Stephen Vincent Benét Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

ph_0111206246-Benet.jpg Stephen Vincent Benét Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Stephen Vincent Benét (beh-NAY) 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.

Benét’s short stories are collected in Thirteen O’Clock (1937) and Tales Before Midnight (1939). The first collection contains the well-known “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” which he adapted as a play, opera, and film script. He wrote several novels: The Beginning of Wisdom (1921), Young People’s Pride (1922), Jean Huguenot (1923), Spanish Bayonet (1926), and James Shore’s Daughter (1934). Benét chose to support himself and his family as a writer and, as a result, his short stories and novels often were hack work churned out for whoever would pay him the most money.

Benét also composed radio scripts, collected in We Stand United, and Other Radio Scripts (1945), plays, and a short history. These writings were propagandistic, wartime efforts that he felt he had to do no matter what the effect on his literary reputation.

The best collections of Benét’s works are the two-volume hardback edition, Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Benét (1942; Basil Davenport, editor), and the paperback edition, Stephen Vincent Benét: Selected Poetry and Prose, also edited by Davenport (1942).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Stephen Vincent Benét’s achievements began early in his life. In 1915, when he was only seventeen years old, he made his first professional sale of a poem—to The New Republic—and published his first book of poems (Five Men and Pompey). He published his second book of poems (Young Adventure) in 1918 just before he was twenty years old. Between 1916 and 1918, while at Yale, he was first on the editorial board of the Yale Literary Magazine and then became chairman. He received a traveling fellowship from Yale in 1920 that enabled him to go to Paris, where he completed his first novel, The Beginning of Wisdom.

Benét received many literary and academic awards throughout his life, and he was popular with the public. His collection of poems King David received The Nation’s poetry prize in 1923, when he was twenty-five years old. A Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to return to Paris, where he worked on John Brown’s Body. In 1929, a year after the publication of John Brown’s Body, when he was thirty-one years old, he received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in poetry and became famous overnight.

Benét accepted the editorship of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 1933, and in 1935, he began regular reviewing for the New York Herald Tribune and the Saturday Review of Literature. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1929 and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1938, and he received the Theodore Roosevelt Medal for literary accomplishment in 1933. Benét won the O. Henry Memorial Prize for the best American short story of the year several times; among his winning stories were “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and “Freedom’s a Hard-Bought Thing.” Finally, he received posthumously the Gold Medal for Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Pulitzer Prize a second time for the unfinished epic poem Western Star.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body (1928), a long epic poem, created a sensation when it was published and remains, despite his many volumes of poems, including Western Star (1943), his best-known and most popular work. He also wrote Hollywood scripts, librettos, and an opera, and he composed radio addresses and scripts, used for patriotic propaganda during World War II. Benét also published five novels.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

American history, especially that of the Civil War, is integral to the fiction of Stephen Vincent 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 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1926), which was 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.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Benét, Laura. When William Rose, Stephen Vincent, and I Were Young. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1976. A memoir of the childhoods of Laura, William Rose, and Stephen Vincent Benét. Includes black-and-white photographs.

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.

Benét, William Rose. Stephen Vincent Benét. 1943. Reprint. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976. A look at the poet’s life from his brother. Includes a bibliography.

Davenport, Basil. Introduction to Stephen Vincent Benét: Selected Poetry and Prose. New York: Rinehart, 1960. This essay is a good overview of Benét’s life and literature for those unfamiliar with his writing. Davenport 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:...

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