Archibald MacLeish, poet, dramatist, and ninth Librarian of Congress, was born on May 7, 1892, in Glencoe, Illinois. He attended Yale University where he chaired the Yale Literary Magazine. After service in World War I, he graduated from Harvard Law School. MacLeish practiced law for three years before resigning and moving his family to Paris.
Like American expatriates Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, MacLeish found Paris of the 1920s a creative haven. He produced several volumes of poetry during his years in France including The Happy Marriage, and Other Poems (1924), The Pot of Earth (1925), and Streets in the Moon (1926).
The first duty of the Library of Congress is to serve the Congress and the officers and agencies of government. Its second duty is to serve the world of scholarship and letters. Through both it endeavors to serve the American people to whom it belongs and for whom it exists.
Statement of Archibald MacLeish, Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions, inaugural issue,External 1943.
In 1928, MacLeish returned to the United States to research and write his epic poem Conquistador. This long narrative work about the Spanish conquest of Mexico received the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The social awareness manifest in Conquistador continued to inform his work.
MacLeish’s combined interests in literature and public policy led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to appoint him Librarian of Congress in 1939.
The Library of Congress’s John Adams Building, originally called the “Annex,” had been completed only a few months before MacLeish’s appointment. MacLeish commissioned artist Ezra Winter to decorate the Jefferson Reading Room in the new building with four murals inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on freedom, labor, the “living generation,” education, and democratic government.
MacLeish faced the challenge of moving collections and of updating the administrative structure of the institution to fulfill its mission to Congress, to the American government, to scholarship, and to the American people. During his tenure as Librarian, MacLeish successfully reorganized the Library and extended the Library’s connections to American writers and scholars.
Equally important, MacLeish mobilized the Library of Congress for war. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, American treasures, including the original copies of the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Magna Carta, and the Gutenberg Bible were transported to Fort Knox for safekeeping. Other irreplaceable works were deposited in libraries around the nation. Made available around-the-clock, the Library’s collections proved a valuable resource for U.S. military intelligence.
After five years at the helm, MacLeish left the Library of Congress to become assistant secretary of state. During the 1950s, MacLeish published additional poetic works and the well-known J. B.: A Play in Verse. Based on the biblical story of Job, this successfully-staged play won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Archibald MacLeish died in 1982.
- Search the collection Freedom’s Fortress: The Library of Congress, 1939 to 1953 on Archibald MacLeish to find speeches, letters, and memos written by MacLeish during his tenure as Librarian of Congress.
- A May 13, 1963, recording of Archibald MacLeish reading and commenting on his poems in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium is available through the Library’s online Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature.
- Search Today in History on writer, playwright, or poet to find more features on literary lights of America, including William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway.
- Search Today in History on such terms as Franklin Roosevelt, Great Depression, and World War II to read more about the era of MacLeish’s tenure as Librarian of Congress and assistant secretary of state.
- Read more about the illustrious Librarians of Congress in John Cole’s history of the Library, Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress. Biographies of the Librarians, including the current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, are also available on the About section of the Library’s website. And for even more about MacLeish, see the post on the Library of Congress Blog, “The Warrior Poet (a.k.a. Fellow Traveler No. 1).”
- Examine a letter from Ernest Hemingway to Archibald MacLeish. Written in August 1943, Hemingway answers an earlier letter concerning poet Ezra Pound’s mental health. This document is available in the collection Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years.