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Stephen Vincent Benet, 1898-1943: Popular Writer of the Early 1900s, Part Two

Stephen Vincent Benet was one of the most widely read writers in the United States during the first half of the 1900s
Stephen Vincent Benet was one of the most widely read writers in the United States during the first half of the 1900s

SARAH LONG: PEOPLE IN AMERICA -- a program in Special English by the Voice of America. Each week at this time, we bring you a story about people who were important in the history of the United States. Today Larry West and Doug Johnson complete the story of writer Stephen Vincent Benet.


LARRY WEST: Benet was one of the most popular writers in the United States during the first half of the nineteen-hundreds. By the middle nineteen-twenties, Benet had published five books of his own. He had won national prizes for his writing. Some of his poems were considered part of the American literary tradition.

DOUG JOHNSON: Although Benet was famous, most of the money he earned came from the stories he wrote for popular magazines. The stories were not about serious people or ideas. They were light things...meant to be read quickly and forgotten. Sometimes, Benet was not happy with the stories. But he did not have time to make them better. He felt he had no choice but to work in this way. He had a wife and a child to support.

All the while Benet was trying to please the magazine editors, he was thinking about a new direction and a greater purpose for his writing. He wanted to bring to life America's history and heroes. He wanted to show why these things were important and valuable. Most of all, he wanted people to remember the beauty and goodness of the America he had seen as a boy. He began to experiment.

LARRY WEST: Benet's new stories were about life in small towns. All kinds of people were in the stories. All of them had helped -- in some way -- to build America.

The Stephen Vincent Benet House is located on the campus of Augusta State University
The Stephen Vincent Benet House is located on the campus of Augusta State University

The voice telling the story was not a modern voice. It did not sound tired of the world did the voices in most stories of that time. Instead, it was the voice of someone who had lived a long time in the small town. The voice sounded wise. And the language was a little like poetry.

In nineteen-twenty-six Benet won an award of two-thousand five-hundred dollars. He would use the money to continue his writing. Five years earlier, he had spent some time in Paris as a writer. He loved the city, and had met his wife there. So he decided to return to France. Soon after he and his wife arrived, their second child was born.

DOUG JOHNSON: Benet was living far from America. But America remained central to his work. He began to write a poem about America's Civil War. The war had been fought between northern states and southern states from eighteen sixty-one to eighteen-sixty-five. Benet's poem described common soldiers, battles and the military and political leaders of both sides. It described the two major reasons for the war: saving the union of states, and freeing the black slaves. The poem was published in nineteen-twenty-eight. It was as long as a book. It was called ‘John Brown's Body.’ Here is part of the poem.


'He must have been a peaceable man, that farmer.

It is said that he died of what he had heard and seen in that one brief moment, although no bullet came near him.

He should have known that even minor battles are not the place for peaceable men -- but he died, instead, it is said. The general came and the South came and the end came.

And the grass comes and the wind blows...on the grown grass and the wind says long ago, long ago.


LARRY WEST: ‘John Brown's Body' was praised for its power and truth. It was so filled with color and details that professors of history used it to teach their students about the Civil War. It was read on American and British radio. The year after it was published, Stephen Vincent Benet received America's Pulitzer prize for poetry.

DOUG JOHNSON: Benet returned to New York from France. He took the money he earned from the sales of ‘John Brown's Body’ and invested it in the stock market on Wall Street. But that year – nineteen twenty-nine -- was the year the stock market crashed. Investments were worth nothing. All of Benet's money was lost.

The next few years were very difficult. Benet's father died, and he had to help support his mother and sister. Another child came. And Benet began to suffer more from the effects of arthritis.

The pain in his joints made it hard for him to work. And a weak heart gave him little energy. Yet he had little choice. He had to earn money the only way he knew how: by writing.

So Benet began writing magazine stories again. He also went to Hollywood, California to write a motion picture story about Abraham Lincoln -- America's president during the civil war. And he traveled around the country giving talks on poetry and writing.

LARRY WEST: Times were hard in America in the nineteen-thirties. But as President Franklin Roosevelt began his economic reforms, Benet began to look forward to a brighter future for the country. He and his wife, Rosemary, wrote a book of poems for children. It was called ‘A Book of Americans.’ Many of the poems were humorous. Many were full of hope.

Stephen Benet is buried in the state of Connecticut
Stephen Benet is buried in the state of Connecticut

In nineteen thirty-six, Benet published a story called 'The Devil and Daniel Webster." It is a story about a farmer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for ten years of good luck. Ten years go by, and the devil comes to collect the farmer's soul. The farmer begs the great American statesman, Daniel Webster, to defend him before a jury chosen by the devil. Webster agrees. And the power and emotion of the great statesman's voice wins the case for the farmer. The story begins like this:

WARREN SCHEER: "Yes. Dan'l Webster's dead, or at least, they buried him. But every time there's a storm, they say you can hear his rolling voice in the empty places in the sky. And they say that if you go to where he's buried, and speak loud and clear - "Dan'l Webster! Dan'l Webster -- the ground'll begin to shake. And after a while you'll hear a deep voice saying, 'Neighbor! How stands the nation?'

"You see for a while, he was the biggest man in the country. He never got to be president. But he was the biggest man. There were thousands that trusted him right next to God almighty. And they told stories about him.

"They said when he stood up to speak...stars came right out in the sky. And once he spoke against a river....and made it sink into the ground. And the fish would jump right out of the water into his hands...for they knew it was no use putting up a fight against him. And the biggest legal case he argued never got written down in the books...for he argued it against the devil."


DOUG JOHNSON: ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’ was another great success for Stephen Vincent Benet. The story was made into a play, an opera and a motion picture. With that success Benet was able to get guarantees of payment for his work. He was able to pay what he owed. Publishers asked him to help choose which new books would be printed. And they asked him to give advice to young writers.

LARRY WEST: Toward the end of the nineteen-thirties, Benet became interested in political developments in Europe. He began to write more political pieces. After World War Two began, he put aside his other work and wrote only for the allied cause. He wrote for radio broadcasts and documentary films. He worked for aid for the French and the Russian people. He wrote a small book called “America” for the United States government. The book began:

"There is a country of hope...there is a country of freedom. It has made mistakes at home, mistakes in its relations with the world. But it looks to the future always."

DOUG JOHNSON: Stephen Vincent Benet's health was not equal to his spirit. He died of a heart attack in New York in March, nineteen-forty-three. He was forty-four years old.

The next year, his collection of poems called, 'Western Star' won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. And American troops began giving his book "America" to people all over Europe and Asia, as World War Two was coming to an end.


SARAH LONG: You have been listening to the Special English program PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Your narrators were Doug Johnson and Larry West.

Our program was written by Barbara Dash. The Voice of America invites you to listen again next week at the same time when we will complete our story of the life of writer Stephen Vincent Benet. For VOA Special English, this is Sarah Long.