Sunday, August 10, 2014

Basil Davenport on Stephen Vincent Benét's Americanism

Stephen Vincent Benét
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In the Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Benét, Volume One: Poetry (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1942), Basil Davenport writes in prefatory remarks of Benét's "Americanism":
Americanism is so much in fashion now that Benet's Americanism, for all its brilliance of technical achievement, its breadth of sympathy, and its depth of feeling, is apt, now that the intellectual climate of the day has caught up with it, to seem less remarkable than it is. It is worth remembering that when other young men of his age were writing rondeaux and villanelles and tales of far away and long ago, Benet was already turning the ballad to American themes; and that at the end of the tinsel twenties, when it was the fashion to say that American life was rootless, drab, and everywhere the same, Benet was already writing John Brown's Body, with its sensitive feeling for half a dozen countrysides and racial strains, and for the American wilderness and the old English songs that frame the exquisite idyll of Jack Ellyat and Melora Vilas . . . . There is no one to touch Benet in the variety and skill of his treatment of American themes; yet even his Americanism is only the outcome of something deeper. If he says, "Dear city of Cecrops," it is because that is the nearest earthly approach to the dear cry of God. He loves New York as the communal achievement of the spirit of man; he loves America because there every man can most freely become what God meant him to be . . . . When the free life of man is threatened by the cult of death, by those who deliberately make their souls eunuchs for the sake of the kingdoms of this earth, it is such a man who has both the surest guard against ultimate despair, and the most tragic sense of immediate peril. (pages xii-xiii)
I now see that I misunderstood a remark in an earlier post when I read that Benét's writing had sometimes been accused of "chauvinism or narrow nationalism" ("Stephen Benet: The Ultimate Objectives of Free Men are to be Discovered in their Arts and Letters," Life, April 5, 1943, page 22, column 3). I opined that, "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."

Actually, as I now see, Benét was more popular during WWII because of his Americanism, which Davenport believed helped mold those men who, "[w]hen the free life of man is threatened by the cult of death," have "both the surest guard against ultimate despair, and the most tragic sense of immediate peril." In other words, Benét's Americanism was the best antidote to the Nazis.

And in "radio broadcasts" of the early forties he inveighed "particularly against Nazis," especially in letters to "Adolf" but died in 1943, his job unfinished . . .



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