Letters from Archibald MacLeish
It was on an autumn hike some 40 years ago in the western Massachusetts hill town of Conway when I learned that Archibald MacLeish was my immediate neighbor. With a combination of civic pride and Yankee skepticism, my landlady, Mrs. Harris, pointed in the direction of his house. The fuss some people made over his presence seemed to amuse her.
A recent college graduate, newly married, I was supporting myself as a substitute teacher and local correspondent for the county newspaper while writing poetry and fiction—all of which had gone unpublished. MacLeish, age 80—the former friend of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, onetime confidante of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dean Acheson, winner of three Pulitzers—lived on an estate several pastures and two ponds above the Harris farm where my wife and I had recently rented an apartment. I’d spotted MacLeish a few times in town, usually at the post office, where he pulled up in his black Mercedes—wearing a white T-shirt, carpenter’s overalls, and a straw hat—and retrieved an entire bushel basket of mail.
During my adolescence, I'd seen a touring production of his Broadway play, JB, and memorized his iconic short poem, “Ars Poetica,” but much of his enormous output was unfamiliar to me. I came to love his late lyric work, which seemed of a piece with such earlier classics as “You, Andrew Marvell” and “Immortal Autumn.” What I knew for certain then was that he was famous—a literary celebrity!—and in my naiveté I hoped that by meeting him, I too could become the great writer I was sure was my destiny.
And so the following spring I wrote Mr. MacLeish a short note introducing myself and suggesting we meet. Perhaps we could walk together through the woods and along his road, talking about Conway, our work, the relationship of life and art. A week passed and no answer. Had I said something I shouldn’t have? I was still pondering this question when a small white envelope arrived one morning. It had my name and address written in cursive in a firm hand and a return address that consisted only of his last name, abbreviated, and that of the town’s zip code. With trembling fingers, I tore it open. Gracious but clear, the response to my request was a definitive no.
I wrote back immediately, obsequiously apologizing for my intrusion. As if I were unaware of the distinction between wanting to be a writer and writing, I then asked him a bigger favor. Certain since I was growing up that I understood something important about art—both my parents were musicians, and my brother was a composer—but without grasping my presumption, I wondered if he would read something I’d written. To my amazement, the immediate answer was yes. And so began a correspondence about writing that would continue for nearly a decade.
In one of his next notes, he called me by my first name. A few days later, in response to my revision of a short story, he sent me a longer letter, closing with a hint of praise about a poem I’d enclosed. “The end rhythm is good,” he wrote. With fiction, his suggestions invariably focused on what I—or my character—had seen or felt, and how best to convey that so the reader would have a sense of discovery. This inviolate principle of purpose—function, really—was often accompanied by comments about structure, which is to say form.
Over time, some of his lessons came in person. Gracious, just as he was in his letters, he spoke in a quiet, high-pitched voice, which was especially striking when he recited poetry—his own or, on one extraordinary occasion, that of Emily Dickinson, whose Amherst home had been only 15 miles away.
I remember a Saturday when my wife was looking out the window and she heard a car drive up. “I think Mr. MacLeish is here,” she said. Indeed he was, holding a letter he wanted to share that his maternal grandmother had written about Conway when her husband, MacLeish’s grandfather, had in the late 19th century been the local pastor. Another time, after his granddaughter Ellen had moved to Conway, he introduced us over enormous martinis. When he learned I was writing a piece about a motorcycle race that to his distress was to pass right by his house, I was summoned to his study to discuss his concerns. At the annual town meeting one year, he took a seat beside me and the next day sent me a short note commending me on something I’d said. When his older son, Kenneth—Ellen’s father—died of cancer, he called to ask if I could get an obituary in the newspaper for which I was now a columnist. A few days later, in an act of selflessness I have never forgotten, he wrote me a thank-you note.
I learned later that MacLeish had taught a writing seminar at Harvard, where I’d also gone to college, and many of his former pupils went on to renown, Donald Hall and Edward Hoagland among them. I came to think of myself as his last student, even though I was no longer in school and he was officially retired.
Eventually I overcame the nervousness I’d first felt, in person and in correspondence. I’d started to sell some of my freelance nonfiction work to magazines, and the form rejection letters that I’d collected were beginning to be replaced by encouraging personal notes from editors at the very periodicals that had once published his work. My wife and I and our first child had moved to a farmhouse of our own, on the other side of town, and one summer morning my son and I drove to see Archie—what I called him now to others and in my mind, though I still addressed him directly as Mr. MacLeish—and left some raspberries we’d picked, the occasion for another thank-you. By then, with a helpful reference from him, I’d started a writing and editing job at a nearby college. By then as well, Archie’s health had begun to decline, and in his final note—the 46th, written in the autumn of 1981—he said there was nothing he’d rather do than take the walk I’d proposed almost 10 years earlier, if only his hip were not hurting.
He died the following spring, just before his 90th birthday. Less than a year later, through a professor at the college, I met the editor of what would become my first nonfiction book over lunch at a small roadside restaurant in Conway. In retrospect, perhaps it was more than just a coincidence that the restaurant’s entrance had a clear view of the wooded hilltop where Archie had lived.