Reading Through the Stacks: 14. John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet – A Civil War epic – Part 1

It took me a solid month (off and on) to finish this book. Normally I can read a book of poetry in a day because they’re usually only about a hundred pages, but this epic novel in verse weighs in at 385 pages. And I know you’re thinking, but Allie, if you can finish one hundred pages a day–then shouldn’t you have been able to finish this in under a week?

The answer to that is yes–except I really hate reading about the Civil War. And this was really dense narrative poetry that babbled on about battles. If you enjoy novels in verse, you might really enjoy Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic poem, John Brown’s Body. It really has a lot going for it and a lot going on in it. It’s complex, but although it’s told from multiple points of view and uses different meters, it’s linear and it tells a familiar story. Plus it was published in 1928, so it’s not like jumping into Shakespeare even though both authors mostly use blank verse. So if you enjoy reading about the Civil War you’ll probably enjoy this book.

That said, I have mixed feelings about the book, mostly due to the subject matter and how the Civil War is presented. This is not Benét’s fault–you can see this kind of treatment of history in oodles of history books, films, fiction, and popular narratives. I just don’t like it. There are some fantastic lines in this book, the women who are depicted are relatively complex and interesting, and while Benét spends a lot of time describing battles and army life–that’s not the sole focus of the book. Hardship in general is not the sole focus, and this gives the verse a lot of life and energy and kept me more engaged than I could have hoped for.

Since it took so long to read this book, I figure we’ll give it its due and split this into multiple posts. That way we can hit the most interesting bits, and I can rant about why I don’t like the Civil War time period (despite the hoop skirts).

In this post, we’ll just give a little context: I’ll tell you about the author, the format, the characters, and basically introduce you to the book. Then in later posts we’ll talk about:

  • how race is depicted in JBB (John Brown’s Body–I’m going to make free use of this acronym) and how white writers use race to bend our perceptions of the Civil War
  • how gender is depicted
  • the performance of this poem as a play at San Quentin
Photograph of Stephen Vincent Benet. Young white man with glasses wearing a suit.
Sourced from Poetry Foundation: Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database

Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943) was super famous during his lifetime–bigger than T.S. Eliot or Robert Frost during the years he was alive. He was that mythical being–that unicorn of unicorns: a bestselling 20th century poet (selling in the tens of thousands). Finding this out really surprised me because I’d never heard of him. But some of his works are still in print and this epic novel in verse still graces the shelves of the Oakland Public Library.

He’s well known for romantic, heroic poetry that was his way of showing a patriotic spirit. He was admitted to the military at the end of WWI, but dismissed 3 days later for poor eyesight. Although he never served in the military, he makes great use of all kinds of sources to write movingly about war.

“Benét’s genius was for intelligent, affirmative, easily accessible, somewhat sentimental American portraiture of the sort that popular fiction and the movies sometimes exploited.”

Poetry Foundation

So really, it was no wonder he was so popular. While his contemporary poets were busy perfecting rhyme and meter (like Frost), considering the wonderous nature of the everyday (like William Carlos Williams) or pushing the envelope in terms of subject and form (like T.S. Eliot), Benét was creating American myths in the western myth tradition. In this sense, he reminds me a lot of L. Frank Baum in his creation of a distinctly US American fairy tale.

He applied and received a $2500 grant from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1925 to complete the epic verse on the Civil War, and they moved to the much cheaper Paris so that the family could live off of the money for as long as it took to complete the manuscript (Poetry Foundation). Benet created the work much sooner than he expected–15,000 lines in only about 2 years. And it was marvelously successful both critically and financially, outdoing Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (and it is much better than that particularly epic poem–that I can tell you) (Poetry Foundation).

The poem is divided into 10 sections, an invocation to the muse (which sets up the genre as epic poetry in the Greek tradition), a portion set on a slave ship (the horrors of which are really hard to read), and then the rest of the story moves through 8 books or episodes. Book 6 is probably my favorite as it has the most female characters and the least amount of battles.

So what is the epic poem about? It’s sort of a panorama, an almost cinematic take on the Civil War featuring characters on both sides of the war, battles and ballrooms, enslaved people and generals. Although it is very much a product of its time and has the white cultural superiority lens you might expect, it is also extremely well put together and more sympathetic than I would have expected, especially towards its female characters (although it never reaches towards empathetic, which is a failing in my opinion). It moves through different years and different scenes with a sense of drama, which is why it totally makes sense that it was performed as a play. I’m looking forward to seeing the San Quentin performance, and I’ll give you my thoughts on that in an upcoming post.

But to end today’s post, I thought we’d just talk a little about John Brown, in case you were wondering about the title.

“John Brown’s Body” was a Union song during the Civil War. It’s pretty rousing honestly, and you’ll probably recognize the tune even if you’ve never heard the words because the poet Julia Ward Howe turned the tune (changing the words) into the Battle Hymn of the Republic. You can read more about the history in this PBS article.

And who is heaven looking down on kindly while his body is a mouldering in the grave? That would be the abolitionist John Brown. He believed that all slaves should be set free immediately, and was willing to fight in order to do so. Many of his sons also joined him in this quest, which he believed was a holy mission. He was… kind of out there honestly. He was arrested after holding Harper’s Ferry for a few days and executed, but he became something of a Union and abolitionist martyr. If you’re interested in reading more about John Brown, but from an African American perspective, I would highly recommend reading The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, which follows a young, recently freed Black boy who joins (not so willingly) John Brown’s crusade for freedom. It is satirical and challenging, but so well written. Honestly one of my favorite books I’ve ever written in this time period.

We could go on about this book, but I think that’s a good place to end this first section. We’ll get into more detail in the next installment and actually look at some lines from the piece!

How do you feel about the Civil War time period? About epic poetry? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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