National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Archibald MacLeish, Winner of the 1953 National Book Award in Poetry
fo COLLECTED POEMS, 1917-1952

These awards are made, as I understand it, to books: not to the men who write them. Which is why most of you are here. Members of this audience have unusual opportunities to know the men who write books, and unusual reason, therefore, to prefer the product to the perpetrators – present distinguished and distinguishable company at all times excepted.

I myself, though I feel rather differently about writers, am here, I should add, for the same reason. There are few human beings, writers or non-writers, who could have brought me back two thousand miles from an island in the Antilles I had reached only a day or so before - an island where the seas is NOT the color of the dark wine the Greeks drank. But a book is another matter. To honor a book – even a book which, like mine, may not be long remembered – is to honor civilization. And to honor civilization in these days is to perform a noble action. For it is civilization which is in issue in the world now.

I do not suppose any of us in this room are in doubt about the relation of books to the defense of civilization. Civilization is an order of society founded on the conception of the freely creative individual human mind: the mind which (and which alone) produces works of art, works of science, works of soul – the human marvels and wonders in which, and by which, civilizations exist. The freely creative individual mind is not expressed in, and cannot be defended by, those instruments of communication which we, in our epoch, call the mass media, for the mass media, by their nature, reflect the mass mind, and the mass mind is a synthetic mind, an artificial mind, a mind which thinks in common, believes in common, feels in common – and, in an age of dictators and demagogs, is far too often fooled in common.

The defense of civilization demands a weapon one man can wield alone, since civilization is a matter of one man and one man and one – of realities – of individuals. The weapons one man can wield alone are not numerous in our society. There are editorial columns of the few remaining independent newspapers. There are the pages of those magazines whose editors, like our chairman here today, have retained their confidence in the intelligence of the American people, together with the courage to make their confidence count. And there are books.

Above all, there are the books. It is first and foremost through the books that the freely creative, individual mind remains effective in our epoch. And it is for this reason that the freedom of the book publishers and booksellers of this country is a matter of such vital importance to the Republic. From the point of view of a free society, its writers, its creative writers, its poets, are not unlike those diplomatic agents whom countries send abroad to the remotest parts of the most distant continents to report on dangers and on possibilities. If a country's diplomatic agents are punished by those in power, for reporting what those in power do not wish to hear, that country's information, and eventually its policy, will be worthless.

It is the same with a country's novelists and poets. Their function, their obligation as artists, is to live at the frontiers of the experiences of their time -- at the passage of the present toward the future. Unless they are free to report that experience as they live it -- unless they are free to present the forms and shapes of meaning as those shapes and forms appear -- not they alone but the whole society will suffer. A country in which agencies of government, party functionaries or inquisitorial committees can dictate or influence the writers' work, or determine the conditions of its publication, is a country which has rejected freedom, and turned its face toward conformity and ignorance and death. How rapidly that spiritual paralysis can spread we have seen for ourselves in the Soviet Union. If we follow the Soviet example here we shall have only ourselves to thank for the inevitable disaster.

To me, and I think to many others, it is a heartening thing to see representatives of the country’s principal publishing houses and bookshops gathered together to honor their profession in honoring three books published in the past year. Their presence her testifies not only to their pride in a great calling, but to their confidence in the cause which makes that calling possible – the cause of intellectual and moral freedom. Those who believe in the freedom of the individual mind are the true patriots in this country.
I am more grateful than I can possibly say that a book of mine, a collection of poems making up my life’s work, should have been on of the three books chosen for this ceremony of honor to something more important than any single volume – the art of letters itself.