Thursday, August 07, 2014

Stephen Vincent Benét's "chauvinism or narrow nationalism"?

Daniel Webster

In the April 5, 1943 issue of Life magazine's editorial on the recent death - March 13, 1943 - of Stephen Vincent Benét, "Stephen Benet: The Ultimate Objectives of Free Men are to be Discovered in their Arts and Letters," is found an admission that "[b]ecause of his strong American utterance, Steve Benét has sometimes been accused of chauvinism or narrow nationalism" (page 22, column 3). The charge is immediately refuted, but in a time of National Socialism in Germany extolling Teutonic nationalism and Aryan racial superiority, the strong American patriotism of Benét perhaps needed some defense. He had, after all, opened his epic poem John Brown's Body (1928) with an invocation to the "American muse":
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 . . .
And his 1937 novella The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benét has the famous senator, orator, and lawyer Daniel Webster defend a New Hampshire farmer who had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for good luck. In the course of an argument between Webster and the devil, the latter insists that he himself is American, at which point Webster persuades the devil to let his client have a trial by jury:
"I stand on the Constitution! I demand a trial for my client!"

"The case is hardly one for an ordinary court," said the stranger, his eyes flickering. "And, indeed, the lateness of the hour-"

"Let it be any court you choose, so it is an American judge and an American jury!" said Dan'l Webster in his pride. "Let it be the quick or the dead; I'll abide the issue!"
The devil agrees to the conditions, but fills the American jury with traitors, criminals, and other unsavory men nursing a grudge against America. Webster, however, rises to the challenge:
He started off in a low voice, though you could hear every word. They say he could call on the harps of the blessed when he chose. And this was just as simple and easy as a man could talk. But he didn't start out by condemning or reviling. He was talking about the things that make a country a country, and a man a man.

And he began with the simple things that everybody's known and felt - the freshness of a fine morning when you're young, and the taste of food when you're hungry, and the new day that's every day when you're a child. He took them up and he turned them in his hands. They were good things for any man. But without freedom, they sickened. And when he talked of those enslaved, and the sorrows of slavery, his voice got like a big bell. He talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days. It wasn't a spread-eagle speech, but he made you see it. He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.

Then he turned to Jabez Stone and showed him as he was an ordinary man who'd had hard luck and wanted to change it. And, because he'd wanted to change it, now he was going to be punished for all eternity. And yet there was good in Jabez Stone, and he showed that good. He was hard and mean, in some ways, but he was a man. There was sadness in being a man, but it was a proud thing too. And he showed what the pride of it was till you couldn't help feeling it. Yes, even in hell, if a man was a man, you'd know it. And he wasn't pleading for any one person any more, though his voice rang like an organ. He was telling the story and the failures and the endless journey of mankind. They got tricked and trapped and bamboozled, but it was a great journey. And no demon that was ever foaled could know the inwardness of it - it took a man to do that.
And by his eloquence and gentle manner, Webster reminded those twelve damned men of their innocent childhoods in what came to be America, and of the mistakes that men make, and he even succeeded in getting Stone released from the conditions of his contract with the devil - all by reminding men of what being free Americans felt like, even if the twelve had gone on to err in their adulthood.

From these passages I've quoted, I wouldn't call Benét's nationalism "chauvinism or narrow nationalism," though it is an American-centered nationalism . . .

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