Archive for Sunday, December 27, 1998


December 27, 1998


Stephen Vincent Benet was born 100 years ago, 1898. Maybe you've licked the new commemorative stamp issued in his honor. Benet probably isn't a name known to many Americans. We know that Lennon and McCartney wrote lyrics for pop songs, but we don't care much about other poets today.

Benet is best known for three things: his two long narrative poems, "John Brown's Body" and "Western Star," both Pulitzer Prize winners, and that wonderful short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster," which became a great movie almost 60 years ago that still shows up on the tube on occasion.

You don't find long entries about Benet in the encyclopedias, and whether he's taught in American Lit. classes I just don't know. Many years ago, when I was taking graduate courses, a professor referred to Benet as a "son of Walt Whitman," the other sons being Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay and Edgar Lee Masters. I think that "son" reference is a valid one.

Stephen Vincent Benet wrote several books, most of which are forgotten. He wrote much poetry, one of the best poems titled "American Names." "I have fallen in love with American names," he started the poem. "Medicine Hat, Tucson, Deadwood, Little French Lick, Skunktown Plain, Santa Cruz, Harrisburg, Spartanburg, Nantucket Light." "You may bury my body in Sussex grass, you may bury my tongue at Champmedy. I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass. Bury my heart at Wounded Knee."

Benet's "John Brown's Body" came in 1928. It's a poem that you won't read in one sitting, a narrative not only about the man who tried to arm blacks from the arsenal at Harpers Ferry but about the Civil War that followed. The language is beautiful. His "Invocation" is to the American Muse. "You are the buffalo ghost, the broncho ghost/With dollar-silver in your saddle horn,/The cowboys riding in from Painted Post,/The Indian arriving in the Indian corn."

His Abraham Lincoln: "... six feet one in his stocking feet,/The lank man, knotty and tough as a hickory rail, whose hands were always too big for white kid gloves, whose wit was a coonskin sack of dry, tall tales." And his conclusion to the long poem: "Out of his body grows revolving steel, out of his body grows the spinning wheel, made up of wheels, the new, mechanic birth ..."

You may have seen "The Devil and Daniel Webster" as a movie originally called "All That Money Can Buy." It came out in 1941, and my memory (from a recent viewing) is that the language is very much the language of Stephen Vincent Benet.

The story concerns Jabez Stone, a New Hampshire farmer wedded to a hardscrabble piece of land, impoverished, bitter and selling his soul to the devil. He sells his soul, and the great Daniel Webster comes to his defense, arguing with Satan before a jury composed of some of the worst fiends in American history. Webster wins his case, the devil loses (but tells Webster he will never be president), and Stone regains his soul. May I note that this splendid movie had Edward Arnold as Webster and Walter Huston as the devil, Huston stealing every scene he was in.

"Western Star" is an unfinished work. It appeared in 1943, the year Benet, such a young man, died. Benet set out to make "Western Star" an epic of the American experience, but he was able to complete only a small part of the grand plan.

"Americans are always moving on. It's an old Spanish custom gone astray, a sort of English fever, I believe, or just a mere desire to take French leave, I couldn't say. ... Oh, paint your wagons with `Pike's Peak or Bust!' Pack up the fiddle, rosin up the bow, vamoose, skedaddle, mosey, hit the grit! (We pick our words, like nuggets, for the shine, and, when they don't fit, we make them fit, whittling a language out of birch and pine.)"

Was Stephen Vincent Benet a great poet? I don't know, for I'm one of those many Americans who say, tritely, that we don't care whether it's great or not so long as we like it. "John Brown's Body" received high praise from many critics in 1928. Marshall Davidson writes that Benet was called by one critic "an amiable and patriotic rhymester but that another called `John Brown's Body' one of the best books of poetry of 1926-35." In World War II Benet wrote considerably, a man of conscience, and such conscience appears in everything I have read by the man.

I would think, by the way, that Benet could be a source of inspiration to young people today, if, that is, young people read poetry as some of us read poetry when we were young.

-- Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His column appears Sundays in the Journal-World.

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