It’s likely the most successful poem in American literary history, selling more than 130,000 copies. And it’s epic in length.
In 1925, the highly regarded poet Stephen Vincent Benet (1898-1943) applied for a Guggenheim Foundation grant to write a long historical poem about the Civil War. The foundation came through with a $2,500 grant that supported Benet and his family. Along with a bit of freelance writing, while he researched and wrote. They moved to Paris for him to write; it was cheaper than living in the United States. He thought the effort would take seven years; in fact, it took only two. John Brown’s Body was published in 1928, catapulting Benet into literary stardom.
The poem contributed to Benet being the most read American poet between 1918 and his death in 1943. His other poems and short stories were widely popular as well, including the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Book One of a planned nine-volume narrative of the settlement of America, entitled Western Star, was published after his death and received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
The epic of John Brown’s Body, or “cyclorama,” as Benet called it, begins with John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Even more than the Dred Scott decision, this is the event that the poet indicates was the point of no return. The raid horrified the South and electrified the North; in Benet’s hands, national unity was not possible without a war. In the poem, this first section includes some of the most vivid and dramatic imagery of the entire poem. (And I didn’t know that Brown took hostages, including the great-grandson of George Washington.)
John Brown’s Body seems rather curious today, curious in that it isn’t a rant or filled with pious superiority and virtue signaling. It’s almost scrupulously fair to both sides in the war, depicting both historical and fictional characters as they themselves would have seen and experienced the war. His main fictional characters, Jack Ellyat of Connecticut and Clay Wingate of Georgia, are drawn to popular type, Ellyat being a yeoman Connecticut farmer and Wingate being the son of a large plantation owner in Georgia. They and their families will experience the war in radically different ways.
Benet moves the story from the Harper Ferry’s raid to the firing on Fort Sumter, battles like Bull Run and Antietam, Gettysburg, and finally the surrender at Appomattox. In addition to the fictional characters living the story, historical characters like Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, Ulysses Grant and others describe what is happening. Most of the poem covers the period up to an including Gettysburg; the last two years are rather abbreviated, focusing on Appomattox. But Benet does devote a section to Sherman’s march through Georgia to the sea.
It’s rather astonishing that Benet completed the poem in two years. It still makes for an enthralling read as he tells the story of what is (the present moment notwithstanding) the most divisive period in American history, a time when America was torn apart over four years.
Writing years after the poet’s death, historian Bruce Catton said that if you wanted to understand the Civil War, you could read the 120 volumes of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, or you could read John Brown’s Bodyby Benet. Benet makes for much more concise and entertaining read.
Top illustration: A drawing of U.S. Marines storming the engine house at the Harper’s Ferry federal arsenal (National Park Service).