Article abstract: Benét made his major contribution to literature as a poet and primarily as the author of the book-length poem John Brown’s Body. Benét was a prolific writer in several genres, however, and his canon includes short stories, novels, radio scripts, and nonfiction.
Stephen Vincent Benét was born July 22, 1898, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His parents were Frances Neill Rose Benét and James Walker Benét, Captain of Ordnance, United States Army, a man with poetic and literary tastes. Stephen was their third child and second son; his sister and brother were Laura Benét and William Rose Benét, who were both active in the literary world. Well-read from his youth and thoroughly educated, Benét began writing early in his life.
During his childhood, his family moved throughout the United States because of his father’s position in the Army. Benét and his family were at the Vatervliet, New York, arsenal from 1899 until 1904; the Rock Island, Illinois, arsenal during 1904; the Benicia, California, arsenal from 1905 until 1911; and the Augusta, Georgia, arsenal from 1911 until he was graduated from a coeducational academy and entered Yale College in 1915. There he was with such undergraduates as Archibald MacLeish, Thornton Wilder, Philip Barry, and John Farrar. He left Yale after completing his junior year in 1918 to enlist in the Army, but was honorably discharged because of his bad eyesight. After working briefly for the State Department in Washington, D.C., he reentered Yale. Benét received his B.A. degree in 1919 and his M.A. degree in 1920. At that time, he was given a traveling fellowship by Yale and went to Paris, where he completed his first novel.
Unlike other expatriates in Paris, Benét was not disillusioned or dissatisfied with America; he went to Paris because he could live there cheaply. He was very patriotic and loved his country deeply. While in Paris, he met Rosemary Carr; about a year later, in 1921, they were married in her hometown of Chicago. Their marriage was a happy one, producing three children: Stephanie Jane, born in 1924; Thomas Carr, born in 1925; and Rachel, born in 1931.
In the nineteenth century, Walt Whitman called for a national poet for America and sought to be that poet. While he envisioned himself as the poet working in his shirt sleeves among the people and read by the population at large, he was never really a poet of the people, absorbed by the people. Ironically, Stephen Vincent Benét became the poet that Whitman wanted to be. Although Benét’s approach as a poet was a literary, academic one, his poetry was widely read and popular with the public.
Using American legends, tales, songs, and history, he was most effective writing in epic and narrative forms, especially the folk ballad. Benét’s primary weakness is related to his strength. He lacks originality; he takes not only his subjects but also his techniques from other sources. In his first published poems, a series of dramatic monologues called Five Men and Pompey (1915), the influence of Robert Browning and Edwin Arlington Robinson is evident. As Donald Heiney indicates in Recent American Literature (1958), Benét never developed a single stylistic quality that was his own.
His poetry, particularly John Brown’s Body (1928), is nevertheless worth reading for its presentation of American folklore and history. As Benét himself indicated in a foreword to John Brown’s Body, poetry, unlike prose, tells its story through rhyme and meter. By using such a method to tell stories and convey ideas, the poet can cause the reader to feel more deeply and to see more clearly; thus, the poet’s work will remain in the reader’s memory.
John Brown’s Body, a book-length narrative poem, became immediately popular with the American public when it was published in 1928; it was the poem that established his position in American literature. Although many critics have complained that a major weakness of the poem is a lack of unity, Parry Stroud points out, in Stephen Vincent Benét (1962), several ways in which the epic is unified—through the characters, through the symbolism, and through the consistent and purposeful use of several meters.
First, John Brown himself and the imaginary characters representing the major regional areas of America serve to unify the poem. Jack Ellyat, a Connecticut boy who enlists in the Union Army, is the counterpart of Clay Wingate, a Southerner from Wingate Hall, Georgia. Ellyat eventually marries Melora Vilas, who, with her father, stands for the border states and the West. At the end of the war Wingate also marries the woman he loves, the Southern belle Sally Dupre. There are several other minor fictional characters typifying various regions and classes in America: Lucy Weatherby, a Southern coquette; Spade, a slave who runs away; Cudjo, a slave who remains loyal to the Wingates; Jake Diefer, a stolid Pennsylvania farmer for whom Spade works after the war; Luke Breckinridge, an illiterate Tennessee mountaineer who fights for the South; and Shippey, a spy for the North. The war resolves the fates of most of these fictional characters.
Parry Stroud disagrees with the many critics who believe that Benét’s style disrupts the unity of the poem. Benét uses three basic meters: traditional blank verse, heroic couplets, and...
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