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Me and MacLeish

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books and culture

Me and MacLeish

Remembering a mentor and poet of “night stones and the quick earth” July 25, 2020
Arts and Culture

“Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Dos Passos—we all went to Paris” in the 1920s “because it was cheap,” said Archibald MacLeish. “Romance had nothing to do with it.”

“Nothing to do with it?” I repeated.

“We were young,” he admitted.

MacLeish and I were driving from Amherst to his home in Conway, Massachusetts. When we passed a cottage on a lake, he said, “That would be a fine house to write in.”

In high school, I had read and reread MacLeish, whom Bob Dylan once called “the poet of night stones and the quick earth.” His dictum that “a poem should not mean/But be” was my mantra long after MacLeish had abandoned it. To this day, the lines from his play about Job, J.B.— “If God is God He is not good,/If God is good He is not God;/Take the even, take the odd,/I would not sleep here if I could/Except for the little green leaves in the wood/And the wind on the water”—still can send a shiver up my spine.

MacLeish had been one of my two thesis advisors at Amherst College. He liked Amherst, though he found its students less sophisticated than his students at Harvard, where he taught from 1949 to 1962. This was 1966.

In Conway, we met a few of his students. He lived in a comfortable farmhouse. Along the wall, next to the stairs leading down to his study hung photographs of the great men and women he had known, many of them friends. Writers, celebrities, politicians—no, not a lot of politicians; statesmen. The office was huge. I recall it as a booklined 90 feet. Maybe more, maybe less. A lot of the books had—he said—been research for his book-length poem Conquistador. To me, it looked a much nicer place to write than the cottage we had passed.

The other students arrived. MacLeish led us down to a pond, where we swam and drank Virginia Gentleman, my first taste of bourbon. The label called the drink “The Aristocrat of Them All.” My father, a union organizer who never drank, called my previous favorite drink—Wilson’s blended whiskey—“The Workingman’s Whiskey.” By my third glass of Virginia Gentleman, I had abandoned the workingman’s drink for the aristocrat’s drink. I felt like a class traitor.

After I graduated, MacLeish patiently wrote last-minute letters of recommendation for me to six graduate schools—sequentially. I kept signing up for doctoral programs, which I abruptly would quit, partly because on my way to the first school I went to—in Upstate New York—I kept popping Dexamyl (speed and barbiturate). A pal had told me that it was just like NoDoz. In half a dozen hours, I must have swallowed as many pills. I’m lucky I survived. By the time I arrived at the school, I was flying. In one day, I signed up for the graduate program, found a sublet, unpacked—alphabetizing all my books and records—repacked, and drove home to Massachusetts. The weight of the books and my erratic drugged driving broke the car’s axel.

The Dexamyl left me crazed for a few months, during which time, still speeding, I repeated the blitz application, arrival, and departure process from a half-dozen other schools, each time calling MacLeish for an emergency letter of recommendation.

“Sometimes too many opportunities can paralyze you,” MacLeish said.

“I don’t think I’m cut out for graduate school,” I said.

At Harvard, during my interview, the professor vetting me gazed over his glasses and said, “Ah, you’re one of those Amherst myth-and-symbol guys.”

“Try journalism,” MacLeish said. “Someplace like Fortune”—where MacLeish had worked. “You’ll get to know other people’s worlds.”

“You mean,” I said, “my mirrors will turn into windows.”

“Would you mind if I lent what you just said to George Kennan?” MacLeish asked.

When I told MacLeish I was going to live in a hippie New York City slum, he asked, “Why on earth would you do that?”

I told him I wasn’t going for romance. I was going because it was cheap.

MacLeish smiled.

“Of course,” he said. “Just like Paris.”

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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