Today in History: May 7
The Poet Librarian
The first duty of the Library of Congress is to serve the Congress and the officers and agencies of government. Its second duty is to serve the world of scholarship and letters. Through both it endeavors to serve the American people to whom it belongs and for whom it exists.
Statement of Archibald MacLeish
Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions, inaugural issue, 1943.
Archibald MacLeish, poet, dramatist, and ninth Librarian of Congress, was born on May 7, 1892, in Glencoe, Illinois. He attended Yale University where he chaired the Yale Literary Magazine. After service in World War I, he graduated from Harvard Law School. MacLeish practiced law for three years before resigning and moving his family to Paris.
Like American expatriates Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, MacLeish found Paris of the 1920s a creative haven. He produced several volumes of poetry during his years in France including The Happy Marriage, and Other Poems (1924), The Pot of Earth (1925), and Streets in the Moon (1926).
In 1928, MacLeish returned to the United States to research and write his epic poem Conquistador. This long narrative work about the Spanish conquest of Mexico received the 1933 Pulitzer Prize (external link) for poetry. The social awareness manifest in Conquistador continued to inform his work.
Reading Room in Adams Building, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer, circa 1920-1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959
MacLeish's combined interests in literature and public policy led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to appoint him Librarian of Congress in 1939.
The Library of Congress' John Adams Building, originally called the "Annex," had been completed only a few months before MacLeish's appointment. MacLeish commissioned artist Ezra Winter to decorate the Jefferson Reading Room in the new building with four murals inspired by Thomas Jefferson's thoughts on freedom, labor, the "living generation," education, and democratic government.
Macleish faced the challenge of moving collections and of updating the administrative structure of the institution to fulfill its mission to Congress, to the American government, to scholarship, and to the American people. During his tenure as Librarian, MacLeish successfully reorganized the Library and extended the Library's connections to American writers and scholars.
Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress,
Librarian of Congress MacLeish joins Reference Department Director David C. Mearns and Verner W. Clapp of the Acquisitions Department, in examining Thomas Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, September 1944.
Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress
Equally important, MacLeish mobilized the Library of Congress for war. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, American treasures, including the original copies of the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Magna Carta, and the Gutenberg Bible were transported to Fort Knox for safekeeping. Other irreplaceable works were deposited in libraries around the nation. Made available around-the-clock, the Library's collections proved a valuable resource for U.S. military intelligence.
After five years at the helm, MacLeish left the Library of Congress to become assistant secretary of state. During the 1950s, MacLeish published additional poetic works and the well-known J. B. : A Play in Verse. Based on the biblical story of Job, this successfully-staged play won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize (external link) for drama. Archibald MacLeish died in 1982.
- Search the collection Freedom’s Fortress: The Library of Congress, 1939-1953 on Archibald MacLeish to find speeches, letters, and memos written by MacLeish during his tenure as Librarian of Congress.
- Enjoy Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project—an audio and video archive of Americans reciting their favorite poems. A part of the Library of Congress Bicentennial celebration, tapes created for this program are a permanent part of the Library's Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature.
- Search the Today in History Archive on writer, playwright, or poet to find more features on literary lights of America, including William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway.
- Search the Today in History Archive on such terms as Franklin Roosevelt, Great Depression, and World War II to read more about the era of MacLeish's tenure as Librarian of Congress and assistant secretary of state.
- Read more about the illustrious Librarians of Congress in John Cole's history of the Library, Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress.
- Examine a letter from Ernest Hemingway to Archibald MacLeish. Written in August 1943, Hemingway answers an earlier letter concerning poet Ezra Pound's mental health. This document is available in the collection Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years.
Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Sixth Librarian of Congress, 1864-1897.
Herbert Putnam, Eighth Librarian of Congress, 1899-1939.
L. Quincy Mumford, Eleventh Librarian of Congress, 1954-1974.
On May 7, 1915, the German U-20 (submarine) sank the British ocean liner Lusitania. Approximately 1,200 civilians died; more than 100 were U.S. citizens.
In reply to President Woodrow Wilson's protest, Germany justified the attack on grounds that the British government intended to arm merchant ships. Prior to the Lusitania's departure, the German government had warned that ships entering the war zone could be fired upon.
The Lusitania carried both passengers and ammunition that had been manufactured in the United States. The incident illustrated the difficulty of maintaining American neutrality. Appalled at Wilson's willingness to criticize Germany while ignoring British transgressions, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned.
The sinking of the Lusitania also highlighted the changing nature of war. Traditional rules of naval engagement mandated warning commercial vessels before firing upon them. However, surfacing to do so would place a U-boat in grave danger of destruction.
Public outrage over the loss of civilian life hastened the U.S. entry into World War I. Although the cargo list of the Lusitania stated that she carried approximately 170 tons of munitions and war materiél, this fact was not revealed to the U.S. public at the time. The emotional appeal of this wartime speech, in which Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane evoked the Lusitania to explain U.S. involvement in the war, would have been unadulterated by an issue such as the appropriateness of using a passenger vessel to transport arms:
"The Nation in Arms", Franklin K. Lane.
American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I and the 1920 Election, 1918-1920
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We still hear the piteous cries of children coming out, out of the sea where the Lusitania went down, and Germany has never asked forgiveness of the world. We saw the Sussex sunk crowded with the sons and daughters of neutral nations. We saw ship after ship sent to the bottom—ships of mercy bound out of America for the Belgian's starving—ships carrying the Red Cross, and laden with the wounded of all nations—ships carrying food and clothing to friendly, harmless, terrorized people—ships flying the stars and stripes sent to the bottom hundred of miles from shore, manned by American seamen, murdered against all law, without warning.
Learn more about World War I in American Memory:
- Search the Today in History Archive on World War I to locate additional features about the war, such as those on the Saint-Mihiel Offensive, Armistice (Veterans) Day, and General John J. Pershing, commander of the U.S. First Army in Europe.
- Search the collection American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I and the 1920 Election, 1918-1920 on World War to find additional recordings of speeches on the subject. Don't miss World War I: An Introduction, part of the Special Presentation, From War to Normalcy.
- Two additional American Memory collections—World War I Military Newspapers: The Stars and Stripes 1918-1919 and Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures are rich in WWI materials. The latter collection includes the essay "The Lusitania Disaster."
- Search the collection Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991 on World War to retrieve over 100 panoramic photos of battlefields and military life. Twelve photos associated with the battles of Meuse-Argonne are among these. During the fall of 1918, more than one million Americans fought with the French in this hilly region of France. Search on Argonne to locate these pictures.
- Search on Lusitania in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog for photographs, drawings, cartoons, and posters of the Lusitania.
- A search on World War I in Music, Theater & Dance yields sound recordings and sheet music for George M. Cohan’s 1917 hit song "Over There"—which embodied the spirit of the Great War.