Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Back to Benét: References to America in John Brown's Body

Tragic Prelude (1938–1940)
John Steuart Curry

I actually saw this mural when I visited Topeka, Kansas with Sun-Ae and my older brother way back around 1993. The image of a gigantic John Brown makes him to be a force of nature like the fiercely whirling tornado and the wildly raging fire in the painting's background.

Anyway, in line with my investigation into Stephen Vincent Benét's 'Americanism' for the upcoming conference on "Literature and National Community," I was wondering how many references there are to America in Benét's poem John Brown's Body, first from the "Invocation":
American muse, whose strong and diverse heart
So many men have tried to understand
But only made it smaller with their art,
Because you are as various as your land . . .

Never the running stag, the gull at wing,
The pure elixir, the American thing . . .

To strive at last, against an alien proof
And by the changes of an alien moon,
To build again that blue, American roof
Over a half -forgotten battle-tune . . .

Receive them all and should you choose to touch them
With one slant ray of quick, American light,
Even the dust will have no power to smutch them,
Even the worst will glitter in the night . . .
That's four references. Now from "Prelude: The Slaver":
His hand made the outflung motion of a sower
And the mate, staring, seemed to hear the slight
Patter of fallen seeds on fertile ground,
Black, shining seeds, robbed from a black king's storehouse,
Falling and falling on American earth
With light, inexorable patter and fall,
To strike, lie silent, quicken . . .
That's one reference. Several passages from the long poem itself:
The bearded faces look strange
In the old daguerreotypes: they should be the faces
Of prosperous, small-town people, good sons and fathers,
Good horse-shoe pitchers, good at plowing a field,
Good at swapping stories and good at praying,
American wheat, firm-rooted, good in the ear.
There is only one whose air seems out of the common,
Oliver Brown. That face has a masculine beauty
Somewhat like the face of Keats . . .

A Mr. Brua, one of Brown's prisoners,
Strolled out from the unguarded prison-room
Into the bullets, lifted Stevens up,
Carried him over to the old hotel
They called the Wager House, got a doctor for him,
And then strolled back to take his prisoner's place
With Colonel Washington and the scared rest.
I know no more than this of Mr. Brua
But he seems curiously American . . .

When the news of Beckham's death spread from bar to bar,
It was like putting loco-weed in the whiskey,
The mob came together at once, the American mob,
They mightn't be able to take Brown's last little fort
But there were two prisoners penned in the Wager House . . .

One need not weep romantic tears for them,
But when the last moonshiner buys his radio,
And the last, lost, wild-rabbit of a girl
Is civilized with a mail-order dress,
Something will pass that was American
And all the movies will not bring it back . . .

Call up the American names,
Kagi, the self-taught scholar, quiet and cool,
Stevens, the cashiered soldier, bawling his song,
Dangerfield Newby, the freed Scotch-mulatto,
Watson and Oliver Brown and all the hard-dying . . .

Singing at night against the banjo-moon
That you will be a match for any song
Sung by old, populous nations in the past,
And stand like hills against the American sky,
And lay your black spear down by Roland's horn . . .

And with these things, bury the purple dream
Of the America we have not been . . .
That's seven references. Looks like twelve references all told. Not many, especially for an epic poem, but I was relying on a search function, which can miss a misspelling (I caught one that it missed). The call to the American muse is full of patriotic fervor, but many of the other instances of American references are neutral or even critical, as you can see in these passages even without a context.

I'll look more closely at the invocation tomorrow.

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