Stephen Vincent Benét Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

ph_0111206246-Benet.jpgStephen Vincent Benét Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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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Stephen Vincent Benét Biography (Poets and Poetry in America)

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, U.S. 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 Benét’s 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 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...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Stephen Vincent Benét Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Descendant of a grandfather and father, both West Pointers and Army men, Stephen Vincent Benét traveled and lived with his family on military posts throughout the United States. This familiarity with the locales and terrains of the United States provided a rich background to his short stories and poems. Colonel James Walker Benét, an omnivorous reader with a deep love of country and history, inflamed his younger son with these same passions. Like his older brother William Rose Benét, a well-known writer, editor, and magazine founder, Stephen Vincent Benét was graduated from Yale University in 1919. He was given a Yale travel award and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant, permitting him to spend initially eighteen months in France and to attend the Sorbonne in Paris. He lived in France several years and attributed his particular love for the United States to having gained perspective on his native land from his European travels. On his return to the United States in 1923, he published three volumes: King David; The Ballad of William Sycamore, 1790-1880; and Jean Huguenot, a novel. In 1926, he returned with a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship to France, where he worked on John Brown’s Body, a poem about the Civil War, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. He was also elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters the same year. In 1933 he became editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition and two years later began reviewing for the New York Herald Tribune and Saturday Review of Literature. In 1936 his short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” was awarded the O. Henry Memorial Prize for the best American short story of the year. In 1937 his story “Johnny Pye and the Fool-Killer,” and in 1940 “Freedom’s a Hard-Bought Thing,” won similar honors.

Stephen Vincent Benét Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Stephen Vincent Benét (beh-NAY) was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on July 22, 1898. His father, Colonel J. Walker Benét, was the third generation of the family to make a career of the Army. Himself interested in literature, he left his mark on his children, William Rose, Stephen Vincent, and Laura. The young Stephen started his career as a writer by winning prizes from St. Nicholas Magazine. He spent his youth mostly on army posts and went to school in Georgia and California. From Yale University he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1919 and his master’s degree in 1920. While at Yale he numbered among his friends Thornton Wilder, Archibald MacLeish, and Philip Barry. During his senior year he served as editor of the...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Stephen Vincent Benét Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Stephen Vincent Benét was born on July 22, 1898 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He felt a strong military influence during his childhood from...

(The entire section is 481 words.)