"God's will in the world if we could learn it,
test it on our lips, would taste of praise.
Why else should the world be beautiful? Why should the
leaves look as they do, the light, the water?
Rinsing our mouths with the praise of a good man..."
Archibald MacLeish wrote these words in a poem entitled "A Good Man in a Bad Time," but they certainly apply when speaking of his son's poignant memoir of life growing up under the watchful eye of his famous poet and statesman father.
Archibald MacLeish's life reads like myth. After distinguishing himself at Yale in both sports and academics, he went on to graduate first in his class from Harvard Law School. After a quick ascension at one of Boston's leading law firms, Archie stunned his colleagues by announcing his resignation on the day they offered him a partnership. His interest in poetry had gotten the best of him, and he was off to hone his skills in the exciting atmosphere of Paris's Left Bank.
During his time in Paris, Archie became friends with such figures as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos. His poetry garnered some notice, and as his literary star began to rise, Archie and his wife Ada conceived their second child, William. With a growing family and a poet's wages, Archie decided he had basked long enough in the glory of Paris and headed back to the United States, where the chances of a better living were much greater.
While still in college, Archie was admired from afar by fellow Skull and Bones member Henry Luce, several years Archie's junior. In 1929, just back from his years in Paris, Archie got a call from Luce --- whom he had yet to meet --- offering him a post at Luce's new magazine Fortune. Hesitant but in need of a job, Archie relented and went on to write a series of articles detailing America during the Depression.
Archie continued to publish poetry. His book-length epic poem, CONQUISTADOR, earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. All this acclaim captured the attention of a man who would change Archie's life forever. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded Archie to accept the appointment of Librarian of Congress. Archie distinguished himself during his tenure while simultaneously serving as the director of the War Department's Office of Facts and Figures. He went on to serve as Assistant Secretary of State and chaired the first UNESCO conference in Paris.
Archie MacLeish retired from political life in 1949 but began a teaching career as Harvard's Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory that lasted until 1962. He garnered a second Pulitzer and the National Book Award for his COLLECTED POEMS in 1952, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1958 and was awarded an Academy Award in 1965 for co-authoring the screenplay of "The Eleanor Roosevelt Story."
All this is wonderfully chronicled by William MacLeish. Yet what sets UPHILL WITH ARCHIE apart from the typical literary memoir is the brutal honesty with which William deals with his father's success. Archie's was a fame to be envied, and William describes coming to grips with Archie's success while lovingly painting a portrait of the often idyllic life he had growing up on Uphill Farm, the family's country estate. He also writes of his struggle to become a writer himself, following in his father's enormous footsteps:
"I owed him his fame. For half a century I borrowed it, using it as collateral to advance my own station. I came to think of it as a sun under which I could sit and get a nice tan. Unless I watch myself, I still do."
The warmth of Archibald MacLeish's poetry radiates from the page, but William MacLeish need not worry about basking in the sun of his father's fame. Through various nonfiction books and journalistic endeavors, he has fashioned a body of work that stands on its own. With UPHILL WITH ARCHIE, he leads us to a vantage point from which we can view the varied landscape that exists between father and son. Seeing that arc from the first bonds of love, the emergence of individualism, the inevitable envy, disgruntled acceptance, and finally, a very comfortable and satisfying love for his father, one cannot help but harken back to Archie's poem, "A Good Man in a Bad Time":
"I love this man.
I rinse my mouth with his praise in a bad time.
The taste in the cup is of mint,
of spring water."
Reviewed by Vern Wiessner on February 15, 2001