Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2242
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.
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.
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 what Benét called his “long rough line.” This versatile long line approximates the rhythm of everyday speech more than traditional meters do. Benét also uses rhythmic prose and lyrics. In the foreword that he wrote for the poem in 1941, he states that he intentionally used a variety of meters. For example, he used a light, swift meter for the episodes concerning Clay Wingate, the Southerner, to suggest dancing, riding, and other aspects of Southern culture.
In the foreword, Benét indicates that the poem deals with events associated with the Civil War, beginning just before John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and ending just after the close of the war and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Although he did not intend to write a formal history of the Civil War, he did want the poem to show how the events presented affected different Americans; he was concerned with the Americans of the North and South as well as those of the East and West.
By describing the American landscape and people, Benét gives American historical events a reality greater than mere names and dates can confer. He believed that the people living during the Civil War encountered problems similar to those of his time and that the decisions they made then had a great effect upon future generations of Americans.
Growing out of Benét’s fondness for his country, John Brown’s Body will have a permanent place in American literature because it is an epic having uniquely American themes and qualities. He researched the historical details of the war extensively, but he also understood the human complexities involved. Exhibiting a high level of narrative skill, Benét presented five of the most crucial years in American history, poetically interpreting part of the great heritage of America.
Western Star, a fragmentary work, which was to have been another epic like John Brown’s Body, was published after Benét’s death in 1943. He had begun writing it previous to World War II, but upon the entry of America in the war, he put it aside, planning to resume work on it when peace was achieved. Western Star was to have been Benét’s interpretation of the settlement of the United States and of the westward movement of frontier life. He intended to present frontier life in a way similar to that he had used to present the Civil War in John Brown’s Body—by using actual events and both actual and imaginary persons for his characters. Unfortunately, his early death prevented his completing this work.
Benét earned his living by writing. In order to support his family, he was often forced to devote less time than he would have liked to his serious writing—rather than concentrating on his poetry, he sometimes had to spend time and energy writing short stories and novels that would bring in money. Although John Brown’s Body generated substantial sales, he lost most of his capital in the crash of 1929 and never again enjoyed financial security.
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; but he was not an innovator of any new form of the short story.
When World War II broke out, fiercely loyal to democracy, he felt compelled to contribute to the war effort as much as he could. As a result, in the early 1940’s he devoted much of his time and energy to writing propagandistic radio scripts and other needed pieces.
During Benét’s most creative years, he was handicapped by poor health; from 1930 until his death in 1943, he suffered from arthritis of the spine and other illnesses. He was hospitalized for several weeks in 1939 for a nervous breakdown caused by overwork. On March 13, 1943, when he was forty-four years old, he died in his wife’s arms following a heart attack.
American history, especially that of the Civil War, is integral to the fiction of Benét. Whether folklore, fantasy, or parable, his writing reverberates with history, not only American but also European, since he lived in France for several years. His characters range from European immigrants to expatriates from America, from slaves to frontiersmen, from the World War I lost generation eccentrics to religionists. His fictional modes include irony, satire, sentimentality, and romanticism. Benét imbues his fiction with themes of national pride, freedom with responsibility, the cardinal virtues, and the fair play of living the good life.
His honors and prizes include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1926), extended for six months (1927); a Pulitzer Prize (1929) for John Brown’s Body; election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1929); an O. Henry Memorial Prize for the short story (1936); an honorary degree by Yale University (1937); election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1938); and a Pulitzer Prize, awarded posthumously, for Western Star.
Benét, Stephen Vincent. Selected Letters of Stephen Vincent Benét. Edited by Charles A. Fenton. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960. A broad selection of letters reflecting Benét’s moods and perceptions about places in the United States and Europe, the people and the literary and social scenes, especially during the 1920’s, 1930’s, and the few years that he lived in the 1940’s.
Bleiler, Everett Franklin. The Guide to Supernatural Fiction. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1983. Includes a list and commentary on several stories by Stephen Vincent Benét that deal with themes of fantasy and extrasensory perceptions and hallucinations.
Davenport, Basil. Introduction to Stephen Vincent Benét: Selected Poetry and Prose. New York: Rinehart, 1960. Davenport’s short essay is a good overview of Benét’s life and literature for those unfamiliar with his writing. He stresses how unusual Benét’s Americanism seemed during a time when Paris overflowed with expatriates cynical of American idealism. The poet is seen as essentially a romantic, able to show extraordinary feeling for his subjects.
Fenton, Charles A. Stephen Vincent Benét: The Life and Times of an American Man of Letters. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958. A definitive biography that presents not only the well-documented life of Benét but also comments on the works. Fenton had the cooperation of Rosemary Carr (Mrs. Benét) and access to Benét’s diaries.
LaFarge, Christopher. “The Narrative Poetry of Stephen Vincent Benét.” Saturday Review 27 (1944): 106-108. LaFarge presents a glowing evaluation of Benét, seeing him as an enduring and timely writer who contributed much to the political writing of his day. Benét is lauded for his complex patterns of rhythm, meter, and form and for his rich characterization, but most of all for his clear style that makes his work accessible to the general reader.
Roache, Joel. “Stephen Vincent Benét.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 102. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991. Delineates the writings of Benét and provides a short biography and a commentary on the subject matter and themes of representative short stories. A straightforward and readable article, succinctly written.
Stroud, Parry. Stephen Vincent Benét. New York: Twayne, 1962. A critique that focuses on Benét’s liberalism, reflected in his writings. Stroud places the writer in a historical and cultural frame in an interpretation of Benét’s themes. The analysis is clear in its literary perspective and its biographical framework.
Wells, Henry W. “Stephen Vincent Benét.” College English 5 (1943): 8-13. Written soon after Benét’s death, this critical survey of the author’s major works, John Brown’s Body and Western Star, strikes an elegiac tone, although a negative one. Wells mostly examines possible reasons for Benét’s waning reputation as a poet, but also deals briefly with his achievements and skill.
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