Archibald MacLeish: An American Life

Archibald MacLeish: An American Life

by Scott Donaldson, R H. Winnick

View All Available Formats & Editions

Born on May 7, 1892, in Glencoe, Illinois, to the craggy but prosperous president of Carson Pirie Scott and an idealistic mother who had been a college president, Archibald MacLeish grew up to become not only a highly regarded poet, even eventually the unofficial poet laureate of his time, but one of our most dedicated and effective public servants. Educated at


Born on May 7, 1892, in Glencoe, Illinois, to the craggy but prosperous president of Carson Pirie Scott and an idealistic mother who had been a college president, Archibald MacLeish grew up to become not only a highly regarded poet, even eventually the unofficial poet laureate of his time, but one of our most dedicated and effective public servants. Educated at Hotchkiss (which he hated), Yale (football, Skull and Bones), and Harvard Law School, he abandoned a promising law practice in Boston on the very day he was to be offered a partnership, to take his wife, a gifted singer, and their young children to Paris and write poetry full-time.

Editorial Reviews

Herbert Mitgang
There's so much gold about life and letters...that the book almost doesn't need mining for nuggets. —The New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Appointed MacLeish's biographer by the MacLeish estate, Donaldson ( John Cheever ) in collaboration with Winnick ( Letters of Archibald MacLeish, 1907 - 1982 ) has produced a sympathetic and fully realized treatment of the writer's life and work. MacLeish (1892-1982) was born into wealth but rejected a law career for poetry, supporting his family by working as a journalist for Fortune magazine. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice for his poems (1932, 1953) and once for his play J.B. (1959). Donaldson details his subject's friendships with Hemingway, Dean Acheson and Dos Passos, acknowledging MacLeish's literary achievements and his outstanding stint as FDR's Librarian of Congress. The book credits him with acting against fascism and McCarthyism but also reveals his snobbishness, extra-marital affairs and failures as a father. Readable and well-researched, this is a solid scholarly biography of a major literary figure. Photos not seen by PW. (May)
Library Journal
This exhaustive, sympathetic biography helps explain why MacLeish, one of the best-known and respected American poets in the 1930s to the 1950s, is all but forgotten today. Raised to value a life of selfless public service, he early subordinated a pursuit of private poetry to a career in the law, then at the fledgling Fortune magazine. In the Depression, at the request of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he revered, he became Librarian of Congress and, in the 1950s, Boylston Professor of English at Harvard--all the while carped at by critics both Left and Right, who accused him of ``selling out.'' This fine book should help resurrect MacLeish, not as a poet (liberal samplings of his work suggest he remains too public and hortatory for our tastes), but as a principled and courageous American public servant. For an interview with Donaldson, see Behind The Book, p. 92.--Ed.-- Charles C. Nash, Cottey Coll., Nevada, Mo.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

Archibald MacLeish

By Scott Donaldson


Copyright © 2001 Scott Donaldson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2994-0



A Foreign Potentate

The boy Archie idled the summer day away. Drifting between daydream and sensation, he lay on his back for hours of the morning, staring up into the stillness of the tall oak trees until it seemed that everything — the little white butterflies, the insects in the grass — was drawn into and subsumed by that stillness. The boy did not think; he remembered nothing. He felt at the beginning of things, at the center of the universe. He felt, almost, as if he did not exist. With the afternoon came the hot west wind, parching the lawn, parching the glistening metallic oak leaves, plunging over the clay bluff to Lake Michigan below, dragging its green and purple shadows out to the deep blue of the horizon. The wind came from thousands of miles away, Archie's father had told him; over the prairies, over the grass and the corn and the deserts where the skulls of buffalo shone white by the dry creeks. The boy — he must have been six, and so it was 1898 — watched from the bluff as a high-shouldered congregation of sandpipers huddled to scavenge what washed ashore. He chewed the tender spears of the stiff grass. He climbed out on the tree the Indians had bent low a hundred years before. Then the jays began to riot in anticipation of the thunderstorm, and he went inside.

The great house — his father had named it Craigie Lea, after a Scottish ballad — was a mansion by the standards of Glencoe, but Archie knew nothing of that yet. What he did know was that the couch cover from Persia smelled of strange smoke and that the leather seat of his chair had a bitter smell at prayers and the table knives were silver with smooth handles and that he could easily turn the brass knob of the side door. On the wall was a picture of an empty boat pulled up on the beach of a lake among birch trees. The oars were in the boat, and it seemed to the boy that the people no longer in the boat were far away and sad like the old letters in the drawer of the cedar room desk.

And then it was evening, for the storm had come and gone and his father had come home from the store in Chicago on the 5:15 train and the coachman had picked him up and Archie could hear the carriage with its two bouncing bays coming down the road and — he did not know why — he went out the side door and his father put his head out of the window of the carriage, beamed down at the boy, the second son of his third marriage, and said, "Hello, Brownie," for Archie had his mother's deep brown eyes.

It was not much of a memory, but Archie — Archibald MacLeish, for that is who he was to become — carried it with him all his days. "Brownie," he recalled in his eighties. "I'll never forget being called that." It was the one time, the first and last and only time, that he got from his father a really spontaneous gesture of affection. At that moment, as never else, he felt sure of his father's love.

A native Scotsman, Andrew MacLeish was sixty on that summer evening, and in part it was his age that kept a barrier between father and son. "My father came from a very old country in the north and far away," Archie remembered, "and he belonged to an old strange race, the race older than any other. He did not talk of his country but he sang bits of songs with words he said no one could understand any more. When he spoke to his collies they crawled with bellies on the ground." Andrew was a vigorous sixty-year-old; he was to live, like his son, into his ninetieth year. He was impressive, too: six feet tall, well built, and handsome, with a full but neatly trimmed beard that made kissing him at Christmas — according to one grandchild — like kissing shredded wheat. Such ceremonial displays were infrequent, for the most distinctive thing about Andrew MacLeish was his extraordinary reserve. "Scots don't come shouting at you," as Archie observed, but even among the Scottish, Andrew MacLeish must have been a special case.

When he spoke, it was softly with a pronounced Scottish burr. But he spoke very little, and kept himself and his emotions under severe control. "I fear a man of frugal speech," Emily Dickinson writes, and his children did fear Andrew MacLeish. Archie's older brother Norman, a sensitive and artistically talented lad, was terrified by his father. Norman developed a stammer, which was exacerbated by his father's conviction that it would go away if only the boy would try harder. Archie regarded his father more with awe than with terror. In the long run he came to admire his hard-won success as a businessman and to respect him for his self-discipline. "Father was more of a man than I am or ever have been," he allowed half a century after his father's death in 1928. Yet in his youth and young manhood Archie resented and rebelled against the distance between them. Some of these feelings are articulated in a rare confessional poem of 1923 which Archie, with his own characteristic reserve, declined to publish in his lifetime.

My father was a solid man
And he was made of flesh and bone.
I have the planet in my span
And in my veins the stars are sown.

My father walked upon the earth
And with him would his shadow pass.
I was rebellious at my birth.
The sun strikes through me like a glass.

My father knew Jehovah's face
And would converse with him apart.
I think he fears me for his place
Is empty when I search my heart.

"God was father's father," as Archie put it in his notes, and he called Andrew "sir" whenever they conversed. His father left for the Chicago & North Western train into the city before the children were up, and in the evening he had dinner — the adult dinner, for the children were fed apart — and immediately retired to his den on the landing between the first and second stories. That den was inviolate territory, as the youngsters of the neighborhood discovered one antic weekend when they marched the family goat inside the house and on up the stairs, only to retreat hurriedly before Andrew's disapproving glare as he emerged from his den to investigate the uproar. Invited to a family picnic on the beach, Andrew declined with an aphorism: "I prefer my chop on a plate." As that remark suggests, he had a certain laconic wit. One steamy day he initiated a conversation in Yankee dialect with Norman. "T'weren't for one thing we'd have a thaw," he said. "What's that, father?" Norman asked. "T'ain't nothin' frizz."

That humor was a saving grace, or nearly so. And no one could deny Andrew MacLeish's generosity where his children's education and future were concerned. He was openhanded where it must have pained him most as a constitutionally closefisted Scot: in the pocketbook. This was small consolation, though, for his absence even when present: he simply was not there for the children of Craigie Lea. To Archie, looking back across the decades, Andrew MacLeish seemed more like "a foreign potentate" than a father.

Andrew and Patty

Born in Glasgow in June 1838, Andrew MacLeish was the second son of an Archibald MacLeish who was the third son of another Archibald MacLeish driven from his trade as a hand-loom weaver in Loch-winnoch, Scotland, by the introduction of steam power. Of the four sons of Archibald the elder, two eventually became educators, a third a minister in the Free Church of Scotland, and the fourth, Andrew's father, a draper — dry-goods merchant — in Glasgow. Andrew's older brother, yet another Archibald, first sought his fortune in the gold mines of Australia, and failing there, returned to become a partner in his father's business. Although the family was far from prosperous, they determined that Andrew should be educated for the ministry, to "wag his paw in the pu'pit." Andrew, who had other ideas, left school at fourteen and persuaded his father to apprentice him to Robert Webster and Sons, a retail drapery house in Argyle Street, Glasgow. While he was so employed, his mother died, a victim of illness compounded by financial and family stress.

It was assumed that at the end of his two-year apprenticeship in the fall of 1855, Andrew would join his father's firm, but again the boy disappointed expectations. In the company of Edward Couper, a youth who had earlier completed his apprenticeship at Webster's, Andrew set out for London to seek his fortune. Times were hard even in London, the drapery capital of the world, though less so than Archie later made them sound. Perhaps his father did sleep under the counter like Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, but at least he found employment. Before long he wrote home asking his father's forgiveness. That was kindly granted, and Andrew was once more encouraged to return to work at his father's side.

When Andrew did return to Glasgow in August 1856, though, it was only long enough to pack and set sail for America. Couper had told him tales of the prosperous new land across the ocean, and Andrew decided to pursue his opportunities there. Still more important, he decided to pursue Lilias Young, another former Webster's employee to whom he had lost his heart. Lilias had emigrated with her family to a rude frontier town called Chicago, and in September 1856 Andrew embarked on the City of New York to follow her there, his friend Couper accompanying him. Andrew was still a youth, only eighteen, and it must have taken courage to strike out for an unknown country. His departure effectively cut him off from family ties. He never saw his father again.

The land of milk and honey did not immediately live up to its notices. Luckily it was the season when you could get out of the train and pick apples, and so the two young Scotsmen had enough to eat on the three-day trip from New York to Chicago. Although bustling with growth, Chicago in 1856 was far from prepossessing. Wooden planks in the streets often gave way to deep mud holes. In one a wag had stuck a long pole with a hat on top and a sign reading "No Bottom." Still, that first evening Andrew and his friend Couper located the Youngs, he and Lilias went walking "out to the boundless prairie at Union Park," and that made the long journey worthwhile.

Andrew worked for one Chicago dry-goods store and another without much success. In the spring of 1858, on the mend after a bout of tuberculosis, he accepted an invitation from the Young family to stay on the farm they had just bought in Golconda, Illinois, in Pope County. That summer the local farmers prevailed on him to serve a six-month appointment as schoolmaster. Andrew knew he was ill prepared for the work, but he needed the job. On Christmas Day he and Lilias were married, and then — with his health restored and his teaching completed — he and his bride moved back to Chicago.

The twenty years of marriage allotted to Andrew and Lilias MacLeish were happy and prosperous ones, by and large. They had two daughters: Lily, born in 1860, and Blanche, two years later. They moved to a pleasant apartment on the city's North Side and joined the North Baptist Church, where Andrew, raised a Presbyterian but converted to his wife's faith, soon became the leading layman. He resumed his dry-goods career, and in 1867 found what was to be his life's work when Samuel Carson, a fellow Scot, invited him to join Carson and Pirie, dry-goods wholesalers, as a junior partner. Specifically, Andrew's job was to open and develop a retail store in Chicago. A shrewd, honest, and hardworking businessman, Andrew carried out his assignment with notable success, aided by the city's rapid growth in population. Even the disastrous Chicago fire of 1871 barely slowed the store's progress. By the mid-1870s Carson Pirie Scott and Company (as it was by then named) had become one of Chicago's leading department stores, and Andrew MacLeish — as founder and manager — one of its leading merchants.

Unfortunately, Lilias then fell ill, and after several years of invalidism she died, in September 1878. Shortly before her death, she asked her husband to send their two daughters to Vassar, one of the first American colleges for women. In this way the dying wish of Andrew MacLeish's first wife led to his marriage to his third.

In the interim, Andrew was married a second time, in March 1881, to M. (for Martha) Louise Little, the daughter of a Union general in the Civil War. In February of the following year she gave birth to a son, Bruce (who was eventually to follow his father's trade and become president of Carson Pirie Scott). Then Louise MacLeish too was carried off by an illness. In January 1883, at forty-four, Andrew was left a widower for a second time.

It fell to Lily MacLeish, as the elder daughter, to leave Vassar, come home, and take care of the family. After her father's first bereavement, she had briefly fulfilled a similar function while at home on vacations, but by 1883 hers was a full-time occupation. She had to manage the rather large house on Chicago's West Side that the family now occupied, to serve as her father's companion and sometime hostess, and — most important of all — to act as surrogate mother to young Bruce, who was not yet one year old when his own mother died. According to Archie, his half-sister Lily — thirty-two years his senior — was a congenital spinster (though eventually she did marry). In any event, she grew accustomed to her role and was reluctant to give it up when, five years later, her father married for a third time.

Ironically, Andrew MacLeish would not have met Martha Hillard at all but for the agency of his daughter Lily. While at Vassar she and her sister, Blanche, had grown particularly fond of Miss Hillard, who functioned both as an instructor of mathematics and as a "corridor teacher": resident adviser, friend, chaperone, and slightly older role model for Vassar students. An 1878 graduate of Vassar herself, she had taught public school for three years in Plymouth, Connecticut, before returning to her alma mater in 1881. Energetic, good-natured, pragmatic in her idealism, Martha Hillard was called away from Vassar in 1884 to become — at only twenty-eight years of age — principal of Rockford (Illinois) Seminary, and to oversee its transformation into a full-fledged women's college.

Fund raising was part of her job, and family legend has it that on one occasion she called on John D. Rockefeller to seek his support for the school. The meeting went well, and at its conclusion Rockefeller asked what train she was leaving on. That night she had just finished brushing her hair, secreting her purse beneath her pillow, and saying her prayers, when a male hand stole into the privacy of her sleeper. When she called the porter, the intruder turned out to be not the burglar she had feared but a most apologetic Mr. Rockefeller, who maintained that he had, somehow, mistaken her berth for his.

It was at the end of another trip, in the spring of 1887, that Martha Hillard decided to accept Lily MacLeish's often-extended invitation to stop and spend a night with her family in Chicago. Blanche was now married, to Cornelius Kingsley Garrison ("Ben") Billings, scion of one of Chicago's wealthiest and most distinguished families, and a dinner party was arranged. Martha Hillard was then thirty, a tiny woman with the small dark eyes, high cheekbones, and strikingly mellifluous voice she was to bequeath to her son Archie. Warm and witty, she was obviously a person of unusual energy, sharp intelligence, and deep convictions. Andrew MacLeish was immediately smitten. "My father saw the light when he saw her," as Archie later put it. After dinner he took her aside and showed her some photographs from the trip to Europe he and Lily had recently completed. Reticent though he may have been, Andrew was not a man to let the grass grow under his feet. A few days later he wrote Martha Hillard at Rockford and asked her to consider becoming his wife.

The young principal of Rockford Seminary hardly knew what to think. She had very nearly concluded that marriage was not for her. Andrew MacLeish was obviously much older than she — eighteen years older, in fact — and his proposal had come after the shortest possible acquaintance. Yet she felt an initial attraction as well — Andrew was "such a manly man," she thought — and did not reject him lightly. Instead she wrote that his letter had come as a total surprise, that she appreciated the honor he had paid her, and that she would write further when she'd given the matter the serious thought it deserved. Her second letter contained the rejection the first one had prepared him for, but it was made on the grounds of her calling and with no prejudice to Andrew.

Providence had guided her into the life of an educator, she explained. She was happy in her work and felt it her duty to continue. Besides, she pointed out by way of opening the door a crack, she hardly knew him, whereas he had the advantage of having heard a good deal about her from his daughters. Andrew's letter of response was so understanding and so generous that she "came dangerously near beginning to fall in love with him." So she carried on her tasks at Rockford during the spring term with Mr. MacLeish very much on her mind, and finally found a pretext to write him. Back came a reply that he was going to Block Island in August and would like to call on her at her home in Plymouth at that time.

The August visit sealed the bargain, though not without difficulty. The Hillards were a sizable clan, and in residence when Andrew came to call on August 26 were Martha's father, her grandmother, and siblings Helen, Emily, Fanny, and John. According to Emily's letter of that date, Andrew arrived "on the evening train and we have all lost our hearts to him." But she did not see how Patty (Martha's invariable nickname) would manage to see her caller alone, for her father and grandmother were dominating his time and conversation. Patty found a way. After fixing a fine breakfast of bacon and popovers, she remembered an errand she had to run in Thomaston, and took Andrew with her. Then, as she wrote in her memoirs, "we came home by a back road through the woods, and the matter was settled."


Excerpted from Archibald MacLeish by Scott Donaldson. Copyright © 2001 Scott Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >