Authors: Archibald MacLeish

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and playwright

Author Works


Songs for a Summer’s Day, 1915

Tower of Ivory, 1917

The Happy Marriage, 1924

The Pot of Earth, 1925

Streets in the Moon, 1926

The Hamlet of A. MacLeish, 1928

Einstein, 1929

New Found Land: Fourteen Poems, 1930

Conquistador, 1932

Poems, 1924-1933, 1933

Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller’s City, 1933

Public Speech, 1936

Land of the Free, 1938

America Was Promises, 1939

Brave New World, 1948

Actfive and Other Poems, 1948

Collected Poems, 1917-1952, 1952

New Poems, 1951-1952, 1952

Songs for Eve, 1954

The Collected Poems of Archibald MacLeish, 1962

The Wild Old Wicked Man, and Other Poems, 1968

The Human Season: Selected Poems, 1926-1972, 1972

New and Collected Poems, 1917-1976, 1976

On the Beaches of the Moon, 1978

Collected Poems, 1917-1982, 1985


The Pot of Earth, pb. 1925

Nobodaddy: A Play, pb. 1926

Union Pacific: A Ballet, pr. 1934 (libretto with Nicolas Nabokoff)

Panic: A Play in Verse, pr., pb. 1935

The Fall of the City: A Verse Play for Radio, pr., pb. 1937

Air Raid: A Verse Play for Radio, pr., pb. 1938

The Trojan Horse: A Play, pb., pr. 1952 (broadcast), pr. 1953 (staged)

This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters, pr., pb. 1953 (one act)

J.B.: A Play in Verse, pr., pb. 1958

Herakles: A Play in Verse, pr. 1965

Scratch, pr., pb. 1971 (inspired by Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster”)

The Great American Fourth of July Parade: A Verse Play for Radio, pr., pb. 1975

Six Plays, pb. 1980


The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, 1965


Housing America, 1932

Jews in America, 1936

Background of War, 1937

The Irresponsibles: A Declaration, 1940

The American Cause, 1941

A Time to Speak: The Selected Prose of Archibald MacLeish, 1941

American Opinion and the War, 1942

A Time to Act: Selected Addresses, 1943

Poetry and Opinion: The “Pisan Cantos” of Ezra Pound, 1950

Freedom Is the Right to Choose: An Inquiry into the Battle for the American Future, 1951

Poetry and Experience, 1961

The Dialogues of Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren, 1964

A Continuing Journey, 1968

The Great American Frustration, 1968

Champion of a Cause: Essays and Addresses on Librarianship, 1971

Riders on the Earth: Essays and Reminiscences, 1978

Letters of Archibald MacLeish: 1907-1982, 1983 (R. H. Winnick, editor)


Archibald MacLeish (muh-KLEESH), more than any other twentieth century American writer, combined a literary career with a life of distinguished public service. He was born on May 7, 1892, in Glencoe, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. MacLeish was the son of Andrew MacLeish, a prosperous merchant, and Martha Hillard MacLeish, until her marriage a college faculty member and president. He was educated at Hotchkiss School, Yale University, and Harvard Law School. In 1916 he married Ada Hitchcock, a talented soprano. He enlisted as a private to serve in the American forces in France in 1917. Discharged as a captain of artillery, he returned to complete his law degree, to teach government at Harvard, and to practice law for three years in Boston. In 1923 he left a promising career in the law to move his family to Paris, where for five years he devoted himself to study, travel, and the writing of poetry.{$I[AN]9810001027}{$I[A]MacLeish, Archibald}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;MacLeish, Archibald}{$I[tim]1892;MacLeish, Archibald}

Archibald MacLeish

(Library of Congress)

The poems of MacLeish’s first period, from his 1917 book Tower of Ivory through the works of the following decade, recall the works of William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot, as well as the works of writers who had influenced them (the Imagist poets, the Metaphysical poets, the Symbolist poets, and James George Frazer). MacLeish’s carefully crafted poems embody familiar characteristics of poetry of the 1920’s: postwar bewilderment and despair, wistful regret for lost integrity, expression of the hurry of modern life, and confidence in the redemptive act of poetic creation. Among the most memorable works of this period are the long poems The Pot of Earth and The Hamlet of A. MacLeish and such short lyrics as “The Silent Slain,” “Ars Poetica,” “L’An trentiesme de mon age,” “The End of the World,” and “You, Andrew Marvell.”

In 1928 MacLeish returned to the United States to live on a farm in Conway, Massachusetts, which was his primary home for more than fifty years. The poem “American Letter” in New Found Land especially marked his break with the expatriate mood of his early work. He became a roving editor of the business magazine Fortune and found new American subjects, language, and forms for his verse. Conquistador was an epic treatment of the attempted conquest of Mexican Aztecs by the Spanish army led by Hernán Cortés, a metaphor for the conquest of the New World; it won for MacLeish the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1933. Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller’s City, verse satires; Panic, a verse play questioning the inevitability of financial collapse; and The Fall of the City, a radio play about a city’s acceptance of a military conqueror, showed MacLeish’s heightened social and political consciousness.

During the 1930’s MacLeish was at the center of several literary controversies. In October, 1932, he published “Invocation to the Social Muse,” noting the dangers to the poet’s craft of social and political involvements. By the end of the decade, however, his The Irresponsibles sounded a call for the writer to mount the barricades against the Fascist forces which were overwhelming Europe. The most eloquent example of his “public speech” in poetry is America Was Promises, published in 1939.

His role as a public servant began that year, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him Librarian of Congress, a post which he held until 1944, when he was appointed assistant secretary of state for public and cultural relations. In 1945 MacLeish headed the American delegation to form the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In 1949 he rejoined the Harvard faculty, now as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, and taught creative writing until 1962. During this period MacLeish performed the multiple roles of teacher, poet, statesman, and playwright. His Collected Poems, 1917-1952 won the Pulitzer and Bollingen prizes and the National Book Award, and he continued to publish lyric poems of high quality. In 1950 his defense of the awarding of the Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound, whose political views he despised, demonstrated his conviction that the right of individuals to speak their own minds was important to the rule of law. To the verse plays for stage and radio which he had written during the Depression and World War II, he added J.B., a retelling in modern idiom of the tale of the biblical Job. This play, successfully produced on Broadway, won for MacLeish a third Pulitzer Prize, this time in drama. The critical essays which make up Poetry and Experience summarized MacLeish’s quest for understanding the proper relationship between the poet and the world.

By the time of his death in 1982, MacLeish had published more than forty books. His reputation as a lyric poet was not diminished with time, but his remarkable special accomplishment was the integration of the private poet with the public man. The breadth of his work as lyricist, epic poet, verse dramatist, social critic, and public servant has rarely been matched, and he has properly been called an unofficial American poet laureate.

BibliographyAaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962. This book is a social chronicle of the left wing from 1912 to the early 1940’s. It describes the response of a select group of American writers to the idea of communism and deals with particular issues and events that helped to shape their opinions. The discussion of MacLeish focuses on the author as the “darling of communism” during the Spanish Civil War.Cohn, Ruby. Dialogues in American Drama. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971. Although this volume does not contain much analysis of MacLeish’s earlier plays since the author believes they are merely unsuccessful adaptations of his poetry to dramatic form, Cohn’s incisive reading of J.B. makes this volume worth consulting.Donaldson, Scott and R. H. Winnick. Archibald MacLeish: An American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. Donaldson’s biography of MacLeish discusses his education at Hotchkiss, Yale, and Harvard Law School; his expatriate life of writing in Paris; his editorship of Fortune; and his political career.Drabeck, Bernard A., and Helen E. Ellis, eds. Archibald MacLeish: Reflections. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. This oral autobiography, drawn from recorded conversations the editors pursued with MacLeish from 1976 to 1981, is a valuable, unique compendium of MacLeish’s commentary on his own poetry and prose and that of his peers. The preface by Richard Wilbur is especially helpful in placing MacLeish’s achievements in centennial perspective.Ellis, Helen E., and Bernard A. Drabeck. Archibald MacLeish: A Selectively Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. A useful bibliographic resource.Falk, Signi. Archibald MacLeish. New York: Twayne, 1966. The best extant source of exposition and biographical information on MacLeish, even though it is basically a handbook or primer on him rather than a full-fledged biocritical study. Falk methodically examines each work in MacLeish’s oeuvre and offers a sound critical judgment of its merits.Gassner, John. Theatre at the Crossroads. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960. An assessment of mid-twentieth century theater as viewed from the vantage point of Broadway and Off-Broadway stage productions since World War II. Begins with a series of essays offering perspectives on the emergence of modern drama. Concludes with discussions of specific productions from 1950 to 1960. MacLeish’s play J.B. is discussed in this latter section of the book. For the general reader.Kirkpatrick, D. C., ed. American Writers Since 1900. New York: St. James Press, 1983. This standard reference tool contains a chronology of MacLeish’s life and a comprehensive bibliography of his work. The short, evaluative article by Robert K. Johnson is a worthy overview of MacLeish’s achievements in poetry and drama.Leary, Lewis G., Carolyn Bartholet, and Catharine Roth. Articles on American Literature, 1950-1967. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1970. These reference volumes contain comprehensive bibliographies of periodical articles related to MacLeish’s criticism.MacLeish, Archibald. The Letters of Archibald MacLeish, 1907-1982. Edited by R. H. Winnick. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. Published posthumously, these letters represent the most important source of autobiographical information on MacLeish’s life and the sources, influences, and personal memories of his most famous poems and plays. Contains a helpful index.MacLeish, Archibald. Reflections. Edited by Bernard A. Drabeck and Helen E. Ellis. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. This thoughtful biography is based on a collection of interviews with MacLeish conducted during the six years before the author’s death. It is a “spoken” biography rather than a written autobiography and is filled with fascinating anecdotes and insights. It covers MacLeish’s association with world figures in literature, art, and politics. Also chronicles the Paris years, the 1930’s, MacLeish in government, the Harvard years, and the later years. Contains illustrations and an afterword.MacLeish, William H. Uphill with Archie: A Son’s Journey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. A beautifully written and deeply involving look at the life and the world of Archibald MacLeish by his youngest son. Partly an homage, partly an attempt to come to terms with the man, Uphill with Archie speaks to all sons and daughters who have never completely resolved their feelings about powerful parents.Salzman, Jack, ed. Years of Protest: A Collection of American Writings of the 1930’s. New York: Pegasus, 1967. A collection of contemporary responses to “Invocation to the Social Muse.”Smith, Grover. Archibald MacLeish. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971. This pamphlet in the well-known University of Minnesota series offers a concentrated analysis of MacLeish’s poetry with some attention to the poetic drama, J.B. The short biography and bibliography is a useful starting place for research.Weales, Gerald C. American Drama Since World War II. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962. A critical description of the American plays produced between the years 1945 and 1960. In the section devoted to MacLeish, the author discusses MacLeish’s plays as experiments using poetic form. Provides a general overview of the subject and specific insights on MacLeish’s drama.
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