MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Illinois on May 7, 1892. He was an American poet, writer, Librarian of Congress, and he received three Pulitzer Prizes for his work. He graduated from Yale University in 1915 and two years later his first book of poems, Tower of Ivory, was published.
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MacLeish joined the United States Army in 1917 and served in France as a field artillery officer during the First World War. He resumed his studies after the war and received a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1919.
In 1923 MacLeish gave up his legal career in Boston and toured Europe, publishing several books of poetry. He worked as editor of Fortune magazine from 1929 to 1938 and continued to write poetry, including His Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City, which was described by a commentator as "campaign poetry" for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1936 MacLeish wrote an article for New Masses urging the US government to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and along with John Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman, and Ernest Hemingway helped finance The Spanish Earth, a documentary about the war. In 1937 he wrote a radio play about the rise of fascism in Europe entitled The Fall of the City.
He was an admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed him Librarian of Congress in 1939. MacLeish held this job for five years, and it was during his tenure as Librarian of Congress that the photographs of the Farm Security Administration were transferred to the Library.
During World War II MacLeish also served as director of the War Department's Office of Facts and Figures and as the assistant director of the Office of War Information. He spent a year as the Assistant Secretary of State for cultural affairs and another year representing the US at the creation of UNESCO.
He retired from public service and returned to academia. MacLeish died in Boston in 1982.