As a savant of conversation, it would have suited Archibald MacLeish just fine that weeks after his death on April 20 at age 89 his friends and public are still gathering to talk of his lifework.
On the weekend of May 8, a symposium at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts brought together scholars, writers and family members whose debts to MacLeish for his half- century of poetry and public service were large. And on May 26, a public memorial service is planned at Harvard University, where MacLeish taught for 13 years.
To anyone interested in going back to savor the work of MacLeish--as it deserves to be savored because American literature has had few minds as intimate with both poetic beauty and political sanity--a fair amount of time will have to pass before the task is completed.
For 50 years, MacLeish seemed to operate out of an unplanned division of labor: different talents were invested into different decades. In the 1930s, he incurved himself into the events of the day as an engaged artist. His political liberalism, expressed in The Nation in a 1937 essay, isn't far off what today's liberals are writing in that magazine about events in the 1980s: "The remedy in the United States is not less liberty but real liberty--an end to the brutal intolerance of churchly hooligans and flag-waving corporations and all the rest of the small but bloody despots who have made the word Americanism a synonym for coercion and legal crime."
During the 1940s, he served as the librarian of Congress, an appointee of Franklin D. Roosevelt. By then, MacLeish was a major poet, the author of "America Was Promises." The poem examined the drift away from idealism by the money-managers who "turned enlightened selfishness to wealth," who "turned self-interest into bankbooks." Under them--often ground under by them--were the people: TThey had promises: they'd keep them They waited their time in the world: they had wise sayings They counted out their time by day to day. They counted it out day after day into history.
In the 1950s, after winning the second of his three Pulitzers, MacLeish accepted a professorship of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard. The academic milieu allowed him to see from a distance the sickness then beginning to pervade the American political psyche: cold war anti- communism. The witch hunts of the 1950s weren't possible, he knew, without politicians like Martin Dies and Joseph R. McCarthy being fed phony leads to the witches' hideouts. In "The Black Day," MacLeish wrote: God help that country where informers thrive! Where slander flourishes and lies contrive To kill with whispers! Where men lie to live!
As a poet, public official and teacher, MacLeish was now the literary practitioner who pressed hard--in the 1958 play, "J. B."--to give a moral edge to his judgments on contemporary life. In this drama about a 20th-century Job atop the ash-heap of modern sins, MacLeish wrote that "Guilt must always matter. Unless guilt matters the whole world is meaningless." Twentieth-century man, no matter how sophisticated he thought he had become, had to find his freedom in the same moral context that Job found his: "We have no choice but to be guilty. God is unthinkable if we are innocent."
In the 1960s and '70s, MacLeish enjoyed the life of a gentleman farmer in Conway, Mass. Unlike Robert Frost, whose old age was marked by bitterness and personal grudges, MacLeish had a genuine feeling for people. From Uphill Farm in Conway, he enjoyed maintaining old contacts. When Claude Pepper, the 81-year-old Florida congressman phoned MacLeish last December for advice on the FDR centennial celebration, the poet at age 89 was a lively conversationalist.
A collection of MacLeish letters is scheduled for publication this summer. More gatherings and more talk about this enduring idealist, it would seem, are in order.