A poet and writer of fiction and dramatic adaptations, Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943) retold materials from American history, legend, and folklore with charm, humor, fervor, and a sense of theatricality.
Stephen Vincent Benét was born on July 22, 1898, in Bethlehem, Pa. His family, originating in Minorca, had emigrated to Florida in the 18th century. Benét's father, an ordnance officer, and his grandfather, a general, had served in the U.S. Army. His older brother was the poet and man of letters William Rose Benét.
Stephen spent his childhood in California and Georgia, where his father was stationed at government arsenals. His father had a discriminating taste in literature, and Stephen began to write as a child, winning prizes from the St. Nicholas magazine. He attended Summerville Academy and then entered Yale University in 1915, having already published a collection of dramatic monologues, Five Men and Pompey. While at Yale he issued another volume of verse. Among his undergraduate friends were Philip Barry, Archibald MacLeish, and Thornton Wilder—all would later distinguish themselves in literature. In his senior year he served as chairman of the Yale Literary Magazine.
Graduating in 1919, he tried advertising briefly but returned to Yale to receive his master of arts degree in 1920. After his novel The Beginning of Wisdom was published in 1921, he took a fellowship for study at the Sorbonne. He reentered the United States, married Rosemary Carr in 1921, and settled down to write. In 1923 he published King David and A Ballad of William Sycamore and won the Nation poetry prize. A Ballad showed his preoccupation with American subjects. The best of Benét's five novels, Spanish Bayonet (1926), is a historical adventure set in Minorca a decade before the American Revolution and in Florida a decade after it.
Benét spent from 1926 to 1928 in France writing his chief work, John Brown's Body (1928). This successful long narrative poem about the Civil War won a Pulitzer Prize in 1929. Though it is compounded of much knowledge, sincerity, romantic gusto, and literary talent, it does not deserve the frequently conferred label of "epic," for it lacks the unifying philosophical vision and driving artistic purpose of an epic. It throws off interesting, varied flashes of American character and history, but it does not relate them adequately to contemporary America.
Benét returned to the United States in 1928 and settled in Rhode Island. His first collection of short stories, The Barefoot Saint, appeared in 1929. The following year he moved to New York City. Ballads and Poems (1931), was a gathering of 15 years of folk and other poems. Two years later he received the Roosevelt Association Medal. In 1936 Burning City, New Poems appeared, and he received a doctor of letters degree from Middlebury College, Vt.
Benét reinforced his position as a fantastic, humorous adapter of legend and folklore, collaborating with the composer Douglas Moore in a radio performance of The Headless Horseman, a redoing of Washington Irving's story. His volume of short stories, Thirteen O'Clock, contained "The Devil and Daniel Webster," which became a minor national classic. Benét rewrote it as a one-act play and an opera; a movie and television production have also been based on it. Johnny Pye and the Fool Killer (1938) adapts grotesque, macabre folk material to poetry.
The poem Nightmare at Noon (1940) warned the United States of the fascist threat. Western Star (1943), the beginning of a projected work on the settlement of the United States, won a Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1944.
The life of this charming and popular humorist, romancer, and poet, whose faith that man could overcome his devils was concretized in his work, came to an untimely end on March 13, 1943.
Further Reading on Stephen Vincent Benét
Two studies of Benét are available: Charles A. Fenton, Stephen Vincent Benét (1958), and Parry Edmund Stroud, Stephen Vincent Benét (1963). Babbete Deutsch, Poetry in Our Time (1952; rev. ed. 1963), examines the poems of major 20th-century poets and compares modern and 19th-century poetry.
Additional Biography Sources
Benét, William Rose, Stephen Vincent Benét, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977; Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.
Fenton, Charles A., Stephen Vincent Benét: the life and times of an American man of letters, 1898-1943, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978, 1960.