977 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom.

For thirteen years (from 1949 to 1961), MacLeish occupied one of the most distinguished academic chairs in America, the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. There he taught, among other courses, a writing seminar that anyone with literary aspirations struggled to get into: for some of us, admission to English S was better than making the football team and certainly gave as much social clout.

When I saw Archibald MacLeish last fall in Conway, Massachusetts, twenty-six years had passed since I took his course. The MacLeishes bought the large, white farmhouse where they lived most of the year during a trip back from France in 1927. It was almost winter. MacLeish came out to meet me wearing the kind of Scottish cap with the ribbons crossed in back that bagpipers wear.

“Old age is filled with many a booby trap,” he said. But if his pace was stiff er, his looks were eerily unchanged after all those years. Everyone who saw him seemed to notice that. His face, as always, had the healthy color of a man who has spent much time outdoors, and his voice—that clear, even, gentle instrument, boyish yet authoritative, with its Midwestern intonations and its New England turns of phrase—was the voice I remembered. He did not look and sound like a man who had less than five months to live.

We sat in Ada MacLeish’s music room, where he worked in one corner. He would disappear upstairs at regular intervals to see his wife; she was too sick to come down that day. He talked about her constantly, wistfully; she was the one people worried about. As the afternoon darkened, sleet began to tap like fingers on the windowpanes.

My mother read aloud the Bible, stories of the Old Testament, practically all of Shakespeare, and, believe it or not, Dante’s Inferno .

What are your earliest memories?

They all relate to a piece of land. In Glencoe, a little suburb twenty miles out of Chicago, Father bought a place on Lake Michigan. It had an eighty-foot bluff overlooking the lake and deep ravines all around it. I was born and brought up there. At the time he bought the land in the 189Os, it had a marvelous frontier situation. The Canada geese spent their daytimes over in the Skokie, which was a vast marsh, and their nights safely out in the lake, floating around and talking to each other. I came to imagine that everything really old—as, for example, the Iliad and the Odyssey —had occurred on the shore of a lake where there were geese talking. Horrible forest fires driven by east winds were destroying upper Michigan: all the great disasters smell to me like oak trees burning in an east wind. Those associations with the land—and the lake, fires, smoke, geese talk—are absolutely valid memories for me.

It sounds as though you already were a voracious reader.

My mother was largely responsible for that. She was a clergyman’s daughter. She began reading aloud to my older brother. I wasn’t going to let him get ahead of me, so I paid attention and so did my younger brother, Kenny. Mother started out with no watering down of tha gruel. She read the Bible, the stories in the Old Testament. She read practically all of Shakespeare and, believe it or not, she read a translation of the Inferno . She was easily the foremost educational influence in my life.

Her insistence on reading those books that had meant most to her—regardless of the discrepancy of thirty years between herself and her children—was the greatest piece of luck ever. I’ve often wondered how much it had to do with my commitment to poetry. I think I have a guess.

When did you write your first poem?

I don’t know that. But I’m sure I began it, in of all impossible places, the Hotchkiss School. God, how I did not like Hotchkiss! I’m sure it was much better than I thought, but it did not lead you toward pine groves, or palm groves, or any kind of groves. There was one master, an Oxford graduate, who was about six feet six inches tall and was mad about—God, what was his name?—a very well-known, but to our generation very second-rate, English poet who was so lyrical that he almost came off in the wash. Oh, Swinburne—to think I could forget Swinburne. This Master introduced me to Swinburne. It took me quite a while to get rid of Swinburne.

I had a schoolmate at both Hotchkiss and Yale called Douglas Moore, and he was a composer, and a very good composer. We would work on songs together—that is, I would try to write songs for him, which was not easy, and he would try to do the same thing with the music for me. But that was educational at the same time because you learned a lot about how the rhythms of music differ from the rhythms of verse. I would say probably that I had committed myself about as clearly as a very young man could to the writing of verse long before I went to Yale.

But weren’t you also something of an athlete in those days?

Yes, I was regular center on the freshman team, which doesn’t seem probable, but it’s true. I thoroughly enjoyed football, I loved football. It satisfied some need. I weighed only 165 pounds, but the advantage of being small and light was that I could move faster. I remember the game between our freshman team and the Harvard freshman team in 1911. Harvard was absolutely magnificent, with players like Charley Brickley, the great dropkicker, Eddie Mahan, probably the best halfback they ever had, and Jeff Coolidge at end. But largely because it was a rainy day, we held them to a nothing-to-nothing tie. Later we went into the Tourraine Hotel in Boston to have a drink. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a loud voice right in back of me, a quite drunken loud voice, and the pressure of a huge hand on my shoulder. The voice said, “Dirtiest Ii'1 center I ever saw.” It was the coach of the Harvard freshman team.

What did people at Yale feel about your poetical ambitions?

They didn’t think much of them. In fact, the theory then was that a man ought to know what he was going to be. If he was going to be a stockbroker, he ought to have that constantly in mind. He shouldn’t be doing two things so different as football and the writing of quite vague little lovelies.

The combination obviously didn’t bother some powerful people. After all, you were elected to Skull and Bones, the secret society of secret societies. How do you explain it?

I don’t know. What struck my own classmates as being somewhat odd may have struck the class above mine as being at least novel. But it was a question I sedulously never put to myself while I was in New Haven.

What is so special about Skull and Bones?

Skull and Bones can’t be dealt with as you’d deal with the other secret societies at Yale. It can’t be dealt with as it was dealt with by the young radicals of my time. They made a terrific fuss about the Bones, thought it was undemocratic and uneverything, and all announced that they were going to refuse invitations—which a couple of them actually did. But the quality of the institution is not to be found along those lines. As nearly as I can make out, the Bones was started in the early part of the nineteenth century by some Southern Yale men who had read Walter Scott and also Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy . The whole vocabulary of the institution derives from those writers and is very humorous. The alarming discovery of any newly elected member is that the Bones is full of humor and warmth and humanity, all of which has quite a good, sound literary background.

Well, I suppose I can’t ask you what goes on in Skull and Bones.

No, but I’ve given you a pretty good idea.

Did you know what you were going to do, even then?

I was going to write. I was going to write verse. I was at least honest enough to know that I hadn’t written a poem yet, although I had written a lot of lines, and that it would be a long time before I ever did. I was honest enough to admit that. But the thing that I just would not admit was that I could live any other life than the life based on the writing of verses. I just took it for granted. My mother, who gave me the nearest thing to encouragement, said that I would get over the desire to write poetry when I found it necessary to do so.

Didn’t you publish your first book around this time?

It was largely Yale undergraduate poems and was called, very appropriately, Tower of Ivory .

When you went to Harvard Law School, did you really think that you were going to be a lawyer?

I never thought that. I did toy with the idea of practicing law and writing verse. I kept telling myself that you ought to be able to do that. It wasn’t possible, but it took me a couple of years to find out.

What did you do in World War I?

I was in my second year of law school. I was married to Ada by that time and we already had a baby. Two months after America entered the war, I was in France. I went over in what was supposed to be a front-line hospital unit. Quite a number of youngsters who were in my position—that is, who felt they had obligations to a family—got into this. When we arrived, we discovered that it was going to be a base hospital, at Clermont-Ferrand, almost three hundred miles behind the front. Along with quite a number of my friends, I transferred into the field artillery.

Do you think that you could still—and I’ll use your words—"stand on the Marne and quote Woodrow Wilson”?

Of course not. But that actually did happen at the beginning of the Second Battle of the Marne in the summer of 1918. I was assigned to a New Mexico National Guard outfit equipped with 155-mm GPFs—long rifles. Just when things began to become active, two of those lads, very tough lads, came up and asked if they could speak to me. And then one of them said, “Lieutenant, why are we here?”

“You mean this apple orchard?” I said. “I’ve sited the batteries here, and perhaps it’s not the best possible choice, but we’re stuck with it.”

“No, no, not the Goddamn orchard,” they said. “Why are we here, why are we in France?”

I suddenly realized that there was only one thing I could say, and that was Mr. Wilson’s “to make the world safe for democracy. ” They stood there shuffling their toes in the dirt, said thanks, and walked away.

That has bothered me ever since. I had every right, I suppose, as an officer of the United States Army, to quote the President. But to quote the President in a remark as flagrantly improbable as that—it still hurts.

Were you ever frightened?

Scared to death, yes. We were right back of Château-Thierry, and there was a great deal of desultory fire going on. Every time you opened a gate, you found that some marksman had his sights on you, waiting for just your appearance. The real fire began when the Germans moved up their equivalent of the GPF: it was a terrifying situation. I ran into some Harvard Law School boys who had joined a Massachusetts artillery regiment and who had been on the front for quite a long time. Their tales did not calm my nerves.

If you had to pick out an image from that war, is there one you particularly remember?

There is, very decidedly. It’s an image in the ear, not an image in the eye, and it occurred a few days later. I had just found out that I was being shipped back to the United States with two or three other officers to take over a new 155-mm GPF unit which was under training and was due to leave shortly. (It never did, of course, and I spent the rest of the war at Fort Meade.) We had to get out by rail. I got down to the railroad station with one of the other lads who had been ordered home and climbed into a freight car. Just as we pulled the doors shut, there came a crash of sound from overhead. The station had taken a direct hit. When we opened the door and looked out at where the station had been, we could see ten miles. No station, nothing. That seemed an almost unnecessarily enthusiastic farewell.

You once called the First World War “the most murderous, hypocritical, unnecessary and generally nasty of all recorded wars.” Did you see it that way while it was still going on?

Well, it seemed to me so then. My younger brother, for whom my son Kenneth was named, signed up with what was called the Yale Unit, which was the beginning of naval aviation. Ken, who was killed in the war, turned out to be one of the really superb fliers of that group. He believed in the war completely and entirely, and the volume of his letters which my mother published is full of that belief. He died in that belief. He died also in about the worst possible way. He was flying with a British unit over Belgium, ran into one of the very famous German outfits, and was shot down and lost. There was no word. Nobody knew what had happened to him. He disappeared for three months until the water—this was midwinter—drew off the land and his body was found in a barnyard. There was no plane anywhere near it. My reaction to the combination of things—his death, the manner of his death, his attitude toward the war, what his death did to my mother—was… well, it was frenzy, it was frantic, and I said quite a lot of angry things at the time.

I had been under fire myself just enough to feel a lack of real purpose, only a presence of accidental mechanical purpose, and it colored the whole experience for me. Going back to France to live shortly after the war and living there for five or six years put me in touch with young Frenchmen of my age, almost all of them shot up in one way or another. There was no family without uncountable numbers of the dead. The war took on a quality of real beastliness. Real beastliness. Whereas I feel very differently about the Second World War, in which we behaved magnificently, and where we won a great triumph. It was an essential war. It could not have been avoided.

Did you find it hard to go back to law school?

I finally got discharged from the Army in the spring of 1919. By that time I was a captain and had a battery of my own. I came back to a special course that the law school ran that fall. All I remember is law. Law, law, law. I’ve still got the damned books up in the attic. Though I was in considerable doubt as to whether I could get through, I did.

All you did was to graduate first in your class.

Yes, I did. As a matter of fact, I got the Fay Diploma.

I can even quote the citation. It reads: “For the member of the graduating class of the Law School who … ranks highest in scholarship, conduct, and character, and gives evidence of the greatest promise.” It’s the first time, by the way, that your name turns up in The New York Times.

I’ll be damned.

You went to work for Choate, Hall if Stewart, one of the most prestigious firms in Boston. What made you suddenly—and finally —give up the law?

One night in the winter of 1923 I left work and began walking back to Cambridge, where we lived. This was the occasion when the cold moon and the cold sky pulling me out along the river produced a consequence of talk between Ada and me, which resulted in our decision to give up the law and go to Paris with whatever we could lay our hands on—Ada being at that point an extremely good singer.

Our decision had an ironic, fairly comic conclusion. I got up very early in the morning to talk to Mr. Choate. When I arrived, I was asked by his secretary to go into his office. All his partners were there, and Mr. Choate said, “Archie, we’ve just elected you to the firm.” I realized that I would either speak then or forever hold my peace. So I said, “Mr. Choate, I didn’t know about this meeting. I came here early to tell you that I’ve decided to leave the law.” I can still see the red going up his neck. Speak of horrible moments. …

Could a person live on poetry alone in those days?

I was betting on the fact that my father would help us as much as he could. I resigned from the law first and then went off to see him—which was perhaps not very good practice but he said he would do what he had done for me in law school. He would give me three thousand dollars a year, apparently with the idea that four—I had two children by then—could live as cheaply as one in Paris.

Do you think it’s still possible for people to give up a secure career and go somewhere to write poetry?

It sounds awful.

Why do you think that the Paris of the 1920s has so caught our imaginations?

This is a place where your father [Malcolm Cowley] and I have always disagreed. He regarded the Americans in Paris as refugees from an unlivable country. I have alway seen it exactly the opposite way. What lured us to Paris and held us there was the fact of the magnificent work being done by people from all over the world and in all the arts. This was a period really like the great Quatrocento, the great years of—perhaps not Athens, but certainly the great years of Rome and Florence. It was a period of extraordinary achievement. There were a lot of fakes, a lot of phonies, and there undoubtedly were people who had come as refugees, exiles. But what I remember are the individual human beings whom I had the luck to know. The people who were good seemed to respond to that fever of greatness by becoming great themselves.

This period of such great energy and creative achievement, why was it so brief? You compare it to the Renaissance, and yet it might have lasted ten years at most.

The President argued that I could run the Library of Congress before breakfast. Ada foresaw the future. She said, “Don’t struggle too hard.”

Probably much less, and I haven’t any theories about an answer. Picasso was almost the longest lived of the lot. He went on producing long after everyone else in his world had stopped. Why did so many of the people involved die so young? Why the suicides?

In a poem you wrote about Hemingway, you hint at another reason: ”… the lad in the Rue de la Notre Dame des Champs/In the carpenter’s loft on the left-hand side going down—/ The lad with the supple look like a sleepy panther—/And what became of him? Fame became of him.” You had a long friendship with him, didn’t you?

I had a close relationship with Ernest which terminated at the end of about ten years. We continued to correspond after that, although we saw each other very little. In that period Ernest was constantly referring to the fact that he regarded himself as responsible for our breakup as friends. He felt himself incapable of friendship, that he’d broken up all his friendships. Well, that’s not true. When he started being down on himself, he got down on himself as nobody else I’ve ever known.

Ernest, who later became so difficult, was marvelous in his twenties. I first looked him up after I read a privately printed edition of In Our Time . He and his first wife, Hadley, were just breaking up and he was going to marry again. Through that intermediate period, for all intents and purposes, he lived with us. His bicycle was always at our front door. We saw him all the time. He took Ada, of all people, to the “boxings” whenever he could get her to go, which was quite frequently. He had a very persuasive tongue.

When he came back to the States a couple of years after we did, our friendship began just where it left off… and then it blew up. There was too much pressure. I just couldn’t take it, finally, and made some unkind remarks—which were immediately topped. That was down in Key West. We’d been out at Dry Tortugas over a four-day norther, and our nerves were all on edge. But I didn’t behave well. I failed on that one very, very badly.

In this whole period, were you ever really close to Scott Fitzgerald?

No, it was hard to be. I felt great affection for him and a great sadness for him. But you could never tell whom you were going to meet when you met Fitzgerald. It could be any one of a number of people, and I just gave up.

Didn’t you once have a fight with him at a party given by Gerald and Sara Murphy?

Well, I think that would depend on how you looked at it. The party was at the Murphy’s villa in Antibes. That was in 1926, I think. Scott was making a nuisance of himself, and Gerald asked me if I would try to stop him. He was being really very rude. A favorite form of rudeness was dropping figs in champagne glasses so that they would splash on ladies’ dresses. I got hold of Scott and got him to go down to a little sort of gardener’s house in the garden with a fountain in front of it. He sat on the edge of the fountain. He was quite tight, of course, and I was trying to explain why his behavior was not very kind to Gerald and Sara. He listened to me with his head down, sort of nodding, and I thought I was making some progress. The next thing I knew, he had come up off the fountain and hit me in the face with both fists.… That was my attempt at peacemaking.

Why did so many people decide to leave Paris all at once?

I’m not sure whether that is an appearance or whether it’s the truth. It’s the truth insofar as my friends were concerned. Ernest stayed on for two years after we left, but ended up owning a quite large house in Key West. The Murphys’ two boys both died, and those illnesses drove them back. The Depression, which began to be operative on dividends, dragged a lot of people home. And then there was another factor for some of the old hands who had been in France for a long time. By the middle of the thirties, it was pretty plain what was going to happen in ’39.

Were you able to support yourself by poetry when you returned?

Oh, no. Harry Luce saved my life by offering me a job at Fortune . The reason this was a godsend to me was simply that we had no other source of income. But Fortune saved all. Harry had gone to Hotchkiss and so had I. Harry had gone to Yale and so had I. Harry was in the Bones and so was I, and I was enough older than he so that he regarded me as an authority of sorts in certain areas. I’ve never heard of a magazine writer being hired on terms like the ones he offered me. I could work as long as I needed to in any month to pay my bilk—and then I’d get the hell out of New York and come up here to do my own work, until Harry called for me to go back. Sometimes he’d wait weeks to call me. I worked for Luce from 1929 until 1938. Somebody once added up my contribution. I did about one piece a month, for a total of something like 119.

That is impressive.

And those were full Fortune articles. Wilder Hobson and I even did an entire issue between us in Japan. That was in 1936. Harry Luce asked me to go and sent Ada with me. He said that he had a feeling—people thought Harry had no feelings, but he was full of them—he said, “I have a feeling that Japan is going to be in the center of world history within ten years.”

When I got to Japan I discovered what the American press either didn’t know or had deliberately ignored—that there had already been a fascist coup in Japan. The fascists and the armed services were in control. So, what Wilder and I both knew by the time we were halfway through was that we were writing some dangerous information indeed and that we were going to be lucky to get out of Japan. We had all sorts of devices for justifying our refusal to send anything back by mail. I went into a tailspin when we finished. Then Japanese authorities banned the issue. They said it was because Fortune reproduced the Imperial Chrysanthemum, but it wasn’t the reason. I may sound vain about what we did, but I am still alarmed by the fact that we did it.

I don’t think people have any idea that you were once an investigative journalist.

Well, I had no desire to become one.

What sort of man was Henry Luce? I’ve always found him something of an enigma.

He was enigmatic. He didn’t have much of a sense of humor. The stories that he told of things that had actually happened to him were always told precisely and accurately, just as they had happened, whether funny or not. There is a story Ada loves to tell: When Harry married his first wife, we were still living in Paris. They came to see us on their honeymoon, and we spent a long evening talking. Harry wanted to know where they should go. We both immediately mentioned a town along the Swiss border of France, a small town with a very beautiful church. They were grateful, wrote it down, and then disappeared into southern France and Italy. When they came back, they called on us to report. Ada immediately asked them about the town. Harry replied that it was quite as wonderful as we had said it would be. But it was so crowded, he said, that the hotel could only give them a room with one bed, and his wife had had to sleep on the floor.

You would think that the man who would say that didn’t care too much about human nature. But Harry did, and his consideration for people who worked for him, and who had been put through difficult tasks by him, was quite remarkable. He was a good friend, a devoted friend.

There is one more thing: Harry was the best textual editor I have ever seen. He was perfectly willing to make himself look silly by the questions he’d ask. As a result, any Fortune text that came out from under Harry would make sense all the way. He was a man of simplicity of mind who was determined to know that the unmentioned things had at least been considered.

How, during the thirties, did you manage to stay away from the Communists, when all the intellectuals in America seemed to be flocking to their banner?

I’ve often asked myself about that. I had, being a nicely brought-up young man with well-to-do Christian parents, never seen anything that even remotely approached the misery and anguish and horror of the Great Depression. Things that I thought just couldn’t happen in a human society were happening, and Mr. Hoover’s attitude infuriated me. I remember one night when I almost told Ada that I was going to join the Communist party; something had happened that enraged me. But then I looked at her and realized I couldn’t tell her that because it wasn’t going to be true. I may have been fruit ripe for the picking, but deep down I hated the Communist conception of the relation of the state to the people it governed.

Until 1930 you had been a writer of intensely private, modernistic verse. Then you shifted to a type of poetry that was much more public. What accounted for the change?

I think it’s quite easy to say what accounts for it. I wrote more verse in the decade of the thirties than I ever had before or since. This was largely because, as a result of my experience at Fortune , I had a course in the history, geography, and general appearance of the Great Republic such as I had never had before. I felt a piling up of reaction to that Republic. It was a conviction which came out of a chance remark that Thomas Mann made to me once—that it was in the experience of the language of poetry that the real history of our time was expressing itself. Or to put it the other way round, that the understanding of the time—which poetry had to gain if it were to say what it really had to say—was the political background. That was where the life of the human soul now lay.

I have to add that as I grew older, I found myself going back to the private life, even in its most public aspects. I think that was because of the curiously close relationship I had with Mr. Roosevelt. I saw him as a man suffering and suffering terribly.

When you say that Roosevelt was suffering, in what sense do you mean that?

Physically suffering. Generally speaking, he had to go to his doctor at the end of every day and have a probing operation done on his sinuses. He told me it was the most exquisite torture he had ever conceived of as being humanly bearable. That was, of course, not the only agony, because the distortions of his body that he had to make in order to get around at all were also acutely painful. But I didn’t know any of this in the beginning.

How did you first meet him?

In the line of business, for Fortune. I remember once that Harry asked me to take him to meet Roosevelt. I reserved a double room for us—I thought I’d save him some money if he wouldn’t save himself any. I realized later I probably shouldn’t have done that. We called on the President the next morning. The President was absolutely marvelous. It was right after his nonintervention speech in 1937. He admitted that he favored the Spanish Republican side. “But I can’t say that publicly,” he told us. “Remember, I’m the President of all the people.” Harry was charmed. The President knew he was charming him. Halfway down the stairs, Harry stopped me and said, “What a man! What a man!” Within two weeks, he was denying he ever said that.

How did your nomination as Librarian of Congress come about?

Well, first of all, Herbert Putnam, who was still Librarian, had gotten too old. And second, Roosevelt cared greatly about libraries, and particularly about that library. Finally, he felt that he had to act. This was in the summer of 1939, and by that time I had left Fortune to help start up the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard. I got a call from Roosevelt’s right-hand man, Tommy Corcoran, telling me that I was lunching with the President the next day. I said that was pleasant news- and asked why, exactly. Tommy said, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Mr. Roosevelt was a charming companion. Wonderful company. I’ve never seen anybody who had anything like his.. .what they now call charisma.

So I went down, and I hadn’t the slightest inkling before I got into the Oval Office. After lunch, the President announced that he wanted to send my name up to the Senate to be Librarian of Congress. I told him that I would have to talk to Ada about it. He said, “Yes, of course. I haven’t met your wife but I can’t imagine you marrying a woman who wouldn’t want a say on this one.”

Ada and I talked and talked and talked. In the end I decided that I hadn’t really gotten down to the things in my mind to do then. I wrote the President a very respectful letter, thanked him warmly, and told him that I couldn’t accept. I got an immediate letter back from him. He said that I could run the Library of Congress before breakfast, and that I would be able to write as I had never been able to write before in my life. Then Tommy called me again. “You’ll see him tomorrow,” he said. And I went.

Ada foresaw the future. She said, “Don’t struggle too hard.” So I told the President that I would do it, but that I was deep into a long poem that I had to finish. We agreed that I would take office in the fall.

What was the poem?

It was called America Was Promises .

Your nomination shocked a lot of people, especially professional librarians. The New York Herald Tribune did, in fact, use just those words in an editorial: “A shocking nomination. ” Did you have any background as a librarian?

No. You will probably ask me now if I had any experience as an administrative official. The answer is again no.


Actually, I was going to ask if you could do the job before breakfast.

I never even succeeded in getting home for dinner.

Did you write at all?

Practically not at all. One morning I came into my office early and wrote in five minutes a poem called “The Young Dead Soldiers.” That was almost the only time that happened to me. But from 1939 to 1945, when the President died, I really didn’t do a thing. It was a tremendous job. He knew that. He knew it perfectly well, but he took a certain pleasure in kidding me.

What do you consider your outstanding accomplishment as Librarian of Congress?

I almost immediately found that the library had to be totally and completely reorganized. It was in trouble financially. The salaries were too low. The morale was practically shattered. I think that the reorganization of the Library of Congress—which immediately resulted in an invitation to address the next meeting of the American Library Association—was the best thing I did.

How informed was Roosevelt about the arts?

He made no pretense of caring about them, painting in particular. He loved the theater but complained that “they will never give me a funny play. I want to laugh.” He said this after being taken to Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine . He was widely read. His care for the Navy—he had been, of course, Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson—led him into a close study of American history. He kept on with his reading in those endless, endless months and years when he was incapacitated. He probably was the best-trained historian who ever was President.

I take it that you knew him much better by this time.

Mr. Roosevelt was a charming companion. Wonderful company. Wonderful conversational company. Occasionally on Sundays Ada and I would be invited to sail on the bay, on an old Coast Guard rig that he used. The President’s idea of the way to deal with that free time was to haul out his stamp collection, pick a comfortable chair way aft, and get Ada to start knitting and wisecracking. I’ve never seen anybody who had anything like his…what they now call charisma. He was just the most attractive human being who ever lived.

It’s hard to keep track of all the jobs he had you doing in those years.

He had a way of giving me new organizations to run, even while I was still at the Library of Congress. At one time I had charge of three of them. He wasn’t very considerate.

In 1944 you were named Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations. Why did Roosevelt shift you to that position?

I can’t tell you. He was taking over the State Department in that last year of his life. He put in Ed Stettinius as Secretary of State. If Mr. Roosevelt was running something, he wanted his own people in it. By this time, perhaps he considered me as part of his night life. I think that was it. I had expressed no desire to go to the State Department. I didn’t worry about it at the time. What was the point? I knew I had to do it.

You had trouble getting confirmed, didn’t you?

In 1944 we were still at war, very much so, and Assistant Secretaries of State were much more important than they are now. Today there are too many of them, something like eighteen or twenty; we were only five or six. Also, Mr. Roosevelt’s popularity was not as great as it had been. There was a real attack on me in the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate. I’d been badgered at the hearing because I was for the liberal government of Spain. A lot of unkind things were said about me.

Finally, toward the end of the afternoon, Senator Champ Clark from Missouri, who didn’t belong to the committee, came in. He had in his hand a little volume which I recognized immediately. It was a copy of a book of verse which I had published early in my career, called The Happy Marriage . The chairman of the committee spoke to Senator Clark and asked if he wanted to address the committee. “Well, I hadn’t thought of it, Mr. Chairman, but since you mention it, perhaps I might ask whether Mr. MacLeish knows—” and the senator cited a poem by such and such a name. “Yes, I wrote it,” I said. “You admit it,” he said. Then he turned to the chairman to ask, “May I read this poem?” It was a poem written to Ada, a love poem. And Senator Clark said, “I would like to ask the members of the Committee whether they feel that the evidence I’ve just put before them indicates that Mr. MacLeish is qualified for the job of Assistant Secretary of State in time of war ?”

There was a book of verse I published early in my career, called The Happy Marriage . It was a poem written to Ada, a love poem.

There was a stir, and giggles from the press boys, who hadn’t been very kind to me down to this point. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. But one member of the committee was Senator “Happy” Chandler of Kentucky. He said, “Mr. Chairman, may I ask Mr. MacLeish a question? Mr. MacLeish, it is true that you once played the position of left halfback on a Yale football team?”

“Yes, it’s true.”

And Happy Chandler said, “I just thought it might be of interest, Mr. Chairman.” The room broke up.

Mr. Clark left with his tail between his legs.

Where were you when Roosevelt died?

In Washington.

Was it a shock?

I knew he was going to die. I was in the upstairs office one day toward twilight in the spring of 1945, before he went down to Warm Springs. He told me to wait for him. He went off to see his doctor. Then the door opened, and there was some light in the window in back of me. I saw that light in his face, and I knew he was dying. It was just not possible that he wasn’t. He did, and it was a terrible personal loss.

When you left public service, was it of your choice?

Yes. The French wanted me very much to become Director General of UNESCO. The British were willing if I would make up my mind once and for all, and not change it. But I had to get back to my own life. I was absolutely flabbergasted when, in 1949, the English Department at Harvard offered me the Boylston professorship. I thought I was not going to take on any more jobs. But I am so glad that I did. Those were the best thirteen years of my life.

The last poem you wrote before you entered public life was America Was Promises. Do you think America is still promises?

America will always have been promises. Columbus’s voyage ended with those promises on the sea—those branches with green leaves, those singing birds. Everything about America is based on a beginning which was all promises. We certainly have buggered them, but I guess that’s what mankind does, bugger the promises, and maybe save a few.

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