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Stephen Vincent Benet occupies a curiously uncertain position in American letters. One of America’s best known and rewarded poets and storytellers (his ”The Devil and Daniel Webster” became an instant classic upon its publication), he has at the same time been virtually ignored in academic discussions of major twentieth-century writers and is seldom anthologized. In light of the greater critical success enjoyed by his student friends at Yale—Thornton Wilder, Archibald MacLeish, and Phi lip Barry—Benet’s reputation seems thin indeed.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Serious Upbringing
Born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Stephen Vincent Benet was the son of James Walker Benet, a career military officer, and his wife, Frances Neill Rose Benet. The travels of the family during Benet’s early life nurtured a broad and resilient sense of his country that is the basis of much of his most important work. His parents also fostered a strong interest in history and encouraged the open-minded exploration of books and ideas, but against a background of firm professionalism. Thus, it hardly seems surprising that from an early age Benet took his writing very seriously and published his first book at the age of seventeen, in the same year that he entered Yale University.
At Yale he made contacts who put him in touch with the New York literary world, and henceforth (except for fellowships from Yale and from the Guggenheim Foundation) he earned his livelihood as a professional writer. According to his biographer, Charles A. Fenton, Benet ”wrote short stories for money and poetry for love” throughout his career. Such production meant, of course, a perpetual struggle to meet the specifications of the mass-circulation magazines, which focused almost exclusively on simple-minded, saccharine romance. Benet spent the early 1920s wrestling with the formula and became predictably frustrated with the conflict among his own literary standards, the popular taste, and editorial prejudice, until he began to develop the kind of historical materials that would secure his reputation not only in fiction but in poetry.
In 1926 he published ”The Sobbin’Women” (collected in Thirteen O’Clock, 1937), a farfetched but engaging tale of seven frontier brothers who literally kidnap wives for themselves. Not with standing the echo of the legend of the Sabine women, the characters, tone, and setting of the story are thoroughly American, and Benet introduces here the ”Oldest Inhabitant” narrator upon whom he would call repeatedly throughout his career. The story was the first of a series of historical tales written at the same time he was working on John Brown’s Body (1928), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1929. John Brown’s Body was inspired by the American Civil War. The title refers to John Brown, an anti-slavery activist who raided Harpers Ferry Armory in Virginia in 1859, in a failed attempt to start a slave uprising, an event cited by many historians as a key pre cursor to the Civil War.
Benet continued work in a similar vein for the remainder of his literary career, penning stories of the American spirit, or folksy Americana, until the advent of World War II, upon which he turned his talents towards writing war propaganda. Benet died of a heart attack in 1943, as America was still locked in struggle against the Germans and the Japanese.
Works in Literary Context
Benet’s writing exhibits an unbounded, nineteenth-century faith in the promises of American democracy and an expansive love for what seemed the nation’s special attributes: diversity; amplitude; self-sufficiency; frankness; and innocence. He praised New York as the communal achievement of the spirit of man and America because there every man could most freely become what God meant him to be. ”Out of your fever and your moving on,” he said in the ”Prelude” to Western Star, ”Americans, Americans, Americans . . . I make my song.”
Both in sentiment and in style, Benet’s work attempts to embody the very democratic virtues found in its subject matter. Like Carl Sandburg, Hart Crane, and Vachel Lind say, he uses the zesty tempos, conversational rhythms, and laconic everyday speech to capture the spirit of greatness in the strength and simplicity of the nation’s common people. In his book A Book of Americans, which contains fifty-six verses about famous American men and women, great and small, Benet says of the greatest and humblest of American native sons: ”Lincoln was a long man / He liked the out of doors. / He liked the wind blowing / And the talk in country stores.”
Good, Evil, and National Identity
The human reality of both good and evil is at the core of the story ”The Devil and Daniel Webster,” in which the legendary orator pleads successfully for the soul of a Yankee farmer in a court full of sinister renegades and reprobates from national history. At one level the power of the story derives from its folksy narrator and national hero. Old Scratch, the Devil, is described as having tiny, winged souls he carries casually wrapped in his handkerchief; the orator/hero is gifted with a homespun, blustering wit and is humanized by a twinkle of manly mischief: ”[T]here’s a jug on the table and a case in hand. And I never left a jug or a case half-finished in my life,” he says.
With the climax of the story, Benet changes direction technically and also reveals another, more important level of meaning. Webster’s presentation for the defense is not given directly, but summarized in little more than a page. Recognizing ”his own anger and horror” as being shared by the jury made up of the damned, he eschews the bombast of the politician or lawyer and instead talks quietly ”about the things that make a country a country, and a man a man.” He wins his case by allowing the jurors to see that they and the defendant are all part of ”the story and the failures and the endless journey of mankind.”
The theme that surfaces here is foreshadowed earlier when the Devil points out that he was there ”When the first wrong was done to the first Indian. . . . When the first slaver put out for the Congo.” The same point is made by the American identity of the villainous jurors: that the nation, like the individual, like humanity itself, embodies both good and evil, and that ”everybody has played a part . . . even the traitors.” Thus, Webster draws the jurors into an identification with his client, and Benet draws his readers into an identification with the nation and with the human family.
Works in Critical Context
Despite the warmth, genuineness, and impish charm with which Benet celebrates the country’s democratic potential, his failure to win wider critical respectability may be attributable to the fact that his breadth of sympathy and deep-rooted patriotism seem parochial and old-fashioned to many modern scholars, and that even his best work, viewed alongside the more realistic and richly inventive fiction of such contemporaries as Stephen Crane, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and T. S. Eliot, appears lacking in depth, subtlety, and originality. The pastoral rebellion of the earth against machines, against the ”Age of Steam,” which pervades so many of his poems, and his use of conventional verse forms and technical devices that have made him dear to school teachers, seem, in the words of one critic, ”all too clear and all too facile.” It is significant that Benet’s writing has been praised more for its lively evocation of American history than for its aesthetic value.
John Brown’s Body
John Brown’s Body was acclaimed as a long-awaited American epic. For a work of poetry it gained an unusually wide readership, and Benet was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1929. Though criticized for a variety of faults in both style and sentiment, Benet’s more important achievement still finds admirers among those who share his affection for America’s past.
Allen Tate, puzzling over the lack of aesthetic unity in John Brown’s Body, once asked: ”Is it possible that Mr. Benet supposed the poem to be about the Civil War, rather than about his own mind?” Critics have both
praised and denigrated Benet’s poem as a work in the epic genre. His characterizations of such historic figures as President Lincoln and Robert E. Lee have received particularly mixed criticism; some commentators dismiss the characterizations as shallow and inept, while others applaud them as insightful and faithful to their originals. Most frequently attacked in John Brown’s Body are what Allen Tate calls its ”hair-raising defects” of banal phrasing, unpoetic rhythms, and flawed diction. Benet’s use of a wide range of poetic meters resulted in stylistic looseness and fragmentation, leaving his best work to be discovered in individual sections, especially the ballads, rather than the poem as a whole.
- ”An End to Dreams.” Short Stories for Students. Ed. Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
- Benet, Laura. When William Rose, Stephen Vincent, and I Were Young. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1976.
- Benet, William Rose. The Dust Which Is God. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1941.
- Fenton, Charles A. Stephen Vincent Benet: The Life and Times of a Man of Letters, 1893-1943. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958.
- –, ed. Selected Letters of Stephen Vincent Benet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960.
- Izzo, David Garrett. The American World of Stephen Vincent Benet. Orem, Utah: Encore Publishing, 1999.
- Stroud, Parry Edmond. Stephen Vincent Benet. New York: Twayne, 1962.
- Maddocks, Gladys Louise. ”Stephen Vincent Benet: A References.” Bulletin of References 20 (September 1951): 142-146; (April 1952): 158-160.
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