Stephen Vincent Benét achieved mastery of the short fiction form only after laborious and persistent efforts. His preference was for poetry and the freedom it offered as opposed to the restrictions of the short story. Perhaps because of this, he never experimented with the short-story form and unflinchingly favored the traditionally-structured stories with a definite beginning, middle, and end. He also skillfully employed the traditional device of the narrator to bring about a sense of immediacy and the interesting possibility of self-revelation and concealment which this perspective offered; he was not, however, an innovator of any new form of the short story.
Early in his career, Benét reconciled his conscience with his economic needs by writing original short stories designed to elicit popular appeal. He achieved this self-appeasement by basing his stories on material from American history and folklore and transfusing it with his vivid imagination. The reconciliation resulted in such stories as “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” “Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent,” “Daniel Webster and the Ides of March,” “Jacob and the Indians,” “A Tooth for Paul Revere,” “Freedom’s a Hard-Bought Thing,” and “Johnny Pye and the Fool-Killer.”
“The Devil and Daniel Webster”
The first Webster story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” was published in 1936 in the Saturday Evening Post, and its tremendous success gave Benét immediate national recognition and fame. The cause of its success was deeply rooted; it sparked the latent historic and cultural feelings in the American mind. Moreover, in Webster, Benét found an ideal folk hero who had all the myth surrounding his character to provide ample material for productive characterization. The basis for the conflict in the story is extremely interesting. Webster was renowned for his superb oratorical powers, and consequently he was the perfect protagonist to meet the Devil in an oratorical contest and defeat him. This symbolic contest between the representatives of good and evil had wide appeal and was complemented not only by Benét’s use of local humor but also by the story’s inherent universal significance. These elements of the story, combined with the tones of pathos and human nobility, make it more than a simple humorous fantasy—it is a classic American fable. The New England dialect of the narrator forms a striking blend with the rhythm and visual imagery drawn from several literary sources. In addition, Benét’s use of little-known historical characters on the jury—Simon Girty, the renegade, and the Reverend John Smeet, the strangler—adds novelty and helps give the story a sustained interest. The narrator’s final comment that the Devil “hasn’t been seen in the state of New Hampshire from that day to this” and “I’m not talking about Massachusetts or Vermont” redeems the story from heavy didacticism.
The story, however, has a moral derived from the grass roots of American tradition. It is, from one perspective, an American version of the story of Job and the Faust legend. Although the name Jabez Stone is implicitly suggestive, Stone is initially unlike Job. He is a poor man plagued by bad luck. When his troubles multiply, he sells his soul to the Devil, not for power like Faust, but for the typically American goal of material prosperity. Unlike Faust, the tug-of-war for Jabez’s soul is not between God and the Devil but between the epitome of Americanism, Daniel Webster, and Mr. Scratch. Jabez, however, is not damned like Faust, for the American virtues embedded in Webster make him use his capacity to reason, to awaken pity from a biased jury. Webster points out that since the Devil is a foreign prince, he has no authority over an American citizen. The Devil’s line of argument is clever and logical. He dates his citizenship back to the day when the first injustice was done to the Indians and when the first slave ship set sail from Africa; and when Webster permits the Devil to choose any judge and jury as long as they are American citizens, the Devil selects Judge Hathorne of the Salem witch trials and a dozen wicked men from hell. Webster uses his powers of elocution to awaken pity from the jury by reviving their sense of manhood. He recalls the simple pleasures of life that can only be enjoyed in freedom. He concedes that although errors and discrimination had taken place in America, something new had been born out of all this—a freer, more vital way of life built by everybody’s efforts. Although Jabez is a mean man, he is a man and thus has some good in him. Webster then stresses the fact that being a man is a matter of pride because even in hell a man’s mettle can be recognized.
In his concluding statements Webster makes, through his plea for Jabez, a plea for himself and for humankind. Webster observes that the jurors were out to get Jabez, as well as condemn him, if he fought them with their own weapons. He evokes their sympathy by recalling the symbolic journeying of all men, which is filled with failures and deceptions. Only real men, he stresses, can see the inherent greatness of the journey. This triggers the latent chords of manhood in the jury and their spokesman declares: “The jury has considered its verdict. We find for the defendant, Jabez Stone.” The verdict is tempered by the spirit rather than the letter of the law, for the spokesman adds: “but even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster.” Resorting to a similar spirit Webster also lets the Devil go. The Devil will be back, but his evil has been conquered in some of the United States by humanity, justice, and the representative of a country that symbolizes all of humankind’s positive hopes. These layers of symbolic connotations give Benét’s story a depth which equals the humor.
Benét’s other two Webster tales cannot measure up to the quality of “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” In “Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent,” for example, Benét weaves another humorous myth, but the story has little, if any, national significance. Nevertheless, he often channeled this penchant for history into realism and achieved aesthetically laudable results.
In stories such as “The Die-Hard,” “Jacob and the Indians,” and “Freedom’s a Hard-Bought Thing,” Benét uses the historical base to portray realism. His technique in these stories is to focus on a protagonist who represents a given historical period and to make his experiences reflect the essence of that period. This type of story obviously requires a strong central character...
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