Archibald MacLeish Collections

April 15, 2008

Ada Hitchcock MacLeish and Archibald MacLeish on their honeymoon in 1916.

The Archibald MacLeish Collection (MSS YCAL 38) and the Archibald MacLeish Collection Addition (YCAL MSS 269) consist of material – correspondence, writings, personal papers, and sound recordings – documenting the personal life, family history, and careers of Archibald and Ada MacLeish.

MacLeish and Ada Hitchcock MacLeish, a noted singer, moved to Paris in 1923 to pursue their artistic ambitions. The couple’s move to Paris marks MacLeish’s decision to leave his career as a lawyer and to devote his life to poetry. Although MacLeish had already published a book of poems, his time in Paris was one of intense study an marked a shift from his earlier poetic style to a more modernist approach. In an interview with Patrick Hynan for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1971, MacLeish explained, “[I] tried to not write myself, until I could see light ahead, where I, whoever this unknown ‘I’ was who wanted to be a poet, could move.”

The couple were part of a thriving artistic community, which included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gerald and Sara Murphy. The Murphys, who werefeatured in the exhibit “Making It New: The Art and Style of Gerald and Sarah Murphy” at the Yale University Art Gallery, were among the MacLeish’s close friends. In an interview with Patrick Hynan, MacLeish discusses his experience in Paris and his relationship with the Murphys. MacLeish notes that Gerald Murphy “had very great talents as a painter. [He] later became what Picasso thought was the best American painter in that generation. A man with a marvellous gift for life. A marvellous gift for living life. He lived life consciously.” 

Like many artists, Archibald MacLeish drew on the Murphys for artistic inspiration, basing his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “J.B.” on the Murphys’ tragic loss of two sons and financial collapse.

The Archibald MacLeish Collectioncontains material relating to “J.B.”, including early drafts of the Houghton Mifflin edition of the play, of the original Yale production, of the Broadway production directed by Elia Kazan, and of subsequent productions. The Addition contains John Tydeman’s radio adaptation of “J.B.” for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as well as a sound recording of the play performed for the CBC.

In 1928 the MacLeishs returned to the U.S., and Archibald MacLeish pursued a multi-faceted career as both a poet and a public servant, serving as Librarian of Congress (1939-44), Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Affairs (1944-45), and Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Poetry at Harvard University (1949-62). MacLeish’s poetry and dramatic writings earned him Pulitzer Prizes in 1932, 1952, and 1959, the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award for poetry in 1953, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and the National Medal for Literature in 1978. Archibald MacLeish died in Boston on April 20, 1982.

A detailed description of the papers can be found online: Archibald MacLeish Collection Finding Aid and Archibald MacLeish Collection Addition Finding Aid. Copies of MacLeish’s printed works can be located using Yale’s online Orbis database.

Images: Ada Hitchcock MacLeish and Archibald MacLeish on their honeymoon in 1916. Box 23, folder 247, Archibald MacLeish Collection Addition (YCAL MSS 269); Ada Hitchcock MacLeish photographed in Paris by Man Ray. Box 24, folder 249-258, Archibald MacLeish Collection Addition (YCAL MSS 269); Draft for “Escape” from Tower of Ivory (1917). An example of MacLeish’s writing style before moving to Paris. Box 23, folder 244, Archibald MacLeish Collection Addition (YCAL MSS 269).