Sunday, August 1, 2010

Stephen Vincent Benet, Neighborhood Poet

To call Stephen Vincent Benet (1898-1943) our neighborhood poet is to greatly underrate his achievement. He was, it is true, born just a few blocks from where I am sitting, in a yellow brick house now marked by a state historical marker. That marker suggests how far from this small town his reputation extended. And no wonder, it should be added--for he spent only the first few weeks of his life in our 'hood. His father, an Army Ordinance officer and lover of literature, had just been reassigned from service as liaison officer at Bethlehem Ironworks to a post in upstate New York. The whole family naturally moved with him; and as far as we know Stephen never returned. He had no reason to; he himself knew no one in the Bethlehem area.
In his brief and illness-ridden life, he managed to become a famous writer, although he is almost forgotten today. You might even call him an All-American writer, since his love of country was fierce, and his topics were almost always American. His writing was vigorous; and he engaged a large readership from the Middle Class. And that may be why he is almost disdained by academic writers today.
He is worth your while, even if you have to order his books online, or induce your public library to get them out of storage. I would recommend the book that made him famous, the book that won him his first Pulitzer prize, the fabulous Civil War poem "John Brown's Body."
A-gasp-POEM? Yes--but don't worry. It is as easy to read as "Gone With The Wind". Easier, actually--I myself have never been able to READ "Gone With The Wind." "John Brown's Body" drew me right along. And a lot of people like me, it would seem. If I recall correctly, more than 600,000 copies of "John Brown's Body" were sold during the first year. During World War II at least one--unnamed--American officer found inspiration in Benet's poem, and carried it into battle with him.
Benet also was a master of short story writing. His two most famous are "The Devil And Daniel Webster", in which the famous 19th century Senator and Secretary of State rescues a hapless farmer from the consequences of the farmer's pact with the devil; and "By The Waters of Babylon", regarded by many as a great example of Postapocalyptic science fiction.
My own favorite may be "Jacob And The Indians." In this one a young Jewish immigrant to 18th century Pennsylvania struggles to carve out a living in the fur trade while he develops an understanding of the expansive possibilities of his new country.
Happy reading.

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