"We the People Do Not Know what Kind of World We Should Imagine": Archibald MacLeish and Democracy in the 1930's
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I would like the starting point in this examination of the 1930's work of Archibald MacLeish to be one of simple investigation. In this document I seek to explore the ways in which MacLeish conceived of art, ethics and politics, and further, to consider the reasons for both his ubiquitous presence in his time, and subsequent disappearance from conversations in the present. I will look to touch upon a number of issues that I have found both perplexing and intellectually stimulating, issues that MacLeish's work troubles and potentially provides new coordinates for, namely, issues of the relationships between propaganda and art, democracy and fascism, the public and the private, as well as mass culture and literary culture. Such considerations should provide new contexts for reading MacLeish, and to explore in-depth the responsibilities, difficulties, and outright contradictions immanent in the relationship between the artist and the state as theorized by MacLeish. I hope to accomplish this by moving between MacLeish's essays, where he makes more overt gestures towards articulating his poetics, and a sampling of his poetry and drama from the thirties, where some of his articulations are both vindicated and complicated on both the page and the radio. Furthermore, I will draw on literary theory and philosophy, such as the work of Bernard Stiegler, Hannah Arendt, and Jane Tompkins to provide frameworks for approaching some of these problems. I conclude with the suggestion that MacLeish managed to navigate the difficult political and ethical climate of the 1930s through a subtle reorientation of the primary aims of democratic humanism. By focusing on the ability, within a democratic space, of the individual to continually remake his or her world, MacLeish conceives of democracy as something dynamically re-inventing itself. This leads to a democratic project that is paradoxically optimistic and always incomplete, exploratory, but also grounded within a set of primary values. This study will hopefully lay the groundwork for new considerations of MacLeish as a major figure in the poetry of the 1930's, as well as encourage conversations about the relationship between writers and their audience in this politically tense era.