Critical Evaluation

Stephen Vincent Benét came to national prominence with the publication of John Brown’s Body. The work remains that for which he is best known. The poem is one of the few American poetic works that reach epic proportions; its length of nearly fifteen thousand lines qualifies it as an epic in the classical sense, and ranks it, in form and purpose, with the great epics of Western literature. Although the poem as a whole is traditional in its classic structure, it is distinctly and uniquely American in its atmosphere, imagery, style, and symbolism.

The work originated during Benét’s stay in Paris in the 1920’s at a time when the lost generation expressed disillusionment with the United States. Unlike his colleagues, Benét found that his separation from the United States had only deepened his love for his country. With his poem, he aimed to celebrate the American heritage.

The significance of the American Civil War to American history is expressed in various ways in the work. Benét holds a moderate Northern view of the conflict. In the prelude, “The Slaver,” Benét emphasizes the economic motives behind slavery but condemns both the South and the North for profiting from human bondage. Benét portrays John Brown as a foolish and reckless man by dwelling on the deaths of two free blacks at the start of Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. However, Benét also sees Brown as an instrument of history, a stonelike figure who will batter the wall of slavery and change the scheme of things. Brown accomplished nothing while alive, but his moldering body would generate the spirit that destroyed slavery.


(The entire section is 676 words.)