Critical Evaluation

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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.

Within the poem, Benét describes his work as a cyclorama, a series of large pictures of the United States spread around the reader, who views them from the center. The major unifying element in this cyclorama is the spirit of Brown. His memory grows into the legend that gives hope and inspiration during the dark days of the Civil War.

The second unifying thread in the loosely woven eight books is provided in the characters of Northerner Jack Ellyat and Southerner Clay Wingate. Other minor characters help round out the scheme, whereby all the regions and social groups of a huge nation are represented: Melora Vilas and her father typify the border states and the expanding West; Lucy Weatherby is the Southern coquette; Luke Breckinridge is the independent mountaineer; Jake Diefer is the settled farmer; Spade is the runaway slave; Cudjo is the loyal slave; and Shippy is the Northern spy. By tracing the fortunes of such diverse people, Benét dramatizes not only how the war affects their lives but also how their lives shape the nation.

While Benét does not fully explore the complexities of the Northern family and their way of life, he provides a richer picture of Southern life. The Southern slaves are portrayed in all the complexity, ambiguity, and irony of their situation, though with a touch of racism that undoubtedly reflects the era in which Benét wrote. The Wingates embody the dilemma of the genteel Southern aristocratic family. Benét saw the mind of the South as largely feminine—implied by his choice of heroic couplets for most of the Wingate episodes. The more masculine accents of blank verse and long loose line are employed for the Northern episodes and the narration of the main action.

Benét reveals himself as a master of style in John Brown’s Body. He demonstrates expert control of blank verse, heroic couplets, and long five- and six-beat lines. The latter lines solve the problem of finding a verse suitable for contemporary speech that bedeviled poets of Benét’s era. Benét’s diction and imagery also are striking, with sensory detail and rich metaphor. John Brown’s Body is a great American poem in theme as well as in style. It is not surprising that the poem became a popular success, and that the work remains widely read by Americans.

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