William H. MacLeish opens his 2001 memoir “Uphill with Archie” by swiftly sketching a scene in which he visits his aging father, the renowned poet Archibald MacLeish, in the book room of Uphill Farm, the family’s country estate in Conway.
Though Mr. MacLeish wanted to express his love, those words wouldn’t flow, so “what I said was, ‘Do you know how much I owe you?’ ” The 89-year-old poet offered his son a gentle smile and replied: “Only your life.”
“I stood above him, flummoxed,” Mr. MacLeish wrote. “He saw me struggling and put his hand to my cheek. ‘And I could ask you that same unanswerable question,’ he said.”
Literary history has no shortage of children who follow famous parents into the writing trade, but Archibald MacLeish cast a particularly expansive shadow. A Harvard professor, statesman, and librarian of Congress, he filled a shelf with awards that included not one Pulitzer but three: two for poetry, one for drama. From boyhood, his son “grew up in this pool of light that followed Archie wherever he went,” said William’s daughter Morellen. “I think Dad learned to perform well in that pool of light.”
Along with his memoir, Mr. MacLeish wrote three well-received books of environmental journalism, all published after his father’s death freed him to walk his own path as an author. On May 13, his mind still given to wordplay despite the encroachment of Alzheimer’s disease, Mr. MacLeish died in his Charlemont home of complications from a stroke. He was 86.
“I used to say to Bill, ‘Stop trying to live up to him — live up to yourself,’ ” said Peter Bird Martin, a friend who formerly wrote for Time magazine and was a founding editor of Money magazine.
Mr. MacLeish did just that. A Washington Post reviewer wrote that “Uphill with Archie: A Son’s Journey” was “a moving, sometimes funny, always richly told glimpse into the lives of two men who helped shape the past 100 years into the American century.”
Reviewing his 1989 book “The Gulf Stream: The Domain of the Blue God,” a Los Angeles Times critic praised Mr. MacLeish’s “spare, compelling style,” and a St. Petersburg Times critic wrote that “to take an arguably dull topic like the Gulf Stream and produce a fascinating page-turner surely requires a deft, magical touch.”
Before turning to writing books, Mr. MacLeish’s favorite job was editing Oceanus magazine at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. His other books were “Oil and Water: The Struggle for Georges Bank” (1985) and “The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of the Continent” (1994).
“He was able to take scientific information that was highly technical and make it accessible,” said his other daughter, Meg Mott of Putney, Vt. “He was really good at that and I appreciate how he didn’t want to diminish the science. He worked hard with scientists, but he was committed to language that ordinary people would be moved by, and he never was impressed by technical jargon or academic jargon.”
He wrote his books during years when Archibald’s literary star was beginning to fade, but the reflected glory seemed ever present. Mr. MacLeish believed that what he owed his father “was not my life but a manifestation of his life: I owed him his fame,” he wrote in his memoir. “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.”
William Hitchcock Mac-Leish was the third and youngest child of Archibald MacLeish and the former Ada Hitchcock. His birth name of Peter was changed to William in late grade school to appease an uncle, a move that led to a lifetime of being called multiple names: Pete, Bill, William, Willy. “And he would often refer to himself as old baldy,” said Morellen, who lives in Easthampton.
Distant in age from his older brother and sister, Mr. MacLeish grew up in a home that was lively politically and intellectually while his father served as librarian of Congress and in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His mother was a musician who had studied voice and piano in Paris, and Mr. MacLeish became an adept singer and multi-instrumentalist, including with the bagpipes, on which he played “Amazing Grace” at his brother’s memorial service.
Attending Fountain Valley School in Colorado accentuated his love of the outdoors, and he returned to Massachusetts to finish high school at Deerfield Academy. Through his parents’ social engagements, meanwhile, he might encounter the likes of US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, the poet Carl Sandburg, or Ernest Hemingway.
Mr. MacLeish studied English at Yale University (“I knew I was sailing on Archie’s wind,” he wrote in his memoir) and became a first lieutenant in the Army. He married Margaret Moll, who is known as Peg, and lived for a while in Peru on a fellowship.
Returning to the United States, he tried different jobs, among them working for Cornell University and a foundation run by the Rockefeller family, writing for Fortune magazine, and serving as an assistant to Kingman Brewster Jr., the president of Yale.
“If we didn’t move every summer, we moved every other summer,” Meg said.
Editing Oceanus magazine at Woods Hole, where he lived for a dozen years, brought stability to his work life, but the many moves added enough strain at home that his first marriage ended in divorce. His former wife lives in Vermont.
He met the poet Elizabeth Libbey at a New Year’s Eve party in Boston, where at midnight he donned his kilt and played “Auld Lang Syne” on his bagpipes. “I kept my eyes on Elizabeth’s eyes,” he recalled in his memoir. “She told me later that she kept hers on my knees.” They eventually married and settled in Charlemont for about three decades.
“He was sprightly. He had fun with life,” said Sid Lovett of Holderness, N.H., a friend since he and Mr. MacLeish were Yale students. “He rejoiced in his two daughters. When he married Elizabeth Libbey, I think that was an intellectual and spiritual covenant that was very deep.”
Chris Jerome of Ashfield, who was Mr. MacLeish’s editor, recalled that “right to the very end he was still writing poetry and was coming up with obscure song lyrics that amazed all of us. He loved words and wordplay all his life and it never left him.”
A private service was held for Mr. MacLeish, who in addition to his wife, two daughters, and former wife leaves three grandchildren.
“Memoir writing, I find, is better left to the accomplished masochist,” Mr. MacLeish wrote, though his was a gentle rumination on family and fame, love and language.
He kept writing through Alzheimer’s and penned his last journal entry on Feb. 15, just before the first of the strokes that would end his life.
“I say again and again Thank God,” he wrote in that final entry. “Funny, I don’t believe in divinity, and yet I pray, early and often. Either my luck holds or the gods do. Whichever, many thanks.”
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