By HELEN DALRYMPLE
William H. MacLeish, son of poet and former Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish (1939-44) recently returned to Washington, where he had spent his formative years, to discuss his new memoir, Uphill with Archie: A Son's Journey. Sponsored by the Center for the Book and the Humanities and Social Sciences Division, the May 24 lecture was part of the Library's Books & Beyond author series.
Mr. MacLeish, an accomplished journalist and author, titled the book after Uphill Farm, the family home in Connecticut, but it is also a metaphor for his relationship with his father.
"This memoir is about how I found a way to relate to both of my parents as people," he said. "It wasn't until after my parents died that I started referring to them by their given names, Archie and Ada. "It seemed strange at first, but then I began to see how it evoked them in full, as people and not just parents."
Mr. MacLeish was a child of privilege, but he is quick to note some of the emotional shortcomings that occur when a family is governed by the rules of social standing.
"I was desperate for Archie," said Mr. MacLeish who remembered his childhood years as "a confusing combination of too much comfort and not enough challenge."
"Both Archie and Ada had a penchant for being somewhat distant during my early years, he said. "A lot of their aloofness was generational and social. Upper-class families of their day tended to prefer seeing rather than hearing their children," he observed. "By the time I came along, my siblings had worn away some of my father's tooth-and-claw views of fatherhood. "Archie started showing me around Uphill Farm now and then, and made our walks out to be explorations through savage country."
By the time he turned 47, Archibald MacLeish had worked as a World War I ambulance driver, as an editor for Fortune magazine and had established himself as a published poet.
"My father could do anything, and by virtue of that, deciding what to do was something of torture."
The stresses and exhaustion of constant travel and demanding careers had begun to take a toll on Archie's health.
"He ran himself ragged and then his heart began missing beats and sending him other distress signals," said his son. Of his own hectic pace, Archibald MacLeish said, "I cannot remember a quiet period in the life of my mind. It was either anguish at the sense of sin, intellectual doubt or a sense of social rage."
On June 6, 1939, Archibald MacLeish received a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking him to accept an appointment as ninth Librarian of Congress. At the time, he was administrator for Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship program, which brought the country's brightest journalists to study at the university for a year. His earnings were a third of what he made as editor of Fortune magazine but the work hours complied with the doctor's orders to slow down and cut back.
His admiration for Roosevelt's New Deal efforts were not enough to woo Archibald MacLeish to the position of Librarian of Congress. It would take a second letter from the president, promising time for writing, academic pursuits and travel, coupled with the harsh reality that he could only afford to remain at Harvard another two years, to fully convince Archibald MacLeish to accept the position.
"With Roosevelt, Archie had the chance to serve a cause he believed in," said Mr. MacLeish.
Archibald MacLeish held to the belief that the American people should be educated in their own culture, and that the Library of Congress belonged to the people. "The American people should know more about books and their power," he said.
William MacLeish was 11 years old when his father became Librarian of Congress and the family moved to Washington. As a young boy, he had the opportunity to explore the institution.
"I remember going on a wild goose chase through the Library's stacks in search of a volume of books bound in human skin," said Mr. MacLeish, who was spurred on his mission by a false rumor.
With much the same sense of adventure, young William explored his new Georgetown neighborhood.
"It was part of the city, yet it felt like a village to me."
The MacLeish's new household was across the street from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and his wife, Marion, with whom the family became friendly. His home was frequented by such notables as poet Carl Sandburg and folklorist Alan Lomax. During one of his parents' many social gatherings, William had occasion to play the accordion for Lomax, who in turn invited musician Huddie William"Leadbelly" Ledbetter to the MacLeish home to play guitar.
"My childhood was incredible," Mr. MacLeish recalled.
At the same time, his father was settling into his new position at the Library of Congress. After "hitting the job like the brush of a comet," as one observer noted of Archibald MacLeish, he was faced with the task of doing a job for which there was no set job description, and so he invented his own. This included an administrative reorganization of the entire institution, which took several years to implement. As a result, basic functions such as cataloging were improved, thereby ridding the Library of huge cataloging backlogs. During his tenure, MacLeish also instituted a recording studio that made it possible for the Library to augment its collections of American folk music and produce albums of in-house concerts and readings.
Archibald MacLeish's post as Librarian of Congress ended in 1944, when President Roosevelt appointed him to the position of assistant secretary of state for cultural and public affairs. His main duties were to develop the framework for the United Nations.
Of his father's many travels with Roosevelt, William MacLeish recalled, "I can see them together, a president and a poet on the roof of the world."
Ms. Dalrymple is senior public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.