Biography of Archibald MacLeish

Archibald MacLeish was born in 1892 to a Scottish father and American mother in Glencoe, Illinois. He attended Yale University in 1911, where he nurtured his literary proclivities, winning the University's Prize Poem award in 1915 among many other accomplishments. After college, MacLeish married Ada Hitchcock and two years later served in WWI. After the war, which, for MacLeish, seemed like the dawn of a new era, he attended Harvard Law School and began a career as a lawyer. During this time, and for the rest of his life, MacLeish would be captivated by issues of idealism versus reality, the past versus the future, and consciousness versus the unfathomable.

In 1923, MacLeish turned his back on a law career and moved his family from the United States to Paris to seek out a career as a poet and writer. Paris in the 1920s was the choice du jour for American expatriate writers collectively known as the Lost Generation. MacLeish, alongside writers like Kay Boyle, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway, would make his mark on the history of literature at the vanguard of this movement, which is now known as modernism. In four years, MacLeish published four books of poetry, after which he brought his family back to America. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his epic poem Conquistador, which traced the route of Cortez' army through Mexico, a route he took himself as research for the work.

In 1930 MacLeish became an editor at Fortune magazine, and grew increasingly political during this period. He was granted a series of offices and stations in these years to promote patriotism during and after WWII, including director of the War Department’s Office of Facts and Figures, assistant director of the Office of War Information, Assistant Secretary of State for cultural affairs, and member of the governing body of UNESCO. MacLeish was also appointed Librarian of Congress by Franklin Roosevelt, during which he promoted poetry events and improved the organization of the library's offices.

In 1946 MacLeish was appointed The Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and in 1949 he taught at Harvard. During this time, and during his later years of lecturing at Amherst, MacLeish wrote poetry, plays, films and literary criticism. He won two more Pulitzer Prizes (one for a collection of poetry, and one for his play J.B.). During his lifetime MacLeish also won a National Book Award, a Bollingen Prize, and an Academy Award for his screenplay about Eleanor Roosevelt.

MacLeish died in Boston in 1982, after about 15 years away from the public eye.

Study Guides on Works by Archibald MacLeish

In 1928, MacLeish produced what many consider to be the defining manifesto for modernist poetry, “Ars Poetica,” with the famous concluding line insisting that

“A poem should not mean / But be.”

One of the conventions of modernism was, perhaps...

"Memory Green" by Archibald MacLeish, though not one of MacLeish's most famous poems, is highly characteristic of his style and prowess. The poem, published in 1930, contains several of his signatures as a poet: the use of natural imagery to...