In Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story "By the Waters of Babylon," the narrator and protagonist, John, son of John, embarks on an unauthorized journey into forbidden territory – a post-apocalyptic metropolis clearly intended to be New York City. Evading predatory Forest People and wild animals, the young priest-to-be is driven by a primal thirst for knowledge regarding the land of the gods. Benet’s story was inspired by the horrific events of both the First World War and, more immediately, the Spanish Civil War, specifically, the infamous destruction by fascist forces of the town of Guernica – the same episode that inspired Pablo Picasso’s painting. The son of highly-educated military men, Benet’s story can be considered something of a metaphor for the resurrection of Native tribes in the wake of the final destruction of the white man in the increasingly nihilistic conflicts from which there seemed no escape. The First World War, of course, witnessed the introduction of new and barbaric forms of mass slaughter, including chemical weapons. The Spanish Civil War was Nazi Germany’s trial site for many of its new weapons, including fighter bombers able to wreak great devastation on those unfortunate enough to be below. For many, especially among the intellectual left, the Spanish Civil War was the turning point in their perceptions of great power politics and the need to look admiringly upon the sole bastion against both capitalism and fascism: Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Benet’s short story follows John’s journey to the Place of the Gods – Manhattan – where he gazes upon the remains of a once great civilization. His story’s title is borrowed from Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” John’s journey has taken eight days (“it is eight suns journey to the east”), but he reaches the banks of the Ou-dis-sun River (the Hudson River) and, constructing a crude raft, floats down the river until the raft overturns and he is forced to climb along the opposing bank. His observations of the Place of the Gods provide a portrait of a once great city lying in ruins. References to poisons remaining in the ground are a legacy of the instruments of destruction responsible for the city’s devastation. Exploring the city, John notes the “great broken god-roads” (streets and bridges) and the belongings of the deceased in the apartment he enters. Viewing the “dead god” who had lived there, he dreams that night of the horrific scenes that brought this place to its current state. His description of the “dead god” is poignant:
“His age was neither young nor old—I could not tell his age. But there was wisdom in his face and great sadness. You could see that he would have not run away. He had sat at his window, watching his city die—then he himself had died.”
And, then, John, as in Psalm 137, reacts the only way he can: “It was darkness over the broken city and I wept.”
The steps in the hero’s journey in "By the Waters of Babylon" are metaphorical. They are the steps from the naïve child to the wizened priest. In the end, John realizes that these were neither gods nor demons; they were men:
“They were men. I remember the dead man's face. They were men who were here before us. We must build again.”
John returns home a priest, but a considerably less spiritual one.