There Are Left the Mountains

American Writers and the Perishing Republic

Archibald MacLeish—"macarchibald maclapdog macleish," e.e. cummings dubbed him—wondered, from his sinecure as Librarian of Congress in 1940, why "the writers of our generation in America" had such a provincial indifference to the war in Europe. They seemed, in Bernard De Voto's phrase, more interested in Paris, Illinois, than in Paris, France. The reaction to this poetaster's question—indeed, the fact that it was asked at all—tells us much about the lost America of prewar days. MacLeish was jeered by his peers and taken to task by his more talented and "acutely isolationist" coeval Edmund Wilson, who harrumphed that MacLeish "has a good deal to say about liberty . . . but he makes it perfectly plain that he believes that, as a matter of policy, certain kinds of dissentient writers should be discouraged from expressing their ideas."

This has ever been true, as those who chorus loudest in the pews of Democracy jam the decapitated heads of heretics in the sacristy, but in Wilson's day the dissentients had moxie enough to protest. I am reminded of a reporter who traveled recently to Wilson's hometown of Talcottville, New York. The visitor asked the locals for their recollections of the great man; typical was the woman who remembered, as a girl, walking home from school past Wilson's Old Stone House every day, and every day a stout stuttering drunk would...

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