The Public Humanist

Benét and Time Well Spent

old books on shelf

With so much media that demands to be consumed right now—newspapers and magazines, books and blogs, the infinite scroll of social media, documentaries, YouTube, podcasts, NetFlix, breaking news, and more, more, more—why spend your precious time reading obscure middlebrow literature published in the first half of the twentieth century?

For one thing, a lot of it is very well written. And it may just let you rest for a moment and make some sense of the world. As the literary scholar Gordon Hutner writes in What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel 1920-1960, this “middle-class realistic” fiction called middlebrow provides “a rudimentary vision of some relative cohesiveness of American life, a shareable set of values and questions about the world in which middle-class Americans live.”

In previous posts (“Rediscovering Middlebrow,” November 21, 2018) and “Edna Ferber’s Cimarron, December 20, 2018), I discussed how the work of 20th century middlebrow writers is in danger of being forgotten, but shouldn’t be: they still have much to say to present-day readers. Another middlebrow writer waiting to be rediscovered is Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943), whose body of work includes the book-length narrative poem of the Civil War John Brown’s Body (1928) and the classic short stories “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936) and “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937).

Stephen Vincent Benét

Stephen Vincent Benét

There was a time when Stephen Vincent Benét was hailed by critics as the Great American Writer and predicted his name would live forever. Pick up his short stories today and the first thing you’ll notice is the clarity of his language, his ease of style. I mean no disrespect to him as a disciplined literary craftsman, but at heart Benét was a storyteller. Try these lines as openers:

The north and the west and the south are good hunting grounds, but it is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to enter the Dead Places. But I am a priest and the son of a priest and we can venture there alone. (“By the Waters of Babylon,” 1937)

They came up over the pass one day in one big wagon—all ten of them—man and woman and hired girl and seven big boy children, from the nine-year-old who walked by the team to the baby in arms. Or so the story runs—it was in the early days of settlement and the town had never heard of the Sobbin’ Women then. But it opened its eyes one day, and there were the Pontipees. (“The Sobbin’ Women,” 1937)

It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire. Yes, Dan’l Webster’s dead—or at least they buried him. But every time there’s a thunderstorm around Marshfield, they say you can hear his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky.” (“The Devil and Daniel Webster,” 1936)

While you’re wondering who these people are and what’s going to happen to them, the one sure thing is that they are Americans. You can’t read Benét without recognizing his faith in the promise of the United States. Born in 1898 into a military family in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he published his first book of poetry at 17, and continued publishing fiction and poetry prolifically until he died of a heart attack at age 43. His era was the 1920s and 1930s. In spite of the First World War and the Great Depression, those years in many ways marked the end of America’s national innocence. His characters included WASPs, Jews, Irishmen, Yankees, and African Americans. Each of them was unique, and most were fundamentally decent people who believed they would succeed through hard work and pluck.

And succeed they did. Even Jabez Stone, who sells his soul to the devil in “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” is not so much “a bad man as an unlucky one.” There was room for him, too, in Benét’s America.

That doesn’t mean Benét was naive. The characters in “Everybody Was Very Nice,” the story of a disintegrating marriage, prefigure the empty suburbanites of John Cheever’s mid-century fiction. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” deals with the struggles a great man faces when he is tempted to replace duty with personal ambition. “William Reilly and the Fates” is the story of a young midwestern journalist whose bedrock faith in Mom, Apple Pie, and the American Way is challenged when he gains insight into the interconnectedness of humanity during an afternoon at a very curious carnival.

And Benét’s masterpiece, “By the Waters of Babylon,” perfectly prefigures the horror of nuclear warfare decades before the atomic bomb was developed. I reread that story a few months ago, more than eighty years after it was written. Every word still rings true. The language is contemporary. You could still almost use it as a street map to find your way around lower Manhattan. Benét didn’t fool himself about the dreadful possibilities inherent in humankind’s self-destructiveness, but his eternal optimism breaks through in the last lines, when the narrator realizes that the Place of the Gods destroyed in the Great Burning was really a city of men:

And when I am chief priest…we shall go to the Place of the Gods—the place newyork…We shall look for the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the others—the gods Lincoln and Biltmore and Moses. But they were men who built the city, not gods or demons…They were men who were here before us. We must build again.

Behind the elegant simplicity of Benét’s language is a sophisticated mind and an original point of view. If I could bring only one book to that proverbial desert island, I’d chose his collection of short stories Thirteen O’Clock: Stories of Several Worlds. Some of them—unfortunately, not all—are available on the internet. I recommend finding them.

More than 75 years after his death, we may have lost Benét’s innocent confidence in America. We shouldn’t lose him as well. Do not forget this writer.

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8 Responses to Benét and Time Well Spent

  1. Howard Marder March 23, 2019 at 4:14 PM #

    Welcome back Kathryn. Your insight points to rereading Benét. Can’t say I remember what I read of his when I was young but I’m sure that at a minimum it was the Devil and you know who. I’ll look on Kindle for his work.

  2. Uzma Shah March 23, 2019 at 4:34 PM #

    So well written Kathryn! I was not familiar with this author but what a wonderful glimpse into his work. His words are compelling and direct. The excerpts suggest truth and purpose. Characteristics so endearing and vital even today.

    Compelling indeed.
    Thank you for this gift

    Uzma

  3. adam friedman March 24, 2019 at 6:01 PM #

    Kathy,
    Thanks for reminding all of us who value the American literary tradition about the contribution of Benet. His reputation seems to rest more upon his poetry than his fiction. As you point out, that is an oversight. Time to re-read these classic works which are not only enjoyable –even after all this time– but thought provoking as well.

  4. Valerie Anderson March 25, 2019 at 8:34 AM #

    Dear Katherine,

    I never heard of Stephen Vincent Benet, but as you mention I agree there is clarity in the language he uses and ease in his style. I think you have the same gift. Thank you for sharing your favorite author and insuring her is not forgotten. Keep writing my good friend!

  5. Leon Yankwich March 25, 2019 at 10:13 AM #

    Dear Katherine:

    “…the infinite scroll…” I love that.

    Just last week I was transferring the inherited library of my grandfather, who was another scholar born late in the nineteenth century. The range of authors he had collected since emigrating here in 1909 was astonishing, from de Sade to Lewis; and as I boxed his books, dividing them first to set aside those I had not read and second to try and order them into a reading list, I found myself chanting to under my breath, “I’ve got a lot of reading to do…” The simple act of boxing Grandpa’s library made me feel unlettered and ignorant — partly because there were volumes in four different languages, including Greek — but right in the middle of the trove was a small span of titles by Stephen Vincent Benet.
    So, your essay has had the very important unintended effect of providing a starting point for my reading list. Thank you for sparking my interest in this often overlooked author.

  6. Barbara A Fitzpatrick March 25, 2019 at 11:47 AM #

    Dear Katherine –

    I very much enjoy writers of Benet’s time period, having minored in 19th Century Literature in college. I return to them time and time again. There is a cogency and elegance of language of authors during this time period that I find sadly lacking in many current “authors.” I heartily agree with your astute observation: “we have lost Benet’s innocent confidence in America.” Society has fallen a huge depth, and we have become cynical, negative and disrespectful of each other. Innocence, indeed! We have lost that entirely. And it seems no one has much confidence in anything anymore — let alone our country.

  7. Mark Shore March 28, 2019 at 8:33 PM #

    Kathryn, As always you provide interesting analysis. Indeed, reading Stephen Vincent Benet will be a refreshing escape from 21st century turbulence!

  8. Deena April 16, 2019 at 3:19 PM #

    Sorry I’m late to the party. I very much enjoyed reading your thought-provoking and engaging review of this author!

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