American Poet of Social Purpose Perceptive Biography Traces Archibald MacLeish's Commitment to Human Affairs and Public Service

By Mary Warner Marien. Mary Warner Marien, who writes from LaFayette, N. Y., teaches fine arts . | The Christian Science Monitor, May 15, 1992 | Go to article overview

American Poet of Social Purpose Perceptive Biography Traces Archibald MacLeish's Commitment to Human Affairs and Public Service


Mary Warner Marien. Mary Warner Marien, who writes from LaFayette, N. Y., teaches fine arts ., The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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