Friday, September 26, 2014

Byeng-ju Lee Hadong International Literary Festival 2014

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I'm currently at a conference on "Literature and National Community" being held in conjunction with the Byeng-ju Lee Hadong International Literary Festival 2014, and I presented a paper yesterday:
Literature and National Community: The United States and the Case of Stephen Vincent Benét

Horace Jeffery Hodges

Ewha Womans University


I am informed that my presentation on "Literature and National Community . . . . will be representing the English speaking countries." That's a lot of countries, and I can probably only manage to represent myself, but since I'm American, I'll pretend to represent the United States. Still . . . what am I to say? I suppose I can start with Benedict Anderson's famous view of a nation: "In an anthropological spirit, . . . I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign." Limited, because there are other nations. Sovereign, because not under the rule of another nation. Community, because of a "deep, horizontal comradeship." And imagined, because members do not know most of their fellow-members, yet have a mental image of their communion (Anderson, 6-7). Where does this mental image come from? Partly, at least sometimes, from literature. Which brings me to my subject: Stephen Vincent Benét.

A Forgotten Man?

Stephen Vincent Benét was born in 1898, began writing professionally when only thirteen, in 1911, and from the publication of his bestselling epic poem John Brown's Body in 1928 to his death at the height of his fame in 1943, he was perhaps the best-known American poet living. His poems were read even more than those of the ever popular Robert Frost, and his books of poetry sold in the tens of thousands, receiving good reviews. He wrote not only poems, but also short stories, novels, dramas, radio scripts, screenplays, book reviews, lectures, and speeches, and he edited dozens of book-length manuscripts per year in the mid-1930s. He was one of the eminent American men of letters throughout the thirties and very early forties (Griffith). In the 2002 book Stephen Vincent Benét: Essays on His Life and Work, the editors David Garrett Izzo and Lincoln Konkle thus note the irony that Benét's "work is not widely known today" even though when he "died in 1943 at the age of 44, the loss was felt by an entire country to whom Benét was a national hero" (1). Twelve years later than Izzo and Konkle wrote, nowadays, in 2014, Benét is still little remembered.

Ironically, he has been neglected due to one of the reasons for his prior popularity, his nationalism. In the 2009 Companion to Literature, edited by Abby H. P. Werlock, the entry on Stephen Vincent Benét says the following:
His work is characterized by his interest in . . . American themes . . . . [but t]he patriotic . . . themes of Benét’s work . . . became less fashionable after his death and led some critics to label him an old-fashioned, quaint, and chauvinistic writer who wrote "formula stories" designed to appeal to mainstream readers. ("Stephen Vincent Benét" 80b-81a)
If his works became "less fashionable after his death," one can imagine how unfashionable they were in the rebellious decades of the 1960s and 1970s. The Left objected to his nationalism and didn't much read him, so as Leftists came to dominate academic discourse in the 1980s and beyond, Benét's writings were less and less taught (Izzo and Konkle "Stephen," 4). No doubt his nationalist writings have also not fared well in our time of political multiculturalism and literary fragmentation, both of which celebrate ethnic and cultural diversity to the detriment of Benét's own imagined community of national unity, as in his epic poem, John Brown's Body: "So, from a hundred visions, I make one, / And out of darkness build my mocking sun" (Benét John, 6). The term "mocking" is likely intended here as imitation for non-frivolous purposes, e.g., "mock exam" ("Mock"), or as with "mockingbird," i.e., "[f]rom its skill in mimicking other birdsongs" ("Mockingbird"), though I wouldn't exclude a bit of self-deprecation on Benét's part. But even in his own time, Benét's work was sometimes criticized for its nationalism. An April 5, 1943 editorial in Life magazine on Benét's recent death (March 13, 1943) acknowledges that "[b]ecause of his strong American utterance, Steve Benét has sometimes been accused of chauvinism or narrow nationalism" ("Stephen Benet" p. 22, col. 3).

In His Own Time

In his own time, Benét offered Americans a vision of themselves that could serve as their imagined community. In Jackson J. Benson's book Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work, we find this remark about Benét:
Benet . . . was interested in native materials and the importance of bringing forth (as Emerson had advocated a century earlier) a uniquely national literature divorced from the influences of Europe. (Benson 64-65)
The so-called "influences of Europe" alludes to a long-held American belief that Europe was corrupt and corrupting. Benét therefore offered a national literature of moral uplift, as we find in Joan Shelley Rubin's 2009 book, Songs of Ourselves:
"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." (Rubin 231)
Reviewers compared Benét to Walt Whitman due to their common scope and subject, but readers responded with an enthusiasm not seen since the public adulation for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Rubin 231).

What He Offered

As we saw earlier, Benét was sometimes accused of "narrow nationalism" ("Stephen Benet" p. 22, col. 3). A "narrow" nationalism would be exclusive, so we should ask if he excluded some groups from belonging to the "nation." Perhaps a longstanding distinction is useful here: ethnic nationalism versus civic nationalism. The former limits membership to a community characterized by an 'imagined' shared ethnicity, the original meaning of "nation." The latter extends membership to any individual – regardless of ethnicity – who is willing to embrace the shared values of the imagined community (Miscevic). Which of these two nationalisms did Benét extol? Rubin tells us:
One passage [in Benét's poem "Nightmare at Noon"] 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." (Rubin 233)
We Americans may not always speak politely to one another, admits Benét, but we're still Americans, he insists, every one of us. Indeed, he was very generous in extending membership within his imagined community of Americans. Rubin tells us that he "acknowledged the suffering of both North and South" (Rubin 234), even going so far in his 1937 story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" as to insist that in the making of America, "everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors" (Benét 177)! Hard to be more inclusive than that. But, of course, membership in this imagined national community was limited to Americans, as Anderson's definition of community entails (Anderson 1), and hence "divorced from the [corrupting] influences of Europe" (Benson 65).

His Anti-Fascism

With his hugely inclusive conception of America as a nation imbued with civic nationalism, Benét can likely be expected to have taken a dim view of ethnic nationalism, especially the aggressive ethnic nationalisms of Europe's fascist states in the 1930s and 1940s, evidence of a corrupt and corrupting Europe that must be resisted. The scholars Izzo and Konkle confirm his 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" . . . . Benét wished to reach more Americans and realized radio was the way . . . . 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 . . . . 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. (Izzo and Konkle, “Benét” 225)
Benét's 1937 short story "The Blood of the Martyrs" is an especially powerful piece of anti-fascist literature, and all the more significant for its relatively early date, two years before WWII began and four years before America's forced entry into the war. Benét tells the story of an apolitical scientist who is imprisoned and tortured by an unnamed European fascist state, tortured partly because being apolitical is itself a position of suspicion under fascism. The scientist is offered a Faustian bargain. He can have his university job back if he will just agree to publically support the state by giving nationalist speeches and even use his scientific work to undergird the state's belief that its people are racially superior to all other peoples. I won't provide any further details of the plot since some of you might want to read the story, and I don't want to give away any plot spoilers. Just trust me that the story is powerful. It is also short and can be read in half an hour if your English is good.

His Generous Civic Nationalism

Another story published in 1937 was the famous tale of the devil already mentioned in this talk, "The Devil and Daniel Webster." The story is a Faustian one partly inspired by Washington Irving's own Faustian story, "The Devil and Tom Walker." Irving’s story lacks a champion, but Benét's story of Jabez Stone has the famous senator, orator, and lawyer Daniel Webster defend the New Hampshire farmer named Stone who had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for better luck. In the course of a legal 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!" (Benét 173)
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. (Benét 177)
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 adulthoods. Benét's vision of a civic nationalism was thus a very generous one.

Civilizational Literature?

In fact, Benét's civic-national 'Americanism' – despite his aim of composing a uniquely American literature – moved toward broader horizons. This is evident from his attack on fascism in the 1930s, wherein he extended American civic nationalism to Europe no longer simply as judgment but more as solution and assistance. Broader horizons are also notable in his choice of the Faustian theme, for the story of a man making a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul for knowledge and power, entails a basic mythos of Western Civilization, the original sin of mankind having been precisely this sort of bargain, namely, one's soul for knowledge and power. Unlike the original mythos, however, but like in Goethe's Faustian reinterpretation, Benét gives the story a twist, such that the devil is defeated. Civic nationalism in America can even overcome 'sin'! It can also therefore – as in "The Blood of the Martyrs" – help purge the extreme corruption of European fascism! Such optimism!


Well, I seem to have gone beyond "Literature and National Community," beyond the nationalism defined by Benedict Anderson, and even beyond English-speaking countries generally, all the way to Western Civilization as a whole! I hope you don't mind. I’m new to this theme. But I wonder if a uniquely national literature is actually possible. Even ethnic nationalism borrows stories from other nationalities, perhaps mostly from stories of other nationalities within its own civilization, though not solely. Stephen Vincent Benét had an American vision for a national literature, but his feeling for Europe, his opposition to fascism abroad, and his re-telling of Western Civilization's fundamental mythos offer a broader perspective on his work, a perspective that ought to orient literary scholars toward a reinterpretation of his oeuvre as greater than American "chauvinism or narrow nationalism."

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso: 2006.

Benét, Stephen Vincent. John Brown's Body. Doubleday, Doran, 1928.

Benét, Stephen Vincent. "The Blood of the Martyrs." Thirteen O’Clock: Stories of Several Worlds. New York and Toronto: Farrar and Rinehart, 1937.

Benét, Stephen Vincent. "The Devil and Daniel Webster." Thirteen O’Clock: Stories of Several Worlds. New York and Toronto: Farrar and Rinehart, 1937.

Benét, Stephen Vincent. Thirteen O’Clock: Stories of Several Worlds. New York and Toronto: Farrar and Rinehart, 1937.

Benson, Jackson J. Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work. University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Griffith, John. "Stephen Vincent Benét, 1898-1943." Poetry Foundation.

Irving, Washington. "The Devil and Tom Walker." Tales of a Traveller. Carey and Lea, 1824.

Izzo, David Garrett and Lincoln Konkle. "Benét as Dramatist for Stage, Screen, and Radio." Stephen Vincent Benét: Essays on His Life and Work. McFarland: 2002. 215-232.

Izzo, David Garrett and Lincoln Konkle. Stephen Vincent Benét: Essays on His Life and Work. McFarland: 2002.

Miscevic, Nenad. "Nationalism." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta.

"Mock." The Free Dictionary Online.

"Mockingbird." The Free Dictionary Online. Cf. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2009.

Rubin, Joan Shelley. Songs of Ourselves. Harvard University Press, 2009.

"Stephen Benet: The Ultimate Objectives of Free Men are to be Discovered in their Arts and Letters." Life. April 5, 1943. 22.

"Stephen Vincent Benét." Companion to Literature: Facts on File Companion to the American Short Story. Abby H. P. Werlock, ed. Infobase Publishing, 2009.
That's the entirety of my presentation - well, I didn't read out the references aloud, but they were in the individual copies possessed by everyone present.

I now have to get ready for today's discussions . . .

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At 2:31 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Read with interest.

And thanks for the gloss on "The Blood of the Martyrs." I look forward to reading this.

At 8:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Let me know what you think.

Jeffery Hodges

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