America was Promises

Although MacLeish apparently rejected Communism, his long poem “America Was Promises” published in 1939 certainly seems to advocate that common Americans claim their rightful heritage, the promise of America, no matter what it takes to do so.

Although this long poem often soars into a Whitmanesque vision of an ideal America, what seems most remarkable about it is the use of the past tense in the title and the suggestion near the end that it is no longer possible to just await the American dream, we must take it “brutally.”

The poem begins with a simple restatement of the dream, a statement made necessary, perhaps, by losing sight of that dream:

Who is the voyager in these leaves?
Who is the traveler in this journey
Deciphers the revolving night: receives
The signal from the light returning?

America was promises to whom?

Although it seems a little surprising that he needs to ask who were the promises made to, it becomes clear later in the poem why he does so.

He briefly reiterates the reasons people came to America:

East were the
Dead kings and the remembered sepulchres:
West was the grass.

And all beautiful
All before us

America was always promises.

Clearly, he distinguishes between the ordinary people who came to America and the royalty, with their privileges, that they left behind. In some ways his description is reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s vision of America in The Great Gatsby, where the American Dream is seen as a “green light, the orgiastic future.”

MacLeish answers the question “to whom” by pointing to Jefferson:

Jefferson knew:
Declared it before God and before history:
Declares it still in the remembering tomb.
The promises were Man's: the land was his -
Man endowed by his Creator:
Earnest in love: perfectible by reason:
Just and perceiving justice: his natural nature
Clear and sweet at the source as springs in trees are.
It was Man the promise contemplated.
The times had chosen Man: no other:

Clearly the promises were the promises of a Jeffersonian democracy where men were equal, and all had the potential to attain “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to MacLeish, it is this vision that promoted the Declaration of Independence:

And Man turned into men in Philadelphia
Practising prudence on a long-term lease:
Building liberty to fit the parlor:

While that may well be an oversimplification of what went on in Philadelphia, where a careful balance was being struck between the common man and the wealthy class, it is the dream that helped to inspire colonists to join the cause.

MacLeish sees this dream of equality, of Jeffersonian democracy, being usurped by the aristocracy:

And the Aristocracy of politic selfishness
Bought the land up: bought the towns: the sites:
The goods: the government: the people. Bled them.
Sold them. Kept the profit. Lost itself.

According to MacLeish, America is in danger of becoming what it had left behind, a country dominated by an aristocratic class that ruled by means of its wealth.

In this light, MacLeish seeks a new answer to the American Dream and strangely enough finds that answer not in America’s history but in that of several foreign countries:

We do not ask for Truth now from John Adams.
We do not ask for Tongues from Thomas Jefferson.
We do not ask for justice from Tom Paine.
We ask for answers.

And there is an answer.

There is Spain Austria Poland China Bohemia.
There are dead men in the pits in all those countries.
Their mouths are silent but they speak. They say
"The promises are theirs who take them."

It seems ironic that MacLeish would choose these countries to provide the answer, and my history is not good enough to know for sure what all of them had in common, but my best guess is that they all, like Spain and Bohemia, revolted to attain freedom and failed in that attempt, suppressed by fascist leaders. In other words, if Americans do not take action, they, too, will lose the freedoms their fathers fought for, lose those freedoms to a ruling class, an aristocracy of business and social class that dominates through their wealth.

The poem ends on a near-revolutionary note:

Listen! Brothers! Generation!
Companions of leaves: of the sun: of the slow evenings:
Companions of the many days: of all of them:
Listen! Believe the speaking dead! Believe
The journey is our journey. Oh believe
The signals were to us: the signs: the birds by
Night: the breaking surf.
Believe

America is promises to
Take!
America is promises to
Us
To take them
Brutally
With love but
Take them.

Oh believe this!

If MacLeish’s vision of America is reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s, his solution to the problem is similar to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, where workers have to join together and take action to preserve their freedom. If the World Book Encyclopedia is to be trusted, writers became the voice of a disillusioned public whose very beliefs had been challenged by the Depression.

The Great Depression, which began in 1929, left millions of workers jobless. But it also changed the attitude of many Americans toward the labor movement. Before 1929, most people regarded business executives as the nation's leaders and union members as dangerous radicals. But people lost faith in business leaders after business could not relieve the depression. Many Americans began to believe the way to fight the slump was to increase the purchasing power of wage earners. The political climate changed from one favoring management to one favoring labor.


Apparently such beliefs have been forgotten in the relatively prosperous times of recent years where labor and unions have fallen out of favor and some say that the only role of the government is to unfairly tax its hard-working citizens.

2 thoughts on “America was Promises

  1. It’s odd, but I don’t think I would have liked MacLeish’s work if I had read the poetry elsewhere. You’ve made it real for me.

    Thank you Loren. And — Happy New Year and many more days of poetry in the year ahead!

  2. I guess we should both thank Jeff Ward, Shelley, as it was his interest in MacLeish that got me to take a look back at him.

    Strangely enough, all I had ever read by him was a much-collected poem called “Ars Poetica,” which is almost diametrically opposed to the poems I’ve explored here.

    He certainly doesn’t follow the advice he offers in that poem.

    I expect all of this conservative politics with their focus on tax cuts for the rich has made MacLeish seem more relevant than he would have a few years ago.

What do you think?