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Dwight Macdonald

The Librarian of Congress Speaks

Will the Book Burning Start?

(June 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 11, 24 June 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Several weeks ago, Archibald MacLeish, recently appointed Librarian of Congress, spoke before the American Association for Adult Education. His speech, which marked a new low in the confusion and cowardice the war crisis is generating among the liberal intelligentsia, was widely – and favorably – commented on in the press. Its main theme was picked up and elaborated by Roosevelt a short time later in the Charlottesville speech. For MacLeish with his keen nose for what is “in the air”, in his speech singles out one of the most delicate problems now confronting the Roosevelt Administration: the notorious lack of enthusiasm of the young people of America either for the war preparations now on foot or for the social system these preparations are designed to defend.

Miseducating the Young

MacLeish charges that the young generation in America “seems unable to see that the issue before it ... is at bottom a moral issue, a spiritual issue – that in dealing with such issues, words must have meaning and moral judgments must have validity”. However, he finds that “the young generation is distrustful of all words and distrustful of all moral judgments of better and worse.” This he rightly sees as a great if not a fatal defect in any national defense plan. No use to build planes and battleships if those who must man them have lost faith in the cause they are fighting for.

And what is responsible for this state of affairs? Is it that the youth see that the last war for democracy was not a success? Is it that they find jobs harder and harder to get, that they see no decent living ahead for them, no useful place in society, no room for them in a capitalism suffocating under its own contradictions? Maybe they don’t think much of a society which expects them to get married on ten or twelve bucks a week?

No, none of these considerations seem to have occurred to MacLeish. (Those who continue to think on this vulgar economic plane in times like these are “Fifth Columnists”.) He places the blame squarely on the writers of the last twenty years, who have miseducated the youth by casting doubts on the rightness of the present order of society and, above all, by depicting the last war as not a glorious crusade but as a hideous bloody nightmare without and point or purpose.

In a word, those whoa are responsible for the present state of “moral disarmament” of American youth are not named Mellon, Hoover, Rockefeller, Ford, Morgan. They are named rather Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Erich Maria Remarque, Stefan Zweig, Ignazio Silone.

MacLeish doesn’t have the guts to claim either (a) these anti-war novels are inferior to other leading novels of the age, or (b) that they tell lies about the last war. To say this would be too much – at present, at least – even for the general run of liberal intellectuals, and MacLeish is nothing if not cautious about sticking his neck out in such matters.

On the contrary, MacLeish explicitly states:

“These are the honest words of honest men, writers of great skill and integrity and devotion. They say what all of us after the war would have said if we, could ... But they are nevertheless words that have borne bitter and dangerous fruits.”

The Hemlock for Hemingway?

Reduced to its logical propositions, MacLeish’s speech boils down to: (1) the youth are not enthusiastic about fighting for the present American social system; (2) this is because they have been reading novels which expose the futility of the last war (3) this exposure was justified, the last war was futile, and furthermore these novels are great works of art; (4) nevertheless, it would have been better if they had never been written.

The important point is number 4. The Librarian of Congress, of the four or five most eminent American poets, here serves notice that it is better that the truth not be made public about such things. If the war crisis sharpens at the present rate, it is only a matter of time before MacLeish will be advocating, no doubt with tears in his eyes, censorship to prevent the birth of “dangerous” books and, for those already in existence, death by fire. Socrates was executed for “miseducating the youth of Athens”. When will Hemingway and Dos Passos be forced to drink the hemlock?

One of the many evidences of the really extraordinary vision of Franklin D. Roosevelt as an imperialist politician is this appointment of Archibald MacLeish to preside over the Library of Congress. Roosevelt was not alarmed by MacLeish’s “left” reputation. He knew a brother opportunist when he saw one, and he knew he could depend on MacLeish.

A friend recently wrote me, complaining of his failure to grasp, at the time it was made, the full significance of MacLeish’s appointment:

“How Time does expose my dullness! I should have proclaimed when Archie got the job: ‘Lo! FDR has picked the Heel who in the fullness of time will burn the books in the name of Culture.’ Only I suspect he is not a conscious Heel at all; just a clever wordsmith with lively survival instincts and crowd responses.”

On the basis of some acquaintance with MacLeish, I can say this characterization is a just one. MacLeish is the great opportunist of contemporary American letters. This makes his speech more rather than less significant. Weathervanes show which way the mind is flowing.

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