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March 2, 1932

Having written to a friend a few days earlier “I am going up to Vassar(!) to lecture on Wednesday…. God knows what I’ll tell them,” American poet Archibald MacLeish spoke on “Anatomy of a Hero.” MacLeish’s remarks before his Vassar audience were grounded both generally in his evolving aesthetic and specifically in his current work. “Valid poetry,” reported The Miscellany News about his appearance in Skinner Hall, “takes all mankind for its hero. Archibald MacLeish spoke neither of the biological nor anatomical aspects of a hero in his lecture…but showed, as he does in his poetry, that the whole turn of the earth and the sweep of mankind lies within the range of his feeling. There are those, he said, who say that poetry has nothing to do with the reality of modern life…. They say that poetry is an escape. This is true only in the hands of the most romantic poets…. In great poetry, there is no attempt to create a world of fantasy in which to retire…. The modern world is full of problems and there is little light. But the simplicity and actuality of a poem is truer than the power and importance of our scientists, economists, manufacturers. ‘A poem is an exclamation of a man against the world.’ As it is a protest, it is an excellent picture of the world and the age…. For this reason, the hero of poetry is the most valid critic of our time.”

MacLeish’s long poem, Conquistador—to appear in April—drew on the Historia Veredadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España (True History of the Conquest of New Spain), a bitter account of Hernán Cortez’s futile decimation of the Aztecs in 1521 written in 1568 by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of his officers. MacLeish’s friend Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, called the poem “an epic of races rather than heroes,” and writing to poet H. Phelps Putnam around the time of his visit to Vassar, MacLeish answered the criticism of “the socialogues that it isn’t about OUR TIME”; “whether they know it or not,” he wrote, “it is a lot more about OUR TIME than most of the daily papers.”

The son of Martha Hillard MacLeish ’78, MacLeish valued his Vassar heritage. In the posthumous Archibald MacLeish: Reflections (1986), he noted that his mother had taught at the college in the early 1880s and was, with Jane Addams and Julia Lathrop ’80, one of “the women that saved Chicago from itself. My mother was president of Rockford Female Seminary for some four or five years. And she married my father, two of whose daughters [Blanche MacLiesh ’83 and Lily Agnes MacLeish ’85] had been students of hers at Vassar. My father saw the light when he saw her.”

Conquistador won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for 1933.

—R. H. Winnick, ed., Letters of Archibald MacLeish, The Miscellany News

The Years