Throughout history, societies have produced literary works like The Iliad or The Aenied that define a nation’s character and its people. In 1928, Stephen Vincent Benet published John Brown’s Body, 15,000 lines of blank verse exulting the spirit of the American people as seen through the prism of its defining historical moment, the Civil War. Like Homer and Virgil before him, Benet used poetry to give moral significance to a time of seminal change and profound tragedy.
An accomplished writer since his collegiate days at Yale, Benet won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1926, the first ever awarded for poetry. He composed John Brown’s Body, his best-known work, over two years while living in Paris because his funds would last longer there and, he said, “living abroad intensified my Americanism.” Benet was an unabashed liberal. He understood the Civil War as the pivotal event in the evolution of the United States into a democratic, progressive, and pluralistic society. He made sense of the war’s horrific loss of life much as Abraham Lincoln did: as a necessary, divinely ordained, shedding of blood before the nation could be redeemed from the sin of slavery.
The 1920s were a critical period in the creation of Civil War memory, and many Americans did not share Benet’s progressive views. For aging white veterans, blue and gray, it was their last hurrah; a chance to cement their vision of battlefield sacrifice into the public’s mind and give meaning to the deaths of thousands of their comrades. Reconciliation between old foes and honor to all old soldiers was the order of the day.
For African Americans, the war’s living legacy, it was a much different time. They found themselves emancipated but far from free. For them, the Roaring Twenties was an era of virulent racism, social segregation, political disenfranchisement, and sudden violence. Jim Crow Laws, Black Codes, a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and the public lynching of blacks all across America seemed to mock Lincoln’s vision of a more perfect Union.
Benet chose to mix historical personages with fictional characters from all walks of society to create his vision of a balanced, optimistic, and reconciliationist national saga about the war and the effect it had on the people who lived through it. Like Walt Whitman—whom he took as his model—Benet, too, heard America singing and attempted to capture its disparate melodies in verse.
Although John Brown himself is hanged barely a third of the way through the book, he is the poem’s guiding spirit, hovering over the entire work like an apocalyptic flame right out of the Old Testament who loosed a flood of fateful events that would change every aspect of American life.
Benet depicts Brown as being outside of history, a Hegelian world historical figure who can “change the actual scheme of things” and, by the power of his personality, bring about a new historical dispensation:
Sometimes there comes a crack in Time itself.
Sometimes the earth is torn by something blind.
Sometimes an image that has stood so long
It seems implanted as the polar star
Is moved against an unfathomed force
That suddenly will not have it any more.
Even though Brown failed in many of his business endeavors and “had no gift for life,” Benet understood that he had changed history because “he knew how to die.” As evidence, the poet reproduces the vibrant language Brown used in his final speech to the court, including:
Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my
life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle
my blood further with the blood of my children
and with the blood of millions in this slave country
whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and
unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.
Brown’s powerful words were soon memorized and whispered in countless slave quarters throughout the South. They were reproduced in newspapers throughout the North and evangelical clergymen read them from hundreds of pulpits. To millions of enslaved black people and many whites, John Brown’s body, hung on a gallows at Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), on Oct. 16, 1859, symbolically had become the crucified Christ. But to southern slave owners, his spectral figure was repeatedly likened to the Arch Fiend himself.
Benet, himself, had a love-hate relationship with Brown. “You did not fight for the Union nor wish it well,” he wrote. “You fought for the single dream of a man unchained.” For an avowed progressive nationalist like Benet, the war could not be justified merely because it freed the slaves. A new, more perfect, nation had to arise from the carnage of the conflict; a political consequence that Brown never envisioned.
The other Christ figure in the saga is, of course, Lincoln. After the fiasco at First Manassas (First Bull Run) in July 1861, Benet describes him as “awkwardly enduring … neither overwhelmed nor touched to folly.” Lincoln must now begin the laborious job of “kneading the stuff of the Union together again.” His work is likened to a divine mission. “And yet Lincoln had a star, if you would have it so,” Benet writes, obviously alluding to the polar star that led the Three Wise Men to Jesus’ manger, “and he was haunted by a prairie-star,” possibly referring to Lincoln’s Midwest heritage or to John Brown’s Kansas abolitionist activities.
Critics have debated the book’s literary merits ever since it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. Some consider Benet’s portrayal of historical personages like Lincoln, Lee, Grant, Beauregard, Judah Benjamin, Jefferson Davis, and others to be flat and uninspiring. His portrait of Robert E. Lee, however, captures the essence of the South’s “marble man” in a few poignant lines:
A figure lost to flesh and blood and bones,
Frozen into a legend out of life,
A blank-verse statue …
For here was someone who lived all his life
In the most fierce and open light of the sun …
And kept his heart a secret to the end
Benet is also adept at taking historical situations and vividly rendering them into emotional literary images. He portrays Edmund Ruffin, the rabid abolitionist who fired the first cannon at Fort Sumter, walking in his Richmond garden with a Confederate flag around his shoulders, shooting himself in the heart upon learning of Lee’s surrender. Benet describes General Grant when he sees Confederate bonfires celebrating the birth of George Pickett’s son. He orders his soldiers to do the same and sends a silver service for the baby. Just days later, Grant attacks Pickett and the Confederate army at Petersburg.
Other critics consider his fictional characters, representing Northern and Southern archetypes, to be more fully developed. Jack Ellyat, the hardy New England abolitionist is balanced against Clay Wingate, the haunted plantation owner. Jake Diefer, the Pennsylvania yeoman and Luke Breckinridge, the illiterate backwoods hunter; Sally Dupre, the Southern belle and Melora Vilas, a subsistence farmer’s daughter; Cudjo, the loyal house servant and Spade, the slave who escapes to freedom all characterize traits of the common people Benet so admires, people who suffered, fought, and died to bring about a new birth of American freedom. Benet treats them all with honor and respects the choices they made.
Benet always insisted that he was writing poetry, not history. But in the preface to John Brown’s Body, he defended the historical accuracy of his work. “In dealing with known events,” he wrote, “I have tried to cleave to historical fact where such fact is ascertainable.” For the thoughts and feelings of the historical characters, however, “I alone must be held responsible.”
John Brown’s Body does on a grand scale what Stephen Crane’s novel Red Badge of Courage does on an individual level. Both writers use fictional characters to put immediacy, feeling, and emotion into history. They adhere to Aristotle’s maxim that poetry can reveal universal truths while history is confined to particular truths. By following this methodology, both writers give immediacy and a personal focus to the events they recreate.
That’s not to say a poet can’t be a good historian, too. Benet remembered stories told to him by his father and grandfather, both graduates of West Point and career military officers. He devoured the Official Record, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, and read countless collections of letters, diaries, and memoirs. His set-piece descriptions of battles like First Manassas, Shiloh, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg are lyrically rendered and historically accurate.
No less a historian than Bruce Catton, the author of an award-winning trilogy that recounted the war from the perspective of the Army of the Potomac, admired the book both for its poetry and its history. He found it “pulsing with emotion and glowing with the light that comes when a poet’s insight touches a moment of inexplicable tragedy.” Catton understood that “it is the poet we have to turn to when we confront the profound impact of tragedy on the human spirit.”
Douglas Southall Freeman was researching his four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee when Benet’s masterpiece appeared. He was curious to see how closely Benet’s appraisals and conclusions corresponded to his own. Freeman concluded that Benet “was as accurate in his history as he was skillful in his art.”
Very popular when it was published, John Brown’s Body is rarely read today. Nevertheless, it remains a vibrant tapestry of America’s diversity and its unity by re-imagining the war as Lincoln understood it—a new birth of freedom, a nation redeemed, and a people re-unified.
For more about John Brown, see “John Brown’s Blood Oath,” an excerpt from Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, the forthcoming book by Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic), published online by MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. Also see “John Brown’s Midnight March,” published online by America’s Civil War, August 2009, and “The Madness of John Brown,” Civil War Times, October 2009.
About the author
Gordon Berg’s articles have appeared in America’s Civil War and Civil War Times magazines. Among his articles published on HistoryNet is ‘I Am Well and Hearty’—Walt Whitman’s Brother in the Civil War.