Many larger-than-life figures have served as the Librarian of Congress. As the Library once again plays host to that seminal document affirming the rule of law, Magna Carta, today we shine a spotlight on the man who was Librarian of Congress when the great charter first visited the Library — Archibald MacLeish.
MacLeish, before his long life (1892-1982) ended, worked as a lawyer, a professor, and a founder of UNESCO in addition to his main profession as a poet and playwright. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, a Bollingen Prize and a National Book Award for his poetry, in addition to a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
MacLeish, who came from a comfortable background in Illinois, wrote poetry in high school and during his undergraduate years at Yale. He served as an artilleryman in World War I, then returned to the U.S. to study law at Harvard; after receiving his degree he worked as a lawyer for about three years.
Then he and his wife, Ada, decided to decamp for Paris, so he could devote his efforts to poetry and she could focus on singing. There, they hung out with American expats including Ernest Hemingway, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and other noted writers and poets. MacLeish became a focused anti-fascist as he watched developments around Europe during the late 1920s and 1930s.
From 1920 to 1938, MacLeish struck a deal with publishing magnate Henry Luce, agreeing to serve as editor of Fortune Magazine if MacLeish could carve out enough time to keep working on his poetry. In 1932, he won his first Pulitzer in poetry. He wrote more and more about the threat posed by fascism.
In 1939, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in office, MacLeish was recommended for the post of Librarian of Congress by Felix Frankfurter, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
FDR offered and MacLeish took the job — his predecessor had held it for nearly four decades –– and presided over a reorganization of the Library. As war loomed, however, he led the institution toward a role as a “Fortress of Freedom,” emphasizing new roles for the Library including safeguarding such documents as Magna Carta (originally on loan from England to be exhibited at a world’s fair and at the Library, the British and the Library agreed to send it to Fort Knox for its own protection when the U.S. entered WWII, for the duration of the war); creating a reference agency for the support of the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA; and supporting Congress and federal agencies in their needs for war-related information.
Also, appropriately, he presided over the creation of the Library’s Poet Laureate, Consultant in Poetry position, which previously did not exist. Although MacLeish is responsible for the laureateship being a short-term, revolving gig — he wasn’t a fan of the poet originally suggested by the donor who put up the money for the program — he kept it all on a professional basis, including naming one poet, Louise Bogan, who had criticized MacLeish’s poetry in earlier years. When she pointedly asked him why he’d chosen her, he replied that she was the best person for the job.
He served as Librarian until 1944. In 1945, MacLeish went to the State Department as an assistant secretary of state for cultural affairs, then helped draft a constitution for UNESCO and served on its executive council. From 1949 forward, he wrote poetry and plays and taught. He served in the mid-1950s as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Cornell History Prof. Robert Vanderlan writes that MacLeish was controversial in the 1940s and 1950s — both with the left, which accused him of holding “unconscious” pro-fascist views and with sympathizers of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Vanderlan writes that MacLeish was the first American to be dubbed a “fellow traveler” by HUAC’s chairman, Rep. J. Parnell Thomas.
MacLeish was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the National Medal for Literature in 1978. He died, in Boston, in 1982.