Cover image for Uphill with Archie : a son's journey
Uphill with Archie : a son's journey
MacLeish, William H., 1928-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Simon & Schuster, [2001]

Physical Description:
287 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 23 cm
Format :


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PS3525.A27 Z78 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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"Uphill with Archie" is a beautifully written and deeply involving look at the life and the world of the great literary icon, poet Archibald MacLeish, by his youngest son. Partly an homage, partly an attempt to come to terms with the man (and the legend), "Uphill with Archie" speaks to all sons and daughters who have never completely resolved their feelings about powerful parents.

Young William MacLeish grew up both captivated and cowed by the fame of a father who won Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry and comparable honors for his work as a lawyer, playwright, teacher, and government official. William's mother, Ada, began her marriage as a successful concert singer in Paris but later felt compelled to give up her art for her family.

When Archie was working for Henry Luce and "Fortune" magazine, his younger children, watched over by a governess, stayed with their grandfather in Connecticut. But it is of the time spent with his family at Uphill Farm, a beautiful old house above a Massachusetts hilltown, that MacLeish has his fondest and most telling memories: "Archie and Ada gave me great gifts: music, the sound of the language be

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

At the age of 70, the youngest son of poet, lawyer and statesman Archibald MacLeish has written a touching memoir that recalls his father as a brilliant, talented and supernaturally lucky man making his way, on his own terms, as an artist among the brightest stars of America's ruling class. Though it is a loving and generous portrait, the author (The Day Before America; etc.) had an often tortured relationship with his father, which is reflected in a subsumed pain that frequently surfaces as self-doubt and self-effacement. Writing with grace and honesty, MacLeish the son offers his own personal, emotional odyssey as opposed to a portrait of his father's life and work. The author recounts his disturbing though privileged childhood, spent among Carl Sandburg, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway and nearly the entire American literary pantheon. He followed the path his father had blazed into the worlds of government, academia and journalism, but he never emerged from the shadow of his dominant, aggressive and emotionally limited father until late in life, after he had lost his brother, divorced his wife of many years and fallen away from everything formerly at the foundation of his existence. By the time he decided to write this memoir, MacLeish had found a well-earned peace, after facing the major fallacies of his life and becoming close to his aged father, his unloving mother and his rebellious daughters. His book delivers a frank though dignified reckoning by the courageous son of a faded American icon. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

William MacLeish (The Day Before America) was a privileged child who grew up in a household surrounded by the arts. His father, Archibald MacLeish, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet as well as a journalist, playwright, lawyer, teacher, and government official. His mother, Ada, was trained as a classical singer. William and his sister were cared for by a governess. They spent time at their parents' apartment in New York, their maternal grandfather's home in Connecticut, and their parents' beloved farm, Uphill, in Massachusetts. Gerald and Sarah Murphy, John and Katy Dos Passos, Dean and Alice Acheson, Carl Sandburg, and Felix Frankfurter visited the family farm frequently. William's fondest childhood memories are of the literary friendships that sustained his parents. This memoir reminds readers how difficult it can be to have a famous parent and still establish a life of one's own. William managed to conquer his insecurities and build a strong relationship with his father, his children, and his second wife. He provides a thoughtful exploration of fatherhood and the literary life. Recommended for all academic libraries and public libraries with large literature collections.DPam Kingsbury, Alabama Humanities Foundation, Florence (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Only Your Life One morning in the fall of 1981, my father and I were sitting in the book room of the old house at Uphill Farm. November blew hard across the lawn and gardens. It blew on, northeast, across the Deerfield and Connecticut river valleys of western Massachusetts, toward the cone of Mount Monadnock on the horizon. Ash logs burned in the high and shallow Rumford fireplace, and the smell of their burning mixed as it always did with the smells of well-used books in floor-to-ceiling cases running along the side walls. There were books everywhere in the house, but these were the favorites, bound and rebound in leathers and cloths, their pages gone the color of parchment. My father wore a coat of Hebridean tweed that had once shown off the deep chest and small waist but now hung slack. When I had come into the room, he had been standing, looking out at my mother's garden. There wasn't much to see. The roses were mulched, the gravel paths patchy with last week's snow, the beds all put away for the winter. But the mere geometry was enough to call up, for him and for me, what had bloomed there -- dahlias and lilies, peonies and hollyhock, phlox and a fiery red spike he once called "painted priest's prick." My father swung around when he heard me, so that the light from the bay window was on his face. I was surprised yet again by how little his years had rearranged him: the high forehead was almost smooth; the wide-set brown eyes were calm, calmer than he ever was; the nose looked to be the same nose that was broken long ago in a water polo game. He opened his mouth to greet me, and the sight of the strong teeth and long upper lip reminded me of the horsey noises he used to make when he was in the orchard tasting his Northern Spies and Jonathans. He had shrunk a couple of inches to medium height, my height, but he was not stooped. He was seemly. "You know," my father said, "I believe we now have the first truly silly president in the history of the republic." The front section of the Times lay on the floor, and I could see that he had been reading something about Ronald Reagan. I shared some of my father's feelings about the man, but I found it hard to rank him first among our chief executives in the dithering department. So I made some wisecrack, and we both laughed and sat down to take in the satisfactions of the fire. The book room was the center of a place that still, in my fifty-fourth year, remained at the center of my life. That was where the family came to check on the day, to read the mail and the papers and, even after a television set had invaded it, to talk. We had drinks there, and after some feast in the dining room -- most meals at Uphill Farm passed for feasts with me -- we would regather there, some on the couch or in the deep chairs, others on the floor, and listen to music or slide into banter and laughter. I could see myself as a boy and then as a young man, sprawled on my back at right angles to my father with my head up on his ribs, listening to his voice roaming around under his shirt. My father was "Dad" or "Pa" to me then, as my mother was "Mom." I had other names for him when he ticked me off -- "Arse Poetica" was one -- but he didn't know about them. I never let them out of my mouth after I saw what happened to my older brother Ken when he thought he'd score points for himself by calling my father "Arch-yer-balls." An eternity (perhaps five seconds) passed in silence. I was scared breathless. Then my father gave a dry snicker I translated as "This one time only!" It wasn't until after my parents had died -- he in April of 1982 at the age of ninety and she two years later at ninety-two -- that I started calling them by their given names. It seemed strange at first, that familiarity, but then I began to see how it both freed me from filiality and evoked them in full, as people and not just parents. My father was going over some papers in his chair by the window. Suddenly he looked up and handed one to me. It was the draft of a poem, a short one called "Whistler in the Dark." This is the final version: George Barker, British poet, writes a eulogy of Dylan Thomas, calls him whistler in the dark and great because the dark is getting darker. Is it? Was the dark not always darker? Have we not always had these silver whistlers? Listen!... That's Chaucer like a bobolink. I think it's not the darkness, Mr. Barker, makes for whistling well. I think perhaps it's knowing how to whistle. Listen!... That's Dylan trilling like a lark. At the top of the draft my father had written, "Bill, from his father." There had been a few other such transfers from him, so swift in the giving that they outran acceptance. A dozen years before, he had sent me another sheet of paper, a scrap really. Over on the left, in a twitchy hand, were the words "Archie from Father." On the right, my father had written "Bill from Dad." And typed below, the ink going, was Emerson: "It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." I looked over my shoulder at the books behind me: Hemingway novels here, Dos Passos there, the works of other close friends nearby. Then Trollope, Thackeray, Dickens. And, high up, four volumes bound in dark blue with gold lettering: Popular Tales of the West Highlands, stories collected in the Gaelic in the middle of the nineteenth century and beautifully translated into English. Archie read them to me over and over when I was young, and the words and his way of saying them settled in my mind. A voyage was not in the hills but over "seven bens and seven glens and seven mountain moors." Clansmen rode out not at dawn but "in the mouth of the morning." My favorite was, and is, a story called "The Brown Bear of the Green Glen." I saw myself as John, the youngest son of the King of Erin. He, it was thought, "was not wise enough." But with the help of the brown bear, he defeats his mean older brothers, saves his father's life, and wins as his wife the daughter of the King of the Green Isle. John is always running into giants who say things like, "Yes, yes, son of Erin's King, now I know thy matter better than thou dost thyself" and "Thy coming was in the prophecy." I glanced down at the poem in my lap and then up at my father. He was reading and, at the same time, moving his cupped hand down his face, his thumb and forefinger caressing the sides of his nose. He had always done that, and yet it seemed special to me, as if I needed to pay attention to it, to him and to the time he had left. Dylan Thomas had pleaded with his father to rage against his coming death, not to "go gentle." There would be no rage vented at Uphill Farm. It had been banished from the house, along with expressions of frustration, despair, boredom and all other "negative" vibrations. Even positive emotions were not allowed out unless fully under control, and only then when escorted by humor. Archie was as likely to let me see him wet his cheeks and rail at his mortality as he was to join the Reagan Revolution. Besides, I didn't want to hear him rant. What I wanted was to tell the old man working in his corner how much I loved him. I decided to risk it and got up, crossed the room and stood by his chair. The words wouldn't come. What I said was, "Do you know how much I owe you?" My father had the habit sometimes of moving his mouth as if he were tasting his words before he spoke them. He did that, looking up at me with a gentle smile. "Only your life," he said. I stood above him, flummoxed. He saw me struggling and put his hand to my cheek. "And I could ask you that same unanswerable question," he said. I retreated before he could ask it, for I knew I had no more of an answer to it than he had. I'd let my mouth run and had missed my mark. So I did what was expected of family members in such circumstances. I returned to my seat, assembled my frustrations in a manageable bolus, and swallowed them. In a minute or two, nothing was left of the situation but the beginnings of a sour stomach. Only my life? I still haven't the faintest idea what Archie meant by that. When he wanted to be, he was equally the master of ambiguity as Ronald Reagan was of the wink. I now know that the unanswerable question had been something of a grail for him as a young poet. The particular questions that fascinated him then had to do with man's place in an uncaring universe -- orders of magnitude more cosmic than a son's debt to his father. My creation on a borrowed bed in Paris in the autumn of 1927 doesn't feel to me like a debt. That I and no other was the result owes more to chance than to Ada and Archie. The traits I believe Archie passed on to me -- among them a fascination with language and its rhythms, the need for control, an unlimited capacity for worry, and a metabolism only slightly less supercharged than that of a pygmy shrew -- did not come to me on loan. The safety and comforts and pleasures my parents subsequently provided for me, though I am indeed grateful for them, carried no terms of repayment that I see. I think that what I did owe my father was not my life but a manifestation of his life: 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. I read somewhere that fame is a collection of misunderstandings that gather around a person. I don't know when I first noticed the buildup around Archie. I was pretty small when I realized a lot of people knew about his poetry. As the years passed, I could see that he was becoming famous for being a poet who also had played college football and after that made names for himself as a lawyer, magazine journalist, high government official, playwright, lecturer, and teacher. It was the bunch of skills and not the one talent, I think, that elevated him. He could hardly do anything without acing it. He was a winner at Yale, first in his class at Harvard Law School. He won three Pulitzers, two for his poetry and one for his verse play J.B. He received degrees and awards of every description, including the presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Literature (I gather he was the only American to win both). He knew unconscionable numbers of the powerful, the wealthy, the gifted, the celebrated. He wrote speeches for FDR and Adlai Stevenson; peppered his fellow citizens with encomiums to the republic and the blessings of democracy; and taught SRO classes at Harvard as the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. "Polymathic Papa," I used to sing. "Polymathic Papa, dontcha two-time me." My mother, Ada, could have become famous. A few years before I was born, she had been a concert singer in Paris and had drawn fine reviews. In their early years together, she was a more accomplished artist than her husband, and I have built what-if stories around her staying with her art. They don't turn out well for Archie. There is no Uphill Farm in them, but there are necessities that force the children, especially me, to follow their own initiatives from an early age. And that I find intriguing. Ada didn't give up singing for years but did abandon it as a career, much to the concern of her supporters, one of whom, also a singer, kept asking her, "Are you still with that man? " Ada said that her obligations to our family gave her no other choice. Whatever her reasons, she withdrew from what clearly was a central concern of her life and replaced it with a central concern for my father's life. A year or so before I was born, my parents came back from a long stay in Paris and bought a big house on a ridge above the village of Conway, Massachusetts. They owned or rented several dozen houses thereafter, but the Conway place was their true home. Ada turned the foundations of an old barn just east of the house into her main garden. That was mostly for looking and sniffing. A bit farther east was her rock garden and, just over a little rise from that, her cutting garden. Every good day, she worked with tints and shapes and scents that changed with the season, and many of these she brought into the book room and the dining room, the parlor and the guest rooms. The tallest arrangements went down to the great music room, built for her when they bought the house. A short woman, not much more than five feet two, Ada had fine, light-brown hair, always well permed, blue-gray eyes that could turn accipitral in an instant. She had beautiful legs and breasts that stayed firm; she boasted to me when she was into her seventies that she had finally decided to wear a brassiere. She struggled mightily with weight, but though she never looked heavy to me, she could never be slim -- not with that strong barrel body. As an old woman, she once lay down on her back beside me on the book-room rug, suggested we raise our legs a few inches off the floor and kept hers there a half-minute longer than I could mine. Ada had learned as a child how to run things: houses, kitchens, guests, men. She was as finished as her finishing school and her years in France could make her, but her wit regularly broke through the polish in flashes that were sometimes ribald, often brash, and usually sarcastic. When a banker friend drove up in a new and very expensive car equipped with everything then available, she looked it over carefully and then said, "It's wonderful, Bob, but where's the septic tank?" I have not met a hostess like Ada. The seams of what she did, the effort required, rarely showed. All was done by her book. One afternoon, when she was entertaining out on the east terrace overlooking her garden, the maid of the time -- there were many over the years -- made an appearance. She wore a black uniform with a white lace apron and a tiny white hat, an outfit that must have galled her and made a joke of her in town. But she was game, and she knew the rules: Mrs. MacLeish had said that all guests should be announced on arrival. So she stopped in front of Ada, lifted her chin, and declared, "Madam, the pigs is here." And so they were, escapees from their pen up by the barn. Friends were always coming up the hill for the weekend, friends who also knew fame or soon would. Even now, survivors of those gatherings, myself included, talk incredulously of the food and drink and conversation as if somehow we had been allowed to act in a hit play. Ada and Archie always dressed for dinner. Archie went for kilt and hose or white pants and a French sailor's jersey or, on special occasions, a Japanese kimono. Ada appeared, and I mean appeared, in long and lovely floor-length gowns, necklaces and rings from a Fifth Avenue jeweler, and just enough of her favorite scents to dispel any doubts that she was the alpha of the evening. Silence was not permitted at table. Archie and the men of the party rarely stopped talking, but whenever a hole did appear in the buzz and laughter, Ada would darn it with her wit. I know of only one instance when she didn't. She told me of an evening when the food was especially special (she often tasted every dish at table, before it was served to her guests, to make sure it met her standards) and the merriment in levitation. A woman who was doing for us at the time was passing the peas. As she rounded the southwest corner, she broke wind. I gather it sounded like the crack of a game rifle. Silence descended on the party like Triton's net. "Wal!" said the woman, "Hairken to me!" The diners did. Each sat, head bowed as if in prayer, mouth immobilized. I know Ada had a good deal of fun doing what she did. But I'm pretty sure she was never able to forget for long what she could have been doing. Every other day or so, arranging flowers in her music room, she walked past two pianos facing each other curve in curve. She favored the Steinway. The Mason and Hamlin was for visiting musicians. Once in a while I played with her. But over the years the pianos gradually ceased being instruments and became furniture, well polished, well tuned -- and silent. She still sang, with Ken and me and our guitars, but that couldn't have counted for much with her muse. Ada had four children, but one, a boy, Brewster Hitchcock, died in 1921, in his seventh month of life, of what was then called "crib death." She almost never spoke of him. My brother Kenneth was the eldest of the survivors, almost twelve years older than I. Then came my sister Mimi, six years older. I showed up in 1928. We were staggered too far apart to share childhoods. Mimi and I had a little of that, but Ken was out of college by the time I got to be ten. We were also strangers in temperament. Mimi was passionate and stubborn. Ken was at once sensitive and, in his younger years, cruel. I was the sunny one, or that is what everyone said. Our family was not a good one for a girl to grow up in, at least not a girl who held to her own beliefs and ways of doing things. Mimi liked to eat her food slowly and did so, chewing away after the rest of us had polished our plates -- usually within seconds of each other -- and sat waiting on her. My mother often ordered her to stay at table until she had finished. She would do that, sometimes for an hour or more, and the look on her face was the look of Joan at the stake. Of the three of us, Mimi was the one who built her own life for herself. She kept in touch, on her terms. Ken was Ada's favorite, but he had his problems with Archie, the kind of problems that left him wanting his father's approval to a degree that neither would nor could be met. Risk and danger were his way out. As a man, he dove to a record seven hundred feet in a Swiss lake, breathing an only partially tested mixture of gases. He dove on the Andrea Doria, the Lusitania, and other deep and dangerous wrecks. He raced cars and motorcycles, flew and parachuted. And when he felt the need, he let his mother know the risks involved in what he was about to do. He traveled the world and wrote about what he saw in language I envied. I stayed and stayed at Uphill Farm, running for the stage door when it opened to me. Even as a young man, I took my departure from that hill town ridge as a mariner takes his from a headland, hoping to make my landfall there at the end of the voyage. Often enough I did. Often enough so that it is only a small stretch to say that the place held me as long as Archie and Ada lived there. That's where the fun was, where my father's sun was. It was, in the dear and departed sense of that word, gay. If you didn't join in, if you felt out of sorts, you were expected to go to your room. My mother sent me there when I got grumpy, and she even sent herself there when she got "critical," her word for bouts with the blues. In a few hours, back she would be, her exuberance topped off and her repartee at the ready. The process worked so well in tamping down my darker impulses that it was not until well after my parents died that I took a real look at them. I suppose what bothered me most as a boy was my penchant for conforming. "Live your life," Archie was fond of saying to me. "Don't let your life live you." Fine for him to say, with Ada running his base camp for him. Everyone at Uphill Farm was a lot bigger than I, a lot older than I, a lot more powerful in will, ego, and just plain experience. Adapt, piped a small voice behind my small ear. Adapt, or go to your room. Adaptation wasn't at all difficult. I took to it as my father took to martinis. I studied my parents, learned from them how to perform in public. I adapted what I learned to my own realities -- those of a small boy with blond curly hair and a charming smile -- and went to work on myself. In time, I came to enjoy the company of adults far more than that of my peers. That was lucky in a way, since my parents were intent on culling all but the sons of the socially prominent from the list of those I could play with. In Conway in the thirties, that meant one boy who lived ten miles away. It also meant that I started to think of childhood as contemptible. There is a West Highland tale about a giant who helps a prince, with the understanding that he will get the young man's first son as reward. The prince keeps giving him the sons of the hired help instead, and when the giant finds out, he seizes each imposter by the heels and dashes out his brains on a rock. I remember reading that story to myself for the first time, a boy with nothing to do on a rainy day but read, pissed off at the rain and my lot, thinking "Brats! Serves them right!" I still remember the noise the small heads made on the stone: "Sliochd." As a conformer, I found it best to duck confrontation with my mother, probably because she had a drill sergeant's ability to turn my knee joints to jelly. I think she felt she had to be tough, since with me my father was such a pushover. I had to be friendly with her. I wanted to be friendly with him. That last doesn't jibe with all the stories in the national folklore about how sons should leave their fathers to find their manhood -- or, alternatively, how the daddies should run the bubbas off. But closeness is what I wanted, and that is what I think he wanted, and that is what went on in one form or another for fifty years. I am, like my father, loose of foot. My life has taken me down to Peru, out to sea, round and around this country. I live now only sixteen miles from Uphill Farm, across the Deerfield River. I am married to a poet who is as direct with me as I am evasive with her. I write books, each in some form about the environment. Two have been about the sea, one about how we have changed this land. I have loved writing them, traveling for them, making a film of one of them. Writing has moved from something I'd like to do if there weren't so many good writers already in my family, to something I do. It ranks with breathing -- and worrying. Every once in a while -- a long while lately -- someone asks me what it's like to be the son of a famous man. The question often awakens the memory of a little boy playing at being an adult, not wanting to know, but knowing, that he is the least of the company. I have never answered the question with any honesty. I laugh, usually, and shrug. Sometimes I say that it has been "interesting" or "fun." Once I told someone that I wouldn't recommend it, but that was more of a growl than a response. Heywood Hale Broun, a fellow son of fame, had a friend who loved him enough to tell him a story about his predicament: "You," said the friend, "must fill big pairs of shoes; follow in footsteps; must not give way to anger, because you have been given so much more than others that you are not entitled to anger; must live up to your heritage, must be grateful for it." Broun could not find solace in unhappiness because that would be letting down his famous parents, writers Ruth Hale and Heywood Broun. If at times he felt like a failure, the friend concluded, it was because nobody can handle that assignment. Being Archie's boy has something to do with that story. It has something to do, in my childhood, with a confusing combination of too much comfort and not enough challenge; something to do, in my manhood, with sticking too close for too long. It has most to do with spending bits and pieces of a half century with someone who knew how to whistle uncommonly well. Copyright © 2001 William H. MacLeish. All rights reserved.