Joan Shelley Rubin on Stephen Vincent Benét's 'Amercanism'
University of Rochester
In Songs of Ourselves (Harvard University Press, 2009), Joan Shelley Rubin describes Stephen Vincent Benét's 'Amercanism':
The most prominent and influential individual to make poetry a weapon to aid the Allies [against the fascist Axis powers in WWII] . . . was Stephen Vincent Benét . . . . When he arrived at Yale in 1915, Benét already thought of himself as a poet . . . . He evinced as well an earnestness about both his calling and his country: as his friend MacLeish later observed, "Steve was more conscious of being an American than any other man I ever knew" . . . . The critical reception of [Benét's 'Americanist' epic poem] John Brown's Body [thirteen years later] was decidedly mixed; a number of reviewers thought the poem uneven and overreaching. Nevertheless, it was among the best-selling nonfiction books of 1928 and the only sustained work of poetry to attain a wide popular audience in the early twentieth century. Although reviewers frequently compared Benét to Whitman because of their shared scope and subject, readers' responses to the poem, as Benét's biographer has pointed out, resembled the enthusiasm the public had shown for Longfellow. Edited by Benét's close friend from Yale, John Farrar, and published by the fledgling firm of Doubleday, Doran, the book sold 130,000 copies in the first two first two years after publication; even in the depths of the Depression, Americans bought an average of 6,000 copies a year at the volume's original price . . . . In sum, John Brown's Body reasserted the figure of the poet as both sage and intimate at a time when high modernism had eroded those roles for many American publishers and readers . . . . John Brown's Body also capitalized on the surge of interest in American culture during the 1920s, and particularly the Lincoln boom of the period. As countless fan letters of the period attest, various qualities of the text itself judiciously appealed to a range of readers: Benét acknowledged the suffering of both North and South, balanced depictions of "virile" action with passages of feminine emotion, and tempered modernist devices such as Eliotic allusions with old-fashioned narrative clarity. The result of all these factors that Benét's best-seller recentered poetry as an American medium suitable for transmitting an American message. John Brown's Body seemed especially susceptible to rereading. "I have no way of telling you the place in my life your [book] has found," a Texas man declared in a letter to Benét. "Let me say this - it is the book I pick up when I am frayed out, disgusted, exhausted - and it always brings back my balance." The response to the work by Benét's readers shaped his cultural function after 1940, as first the threat of fascism and then the outbreak of World War II engaged the country's attention. One concrete result of the persistent popularity of John Brown's Body was its issuance in 1943 in an Armed Services edition. In the wartime context, the principle of freedom from slavery for which Brown had sacrificed his life became the basis for battling the Nazis and Japanese. More generally, the consensus Benét had forged about the centrality of the Civil War for all Americans served as the foundation for his stance as champion of national unity to further the Allied cause. On the air and in print, Benét rallied his audience to hear a single message: American citizens must defend their democratic traditions against the enemies threatening their free way of life.The crucial point is this: "Benét's best-seller recentered poetry as an American medium suitable for transmitting an American message," and the message was one of national unity achieved through the democratic freedom to be an individual whose unique voice could be raised and heard.
Among the writings in which Benét expressed that view were those reprinted in A Summons to the Free, a pamphlet in the series "America in a World at War" which Farrar and Rinehart published in 1941. The pamphlet, containing both prose and verse, concluded with Benét's "Nightmare at Noon," a poem that had first appeared in the New York Times Magazine in June 1940. The text depicts Nazi occupation of northern Europe and prods complacent Americans into envisioning what their own cities would be like if fascism prevailed. One passage succinctly reiterates the principle of civic nationalism: "You can be a Finn or a Dane and an American. / You can be German or French and an American, / Jew, Bohunk, Nigger, Mick - all the dirty names / We call each other - and yet American." Acknowledging that American ideals did not always correspond to reality, Benét nevertheless affirmed that "as a country, we try." Still an exemplar of balance - here between isolationists and left-wing ideologues - he thus earned praise from a reader who told him that she wanted to send copies of the text both to "every official in Washington" and to "careless-thinking young radicals" contemptuous of "the American way of living." (Rubin, Songs of Ourselves, pages 230-233)
There were obvious tensions in this message since some of those unique voices were the "careless-thinking young radicals" contemptuous of "the American way of living."