O, a meaning!

Fifty years ago, with humanity about to reach the moon, The New York Times gave a poet a corner of the front page.

It is difficult to imagine a more daunting task for a newspaper editor than planning the next day’s front page when the world has just witnessed humanity’s crowning achievement: the successful landing of two of its kind on an alien world. The headlines you write, the photos you place, the prose you edit — you are not simply working to sum up the immensity of the moment for morning commuters. The page you make will be hung on walls, folded into scrapbooks, passed onto grandchildren, and eventually stand in for even the most potent of human memories.

In July 1969, much of that job at The New York Times fell to Abe Rosenthal, then the paper’s associate managing editor. (Less than two weeks later, he’d be named managing editor, at the time the paper’s top editorial position.) The design was handled by Louis Silverstein, the paper’s art director, who was called upon for layout duty “when a story of historic dimensions came along.” They and other editors decided on a simple page topped by a single headline, the largest used in Times history to that point, “MEN WALK ON MOON,” followed by the dek: “ASTRONAUTS LAND ON PLAIN; COLLECT ROCKS, PLANT FLAG.” (Rosenthal’s gravestone carries the epitaph “HE KEPT THE PAPER STRAIGHT,” which apparently applied to his headlines too.)

The Times’ standard eight-columns-across grid and parsimonious use of photography were set aside in favor of three huge photos (barely recognizable as the moon, one a photo of a television set carrying the CBS feed), flanked by just two wide columns of text. The mainbar was written from Houston by John Noble Wilford, at the time a 35-year-old science reporter with the story assignment of ten lifetimes. (It was “the great divide, the B.C. to A.D., in my journalism career,” he would later recall.) His lede, like the headline, was bracing and straight: “HOUSTON, Monday, July 21—Men have landed and walked on the moon.

But Rosenthal knew the occasion required something less direct than all that prose. What the moment demanded was a bit of poetry.

And that is the origin of the only other byline on the page, at lower left: Archibald MacLeish. One of America’s great polymaths, the poet, statesman, journalist, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner — and, of note for our interests here, first curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, of which Nieman Lab is a part — was the person the Times chose to sum up the goggling achievement for posterity.



MacLeish had, aside from his infinite other qualifications, some prior experience in the reflections-on-moon-travel game. Seven months earlier, the astronauts of Apollo 8 had become, on Christmas Eve, the first humans to enter the moon’s orbit, only about 70 miles above the lunar surface. On that occasion, too, the Times had turned to MacLeish, then 76 years of age and six years retired from his professorship at Harvard. He opted for prose rather than poetry that time, though, which ran under the headlineA Reflection: Riders on Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold“; his words ranked Apollo’s perspective shift as a new Copernican revolution:

Men’s conception of themselves and of each other has always depended on their notion of the earth. When the earth was the World — all the world there was — and the stars were lights in Dante’s heaven, and the ground beneath men’s feet roofed Hell, they saw themselves as creatures at the center of the universe, the sole, particular concern of God — and from that high place they ruled and killed and conquered as they pleased.

And when, centuries later, the earth was no longer the World but a small, wet spinning planet in the solar system of a minor star off at the edge of an inconsiderable galaxy in the immeasurable distances of space — when Dante’s heaven had disappeared and there was no Hell (at least no Hell beneath the feet) — men began to see themselves not as God-directed actors at the center of a noble drama, but as helpless victims of a senseless farce where all the rest were helpless victims also and millions could be killed in world-wide wars or in blasted cities or in concentration camps without a thought or reason but the reason — if we call it one — of force.

Now, in the last few hours, the notion may have changed again. For the first time in all of time men have seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depth of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small as even Dante — that “first imagination of Christendom” — had never dreamed of seeing it; as the Twentieth Century philosophers of absurdity and despair were incapable of guessing that it might be seen. And seeing it so, one question came to the minds of those who looked at it. “Is it inhabited?” they said to each other and laughed — and then they did not laugh. What came to their minds a hundred thousand miles and more into space — “half way to the moon” they put it — what came to their minds was the life on that little, lonely, floating planet; that tiny raft in the enormous, empty night. “Is it inhabited?”

The medieval notion of the earth put man at the center of everything. The nuclear notion of the earth put him nowhere — beyond the range of reason even — lost in absurdity and war. This latest notion may have other consequences. Formed as it was in the minds of heroic voyagers who were also men, it may remake our image of mankind. No longer that preposterous figure at the center, no longer that degraded and degrading victim off at the margins of reality and blind with blood, man may at last become himself.

To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.

The 503 words struck a chord in a nation struggling to extract itself from Vietnam and still reeling from assassinations and riots. When one of those astronauts, Frank Borman, returned to earth and was asked to address Congress, he used MacLeish’s words in place of his own, calling himself an “unlikely poet, or no poet at all”: brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now that they are truly brothers.

So the next year, when it was time to pare the immensity down to a few column inches, MacLeish got the call again. “What the poet wrote would count most,” Rosenthal remembered 20 years later, “but we also wanted to say to our readers, look, this paper does not know how to express how it feels this day and perhaps you don’t either, so here is a fellow, a poet, who will try for all of us.” (He also noted that MacLeish — who had been hired on as a reporter at Henry Luce’s Fortune almost exactly 40 years earlier — had turned in his copy on time.) Early press times for the first editions put MacLeish in the unusual position of deadline poet; he had to write before the actual landing occurred, meaning he had to write without knowing if the day brought triumph or tragedy. (Editors told him “to stand by to update the moon poem,” but in the end that proved unnecessary.)


These were the words MacLeish wrote. (You can also find them in his Collected Poems, 1917-1982.)


Archibald MacLeish lived such an overstuffed life that, when he died in 1982, his Times obit didn’t even find space to note his brief role as national interpreter of wonders. (It did note his role as “curator of the Nieman Collection of Contemporary Journalism at Harvard and adviser to the Nieman Fellows.” He left Nieman after one year when FDR appointed him Librarian of Congress.)

Fifty years after “Voyage to the Moon,” in a fractured country, it seems impossible to imagine the sort of communal moment of awe Apollo 11 inspired. Almost as impossible as a poem running on the front page of The New York Times. But there was a time, not that long ago, when journalism saw its limits, stepped aside, and let the moment sing.