Edited by Roy H. Winnick

Archibald MacLeish died just two-and-a-half weeks before May 7, 1982, when he would have celebrated his ninetieth birthday. He had accomplished what Robert Frost once said it was his hope to accomplish: he had written a few poems it will be hard to get rid of. He had left his mark on the world in countless ways—as a lawyer, a journalist, a public servant, a teacher—but chiefly as a poet. In his poems, essays, speeches, interviews, and letters, as well as in the minds of generations of colleagues, students, and friends, he had left a presence that will also be hard to get rid of.

The letters that follow, twenty-five or so in all, have been selected from Letters of Archibald MacLeish, 1907 to 1982, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Company later this year. The letters in this excerpt span forty-two years; those in the book, seventy-five. The excerpt is a good introduction to the volume of letters and the latter (if, as its editor, I may be permitted to say so) is an even better introduction to MacLeish’s long and extraordinarily varied life.

In the fall of 1923 MacLeish took his wife, Ada, and their two children to France, where, in those days, American dollars enabled one to live on next to nothing. There, MacLeish planned to master the art of poetry, while Ada, a talented concert soprano, undertook a serious, if less than full-time, career as a professional singer. In the first of these letters, written some two-and-a-half years after their arrival abroad, MacLeish is trying—not for the first time—to make the acquaintance of T.S. Eliot, whose poems—especially The Waste Land (1922)—had made, as MacLeish knew only too well, a rather too deep impression on his own work. (In May 1924 MacLeish and his poet-friend Phelps Putnam had journeyed to London from France in hopes of seeing the reclusive Eliot. When they had called at the bank where Eliot was employed, they had been informed by a bank manager that Mr. Eliot was “not in.”) Eliot, who was editing The New Criterion, did not take the long poem MacLeish enclosed with his letter—which may have been “Einstein” or perhaps “Bleheris” (a section of The Hamlet of A. MacLeish [1928])—but he did accept and publish, in April 1926, MacLeish’s poem beginning “No lamp has ever shown us where to look,” and, the following year, “Land’s End/For Adrienne Monnier.”

With Ezra Pound, who, as of late 1926, was just starting The Exile, MacLeish had less success. He sent Pound “Bleheris,” “Broken Promise,” and several other poems, all of which Pound rejected on the grounds that they were too self-consciously poetic and, in some instances, too obviously derivative—of Ezra Pound. Another of the poems Pound rejected became one of MacLeish’s best known: “You, Andrew Marvell.” Pound complained, in rejecting it, that he, Pound, had used Persia in the Cantos; he advised, in all seriousness, that MacLeish find a culture to write about that no one else had taken.

Later, as several of these letters indicate, MacLeish was instrumental in obtaining Pound’s release from St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where—who does not know the story?—Pound was confined thirteen years for his propaganda broadcasts over Radio Rome during World War II. As Librarian of Congress, as a Roosevelt insider, and as a former practicing lawyer, MacLeish was in a good position to help Pound, and help him he did, beginning the day after Pound’s 1943 indictment for treason. Pound had other champions—including Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and—how unlikely!—Robert Frost. But the stage manager of the behind-the-scenes drama that resulted in Pound’s release was MacLeish. It was, as these letters show, an often thankless—if ultimately rewarding—job.

MacLeish did not meet Pound until 1939 and saw him, I believe, only once thereafter; and though they exchanged dozens of letters during the fifties, they could not be called friends, nor, I think, could MacLeish and Eliot. Ernest Hemingway was another story. MacLeish told Carlos Baker that from their first meeting in the summer of 1924 until the MacLeishes returned to the States in 1928, Hemingway was as close to Archie (and Ada) MacLeish as he was to any other friend. The letters they exchanged, beginning in the spring of 1926, suggest a relationship that was robust, unguarded, deeply affectionate—and doomed. ’’And what became of him?” MacLeish asked of Hemingway in his 1948 poem “Years of the Dog,” and answered: “Fame became of him.” Whether it was Hemingway’s meteoric rise to fame while MacLeish’s own career as a poet was having some difficulty getting off the ground, or Hemingway’s disapproving response when, in October 1929, MacLeish accepted a job as a writer on Fortune, Henry Luce’s new business magazine, or the natural antagonism of two strong and competitive egos, it is difficult to say. What can be said is that by the end of the 1930s what had once been a central friendship for MacLeish existed more in memory than in fact. In the last quarter-century of Hemingway’s life (though they continued to exchange occasioned letters by means of which some of the old fondness was rekindled), they met only once.

From 1949 until his retirement in 1962 MacLeish was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University, where he had attended law school, taught constitutional law, and served as curator of the Nieman Foundation until World War II. In his advanced writing course, English S (admission to which was competitive and much coveted), and in his poetry lecture course, MacLeish made friends of a new generation of young writers—and in part helped to create it. And, since he lived for twenty years after leaving Harvard, involved in the world to the very end, still more young writers, and more young people generally, were added to the long list of his close friends. MacLeish outlived almost the whole of his own literary generation, and very nearly the next as well. (He says, poignantly and perfectly, what that felt like in his poem “Survivor.”) John Dos Passos, to whom the last letter in this excerpt is addressed, died two years after it was written.

And now Archie, too, is gone, having died peacefully, gracefully, as one hoped and knew he would. I am glad I knew him. I am going to miss him. But one can read these letters, and those poems, and remember. “Before, though, Paris was wonderful … ”

Note: In this excerpt, as in the book from which it is taken, MacLeish's occasionally idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation have been preserved intact. Material in square brackets was interpolated by the editor.



21 February [1926]    [Paris?]

Dear Mr. Eliot:                                                          

I can imagine no good reason why you should publish a poem of mine of this length.1 But I send it nevertheless in the hope that you may unreasonably like it enough to excuse its bulk.

I was disappointed to miss you last spring when (I believe) you lunched with Mme de Bassiano.2 It isn’t because I think that I could tell you better verbally than I have already done in ink how much I owe you (indeed you must be only too painfully conscious of it if you ever happen on my Pot of Earth). It’s simply that you’re becoming legendary and I have a very human desire to look at you. Seriously I’d take it most kindly if you would let me know when next you pass through Paris. It will save you a lot of importuning and give me the greatest pleasure.

faithfully yours        Archibald MacLeish


1. MacLeish (hereinafter referred to as M) may have sent Eliot the manuscript of “Einstein,” for possible publication by The New Criterion (of which Eliot was editor). The North American Review had purchased the poem two years earlier but had never printed it.

2. The Princess Bassiano was the former Marguerite Chapin, sister of Katherine Garrison Chapin; also known as Marguerite Caetani, she was the owner of the French literary journal Commerce, which was edited by Paul Valéry, Valéry Larbaud, and Léon-Paul Fargue. In post-war years she was the publisher of Botteghe Oscure, to which M contributed.





[c. June 1926]    [Antibes]

Dear Ernest:                                                                                                          

For it is Ernest isn’t it? How is your life? Have any sweet and deep things been happening to you? Have you plunged into any wells of living water? And in general how do you? I feel very sad. Miss Simpsin is playing old English airs—I think they are airs—on the piano below stairs and it has been raining all day and the sea isn’t what you took it for and I have thought of a new way to represent the process of dying—or is it dieing? Dye if you would be with Adonais. Also my testicles give me no end of trouble at these interseasonal periods. I’m one of your late generators. Of all times of the year save me the necessity of procreation in the spring. Sheep breed in the spring. But come at me with your dreaming Aphrodites of an off winter evening or just as summer putting back her drawers draws down the hither hand of autumn or about the holy solstice whenas old earth doth turn her other rump and I can get you cabbages upon the very body of corrupted death. Or thereabouts. Nothing other works for me at all. I have been seven days over a thirty line soliloquy for my redraft of ’amlet.4 And last night Scott [Fitzgerald] told me he was thinking of selling the serial rights to the World’s Fair to some magazine or other for thirty-five thousand dollars! I know I can’t write fiction now. How is the escaped convict getting on? Jake stays with me. So does Ashby. So do bulls. So do fish and fern leaves. Alot of stuff like the memories you bring back for yourself from a week like that. As they go farther back they don’t lose vitality. My one criticism is the one I gave you—and from me worth nothing—that the novel is less of a block than your best stories are.5 But I don’t see how it can help but be a success, both d’estime and d’argent. It has got the one rare thing—common life. And so much more. Thanks so much for the books for K.6 When I get where I can find out the price of an Everyman ed. I’ll reimb.. Till when my secret thanks. I’ve made a list of all the good people in the world. There are nineteen of which you are seven.

Why not meet again                                    yrs aff’ly                Archie


3. M had met Hemingway (1899-1961) at the Closerie des Lilas in Paris in the summer of 1924, and the MacLeishes saw much of him in Paris, Antibes, and elsewhere until their return from abroad. Thereafter, M and Hemingway saw one another less frequently, and the MacLeish-Hemingway friendship was punctuated by a number of unpleasant episodes that led, eventually, to almost complete estrangement.

4. M’s The Hamlet of A. MacLeish (1928).

5. Hemingway had brought with him to the Riviera the carbon copy of his as-yet-unpublished novel The Sun Also Rises, which M (as well as Fitzgerald and, perhaps, others) had immediately read.

6. M’s son Kenneth.




1 January 1927 Gstaad [, Switz.]

Dear Princess Bassiano 

Forgive my delay in answering your two letters. My attempts to learn skiing have had a fairly disastrous effect on my thumb-joint and I have had to forego the making of small curves for almost a week. I can hardly claim to have learned to ski either. Which deprives me of whatever consolation.

About American contributions to Commerce. I am always glad to be of any service I can. I believe in Commerce and that would be quite enough even if there were not more. I wrote Wylie,7 Cummings and Dos Passos before I left Paris (Dec. 20). We should hear from Wylie at once, from Cummings shortly if ever, and from Dos Passos when he gets back from Mexico. I have also been after Hemingway (the success of whose last novel is spectacular and will shortly put him in that category of the contemporary great where he least desires to see himself). Hemingway promises a good story for February first if not before. As to myself, if I can break through certain difficulties that are now besetting me, I shall have something for you in February or March. It is hard going just now because I have come to the end of one run and have got to turn. And these turns are hard. Particularly on a stiff slope. And with rutted snow. O—Aiken. I have asked him. As yet nothing has come. I think it will.

And I’m glad about Beaulieu.8 I hope you won’t feel the Mistral.

And that brings me to what I want to say to you about Perse.9 I had no idea where the books came from. But I had long heard of Leger Leger and I wanted to read him under any name. So I started Anabase. There are three or four books in a writer’s life which are like the changes of direction in a long valley—the cols where the world opens up again and you take a breath and go on. Anabase is such a book to me. I believe it is very great poetry. But I cannot tell. It is too close to me. Perse—let him deny it—is my blood brother. Infinitely wiser and infinitely better. But mine. You will see that I cannot thank you for that gift. But that I am grateful with all my heart please believe.

More when I hear from America.          yours    Archie MacLeish


7. Elinor Wylie (1885-1928), the American poet then married to William Rose Benét.

8. Unidentified.

9. Alexis Saint-Léger Léger (1889-1975), the French poet and diplomat who wrote under the pseudonym St.-John Perse, later became a close friend of M’s.





[c. 14 February 1927]    [Paris]

Dear Pappy:                                                                                                   

Just to ack. receipt of Pursuit Race[.]

All I am, in this business, is a gadget for receiving & forwarding. As I told you before in re Alpine Idyll I do no editorial work for any man including Barsiano. Anything you want to publish I receive & send on. And I say nothing to nobody.* [MacLeish wrote in the margin: *no expressions of opinion. I can’t do it without being either your agent or a lady editor. And I don’t want to be either.] B. understands that perfectly. You’ll hear from her direct. If she takes the story let me know at once & I’ll write her for the money.10

Nothing to thank me for. I didn’t suggest your name. All I did was talk up price.

Pound is crazy. Last letter he asked me to learn Arabic so as to write like myself. Also have something to talk to him about when we met. I’m getting a bit fed up with the Ezraic assumption that he is a Great Man. Let the rest of us say so for a while. Nothing on earth is worse than a literary gent talking about his own stuff.

Had an idea about [Sherwood] Anderson the other day. Trouble with Anderson is he thinks naïveté & honesty are the same thing. Which they damn well aren’t. Honesty is very hard. You may have to write like H. James to be honest. Or you may have to write like the primer to be honest. But to assume that because you sound childish you are therefore true is the real bunk. But I’ve met him since my last letter & I like him. He told me about your correspondence over the Torrents.11 Them letters ought to be published. They sound just grand. Love to Pfeif & Pfeiffer12& to Pappy



10. Commerce did not publish either of Hemingway’s stories.

11. Hemingway’s Torrents of Spring (1926).

12. Pauline and Virginia Pfeiffer.





18 September [1927]   Ashfield [, Mass.]

Dear Pappy:                                                                                       

That was damn fine of you and made me feel grand.13 I don’t expect our mutual affection to run to our works—though yours have always had mine—but it takes all the crums out of the bed to have your praise. And aside from all that it gives me a lot of confidence I need awful bad after a summer in this melon eating land where Millay is a great poet, Tate is a great man of letters and only man is vile.

Thank you.

We laughed ourselves sick over Pauline’s epistle. The touch about Sara [Murphy] and the gypsy girl was—is—immortal. I hope you have had as good a time as it sounds. Though it doesn’t seem humanly possible to have so good a time. We have been buying and selling houses and now that we have a fine one we spend all our time thinking about it which is all right but not productive of much. However when its done it will be worth the trouble. If you’ll spend some time in it. We’ll be back in November and see that you’re in Paris. And write once anyway before that.

The Bullitts14 are a pair of deuces. And not wild either. Bill has just discovered the Free Life—at fifty thousand a year. And Louise is always trying to play the Dowager Queen with a tin monocle and a pair of property tights. They make Archie ache.

Fifty Grand in French! It was fine. But the poor French will never know what they missed. French is a hell of a language. But it was a grand test of that story. To have it go over like that even in N.R.F. language was a triumph. Your theory about the good stuff always translating is bunk. Nobody else can write your kind of stuff within twelve laps of you. And how in hell do you expect a hack translator to do it. A writer writes with words not plots like Bloofield.15 And the words are different. They aint the same words. No, your theory is bunk. But your story is a knockout and no foul either. Even in French I got hollow in the solar plexus.

Take the history of the same piece in the Atlantic. Bob16 tells me the thing was full column news in every paper in the east. They reviewed it like a book. And old Sedgwick17 was as proud of himself as though he had had a baby. Went around telling the folks downtown how many cancellations he had had. It was the big event of the year in these parts. 

Next to Sacco and Vanzetti.18 That was a stink. Nobody cared. The only decent fight was put up by the defenders of our ancient institutions. The communists used it for propaganda but the only birds to get in jail were the sons of Boston’s oldest families and the New York Poets. They had the jail covered with machine guns the night of the execution but not a shot was fired. I’ll enclose the story in the local paper. Now its all
stale and no one will talk about it. Wash their hands. The only trouble is that it must have hurt Sacco and Vanzetti a little to be killed. The fight has gone out of these people. Me for instance. I was wild about it. So I argued a long time with some Boston lawyers and then changed the subject. A great race. Stink. Luke warm. Spew them out. And perhaps the boys were really guilty. O hell!

love to you both a[nd] Jinney who’s in Portugal 



13. Probably a reference to Hemingway’s praise of M’s “Land’s End/For Adrienne Monnier.”

14. William C, Bullitt (1891-1967), a member of the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. His wife, Louise, was formerly married to John Reed, the American communist. The Bullitts were neighbors of the MacLeishes in Ashfield, Massachusetts.

15. Louis Bromfield.

16. Robert N. Linscott. M’s editor at Houghton Mifflin Company.

17. Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

18. Italian-born anarchists whose execution on Aug. 22, after repeated appeals of their 1921 conviction robbery and murder, had been attended by intense international protest.





14 December [1928]    Conway [,Mass.]

Dear Pappy:                                                                                      

There is nothing to say. There is never anything to say about death.19 Except that it made us know how much we love you to read those words in the paper. Certainly beyond that anything is an impertinence. I know how the death of your father changes him in your mind and he becomes what he was when you were very young and your heart is destroyed with tenderness for him. No one can talk to you then. You are walking in your own boyhood and everyone is very far away.

But there is one thing I am going to say to you whether I should or not. You must not let your mind work over and over the way it happened. I know how your mind works round and round your pain like a dog in cover going over and over the same track and what a torment it is to you. But now you must not. It is too serious. The consequences to you are too grave. I don’t know how you are going to help it. I know that what I have written is just so much language. But I believe that you can oppose that agony and end it. Somehow. I beg you to fight it in every way you can. And to forgive me if what I have written is more than I have a right to say.

This is not the time to thank you for your letter about my poem. You must know how much I have always wanted to please you. But it was more than that here. The book [The Hamlet of A. MacLeish] has been received with perfunctory notices and tepid hostility. (Except for [Lincoln] Kirstein’s magazine where it was violently attacked!)20 I had hoped everything from it. Your letter gave me a rock to stand on in the seas of shit—a rock I wouldn’t exchange for all their continents.

Sometime I will tell you what you did for me.

For now—there is nothing you can ask me to do for you in your unhappiness I will not gladly do. Believe it.

My love to Pauline and Bumby and you    Archie


19. Dr. Clarence E. Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s father, had shot and killed himself on Dec. 6.