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Epistle for Thanksgiving

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Mary Lou Reker at her desk in the Kluge Center.

The following is a guest post by Mary Lou Reker, program specialist at the Library of Congress Office of Scholarly Programs.

Over the last three or four years I’ve been researching American writers popular during the 1920s through 1950s. One of these was Archibald MacLeish, the former Librarian of Congress. So when my colleague Rob Casper asked me to write a blog post for “From the Catbird Seat: Poetry and Literature at the Library of Congress,” MacLeish came to mind. His poem, “Epistle to Be Left in the Earth,” seems particularly appropriate to this beautiful Thanksgiving season, and I quote it throughout this post.

. . . It is colder now,
there are many stars
we are drifting
North by the Great Bear,
the leaves are falling

MacLeish was a man who gave back to the world in measure equal to all given him by birth, fortune and fame. In 1923 he left a secure job with a Boston law firm and joined the creative expatriates in Paris that proudly bore the name “The Lost Generation.” In this milieu MacLeish developed close friendships with, among others, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Gerald and Sara Murphy. He also became close to many New York writers who visited France for prolonged periods in that era: humorists Donald Ogden Stewart and Robert Benchley, theater critic Alexander Woollcott, and poet and short-story writer Dorothy Parker. All of them were working through the psychological Sabbath that followed WWI.

Long since we passed the flares of Orion.
Each man believes in his heart he will die.
Many have written last thoughts and last letter.
None know if our deaths are now or forever:
None know if this wandering earth will be found.

At the end of the 1920s MacLeish returned to the U.S. And from the 1930s on he became a strong voice against the rise of the fascistic governments based on the top-down paternalism of the dictators coming to power in Spain and Nazi Germany. His writing—poetry, prose, and verse plays such as The Fall of the City and Air Raid (developed for the relatively new media of nationally syndicated radio)—began to address the issue.

As America was inexorably being drawn into WWII, MacLeish—like his fellow playwright Robert Sherwood—became a speech writer for President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1939 Roosevelt appointed MacLeish as the ninth Librarian of Congress, a position he held throughout most of the war years. His great accomplishments as Librarian included the establishment of the Library’s official poetry reading series and a position that came to known as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. He also made the Library a repository for the many collections created by New Deal programs such as the Works Project Administration’s Federal Theatre Project and Posters; the Federal Writers Project Life Histories and Slave Narratives; and the Farm Services Administration’s photos by Ansel Adams from Japanese American internment camps.

I pray you,
you (if any open this writing)
Make in your mouth the words that were our names.

Archibald MacLeish continued to write, to teach, and to give public service well after he left the Library of Congress in 1944. As Secretary of State for Cultural Affairs he helped to establish the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); he generated a substantial body of critically acclaimed creative work including the Pulitzer Prize-winning play J.B. (1958)—he won three Pulitzers in all; and, as the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, he taught poetry at Harvard from 1949 until 1962.

I will tell you all we have learned,
I will tell you everything:
The earth is round,
there are springs under the orchards,
The loam cuts with a blunt knife,
beware of
Elms in thunder,
the lights in the sky are stars.

Archibald MacLeish passed away on April 20, 1982. Much of his archive is housed at Yale University; however, the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress holds a substantial part of his correspondence and literary material as well as detailed notes for his classroom lectures on poetry. The great Mexican composer Carlos Chavez set the “Epistle to Be Left in the Earth” as a four-part chorus for mixed a cappella voices as a tribute to MacLeish’s work.

Voices are crying an unknown name in the sky

Comments (6)

  1. I truly enjoyed this post and learning so much about Archibald MacLeish and his amazing contributions to not only the Library of Congress, but the Arts in general. Thanks so much for the great history and your interweaving his poem here too was really wonderful. Keep the amazing posts coming! 🙂

  2. This was very interesting and in a very literatl sense,
    “enlightening”. I am 77, so of course cannot remember a time when the name “Archbald Macliesh” did not
    coven up “famous,” and “accalaimed” and as a
    young writer myself , immature undisciplined in many
    ways especially in the way of dismissing in a way
    some contemporary lights out of I realize now no
    more eason than sheer jealouy, of the kind that
    grows in self discouragement, lack of hope that
    I myself will ever get known anywhere, not even
    in my own small “world.” (That attitude, sadly has
    a self fullfilling side.) But it’s never too late. I
    still write and read ( esp. thanks to programs like
    Poem A Day and the LIbrary of congress
    version that, people like Billy Collins.

    So, it was grand to read this offering, and I love
    the way the “about” was inter mixed with his
    actual words.
    If I ever make it to Washington ( where my parents
    grew up and grandparents lived and died) again,
    I’ll stop by.

    Mary Riley

  3. Thank you for standing guard. Happy Thanksgiving.

    Susan Fisher

  4. This was an eye-opener for me. I had not read much of MacLeish’s work nor did I know much about his life. Now I’m ready to devour his work. Thanks Mary Lou for a very informative, interesting and enticing piece.

  5. At a recent library book sale, my husband found for me a copy of Mr. MacLeish’s “Poetry and Experience” (1961). I highly recommend that book to all poets and poetry-lovers.

  6. Having just read The Paris Wife I find that Mary Lou’s blog adds depth and flavor to the charaters who were part of Hemingway’s world. Thank you, LOC, for this wonderful commentary!

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