Wednesday, August 20, 2014

David Garrett Izzo and Lincoln Konkle on Stephen Vincent Benét's Anti-Fascism

David Garrett Izzo and Lincoln Konkle, the editors of Stephen Vincent Benét: Essays on His Life and Work (McFarland, 2002), also contributed the book's final essay, "Benét as Dramatist for Stage, Screen, and Radio" (pages 215-232), which has this to say about Benét's opposition to fascism:
During the late 1930s Benét, just as many other Americans, was alarmed at the tragedy of fascism in Asia and Europe. He took seriously his role as national spokesperson and began to write poems and stories as warnings to the American people. Among these were "The Blood of the Martyrs," "Into Egypt," "The Last of the Legions," "Nightmare at Noon," and "By the Waters of Babylon," the last of which is credited by science-fiction historians as establishing many of the conventions of stories about a future world of survivors after an apocalyptic war . . . . Benét wished to reach more Americans and realized radio was the way. In those pre-television days, radio had as devoted audiences as TV does now. Benét's poems and stories were read over the air and heard by millions. His good friend, the poet Archibald MacLeish, had written three plays just for radio, and encouraged Benét to do the same. What followed would be the most astonishing output of original works for radio by a literary author ever produced, and more importantly, ever listened to over a four-year period. Benét was a natural writer for radio. As Norman Rosten says in his foreword to the published radio scripts, "Steve Benét had that gather-ye-round quality, and the folks sure did gather when he spoke!" . . . His mastery of poetry and the short story suited the need for compactness with a singular effect; his reputation as a man of conscience and a patriot who loved his country was exactly right for an America facing the threat of fascism that was already producing killing fields abroad. But, as Rosten points out, writing "[p]ropaganda was nothing new to [Benét]. He was always selling Americans the idea of America" . . . .
Izzo and Konkle note that the public response to Benét's works for radio was extraordinary, for letters and telegrams poured in after his broadcasts, expressing gratitude. While I ordinarily find politically motivated literature rather bad literature, I find that Benét wrote propaganda that is also very fine literature. Apparently, he was such a sincere nationalist that he wrote about exactly what inspired him to support 'Americanism' and oppose fascism.

Unfortunately, he did not get to see the American victory over fascism, nor was he to continue his inspiring broadcasts, for he died in 1943, at the young age of 44.

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