The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The muse that is America is made of mountains and deserts, clipped velvet lawns and skyscrapers, buffalo and cowboys. It is also the place to which slave ships come. The captain of one of these ships tells the mate to get the captives on deck while the weather remains good. The mate reports that one of the black men claims to be a king, and the mate worries about losing more of the female slaves. As he walks into the hold with a lantern in his hand, the mate dreams of washing off the stench of the blackness of the ship.

Jack Ellyat, a Connecticut youth, has premonitions of trouble as he walks with his dog in the mellow New England Indian summer. He and his family are abolitionists, in favor of making slavery illegal in the United States. In Ellyat’s hometown of Concord, the people feel the influence of writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as they talk about an ideal state. In Boston, Minister Higginson and Dr. Howe wait for reports of a project planned for Harpers Ferry. In Georgia, young Clay Wingate also receives a premonition of impending disaster and great change.

John Brown thinks he has been chosen by God to free slaves. He leads a force of his own sons, escaped slaves, and free blacks to seize the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The first man killed in the fracas is Shepherd Heyward, a free black man. Dangerfield Newby, born a slave, becomes the next to fall. The townspeople later cut off his ears as souvenirs. The bullets continue to fly and men continue to die. As the grievously wounded Oliver Brown, one of John’s sons, begs for someone to put him out of his misery, his father tells him to die like a man. Federal troops under Robert E. Lee subdue the Brown party in fifteen minutes; all has ended but the slow, smoldering hatred and the deaths to come.

At Wingate Hall in Georgia, all is peaceful. Sally Dupré and Clay Wingate expect to marry. Meanwhile, Cudjo, the majordomo of the Wingate plantation, hears of the Harpers Ferry raid and of John Brown. He opines that the business of African Americans is not the business of white Americans. In Connecticut, Mrs. Ellyat prays for Brown.

Brown is tried at Charles Town, Virginia. During the trial, he denies the complicity of anyone but himself and his followers in the raid. He insists that he is God’s instrument and that he will forfeit his life to further the ends of justice. A legend grows around his name that mushrooms upon his execution. Brown’s body rests in its grave, but his spirit haunts the consciences of North and South alike.

There is a surrender of Fort Sumter. Representatives of the Confederate States of America elect gaunt, tired Jefferson Davis as their president. Lank, sad-faced Abraham Lincoln, the frontier wit and small-time politician, is president of the United States of America. He orders men to be drafted to fight. Wingate, loyal to the South, joins the Black Horse Troop and rides to the war as Ellyat marches off with the Connecticut volunteers.

Raw soldiers of North and South meet at the Battle of Bull Run under the direction of Generals McDowell, Johnston, and Beauregard. Congressmen and their ladies arrive from Washington, D.C., to watch the expected Union victory. While they watch, the Union lines break and men flee in panic. A movement to negotiate with the Confederacy for peace begins in the North. Lincoln is alarmed, but he remains steadfast.

Ellyat is discharged from...

(The entire section is 1418 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Ellyat farm

Ellyat farm. New England farm of the Ellyat family. Because Benét organizes his poem as alternating pictures of the Civil War as seen from the perspectives of Americans on both sides, he creates a number of fictional characters whose stories reflect those of the larger groups affected by the struggle. Jack Ellyat, the protagonist, comes from a small farm in New England. With great care, Benét sketches both the farm and the surrounding forests and meadows to give readers a sense of the region this character represents. Relying on the reader to bring to the poem certain preconceived notions of regionalism, the poet is able to use a kind of shorthand to suggest values associated with men such as Ellyat.

Wingate Hall

Wingate Hall. Plantation home of Clay Wingate and his family, which the poem contrasts with the simple farmstead on which Ellyat is raised. Benét’s portrait of the southern plantation perpetuates many of the stereotypes about the South. Plantation lifestyle, founded on the system of slavery that Northerners considered an abomination, helps produce in Benét’s young protagonist a sense of honor sometimes devoid of discretion, a predilection for paternalism in dealing with those beneath him in social standing, and an attitude of chauvinism masked as chivalry in his treatment of women. Wingate Hall could have been located in any one of the Southern states, making it an appropriate symbol for...

(The entire section is 592 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Capps, Jack L., and C. Robert Kemble. Introduction to John Brown’s Body, by Stephen Vincent Benét. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. The editors identify Benét’s sources, mark recurring motifs in the poem, and identify and annotate the names of persons, names of places, and literary quotations and allusions in the text.

Fenton, Charles A. Stephen Vincent Benét: The Life and Times of an American Man of Letters, 1898-1943. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958. Discusses Benét’s sources for John Brown’s Body, his writing habits, and the contemporary critical and popular responses to the poem.

Gregory, Horace, and Mary Zaturenska. A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946. In this survey, the authors devote a few pages to Benét. They identify the virtues of John Brown’s Body—clarity, vividness, occasional humor, easy rhythms, and patriotic purposes—and then its defects—stereotypical characters and shallow treatment of griefs and delights.

Monroe, Harriet. “A Cinema Epic.” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 33 (November, 1928): 91-96. A laudatory contemporary review of John Brown’s Body, stressing its several movielike aspects.

Stroud, Perry. Stephen Vincent Benét. New York: Twayne, 1962. Contains a long chapter praising John Brown’s Body as an epic poem of historical and philosophical significance. Discusses its clusters of imagery, notably those involving Phaeton and his chariot, stones, and seeds, its contrasting realistic depiction of war and romantic conception of love, and its varied meters—blank verse, versatile long line, and poetic prose.