October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
I can’t think of another magazine that relies as heavily as this one does upon its readers to be its contributors as well. The “My Brush With History” feature is a vigorous adolescent now—thirteen years old, with a sunny future—and we’ve been publishing the photographs of “Readers’ Album” since the 1970s. The picture on the opposite page was submitted to that department a year ago, but I hijacked it for a “Frontispiece” because it was of particular interest to me. The little boy peering gravely from the breech of the naval gun is having his centenary this year, and his birthday has drawn less attention than I think it deserves.
Years ago, when I was fresh out of college and trying to learn the intricacies of the American Heritage Picture Collection, I left my post one afternoon to timidly approach Bruce Catton and ask him a question: If he were forced to choose just one book about the Civil War, what would it be? Was there any such book? Yes, he said, there was; it was called John Brown’s Body .
So the war’s great historian did not choose a work of history—not a conventional one, anyway. Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1929, is a poem, 377 close-packed pages long in its first edition, some of it in free verse, some of it in blank verse, and some of it, when it follows the fortunes of a Rebel cavalry troop, in supple, cantering couplets that can echo rue, longing, violence, and ribaldry with equal ease.
But it certainly is a history too. One critic said that Benét could fortify his most casual adjectives with footnotes if he chose, and indeed his portraits of soldiers and politicians are shrewd and concise. His “Book Seven,” given over in its entirety to Gettysburg, is a lucid, comprehensive picture of the battle on every level, from the strategic to the personal, from the arrival of the Confederates in the fat, sunny Pennsylvania countryside (“lean marchers lost in the corn”) to Lee’s successful withdrawal of his men across the Potomac (“… safe to march upon roads you know / For two long years. And yet—each road that you take, / Each dusty road leads to Appomattox now.”)
In some ways it is an oddly modern work. At the time Benét was writing, there tended to be a good deal of temporizing over what the war had really been about: economic incompatibilities, States’ Rights, agrarian virtues versus soulless industrialization. Benét says it was about slavery. The poem opens aboard a slaver, with a young first mate reporting to his captain—a Bible-reading New Englander. If the author’s sympathies finally lie with the North, he does not let the Yankees out of their complicity in the crime that was to exact so terrible a blood price.
Nor is he unsympathetic to the South. Not long after she had published Gone With the Wind , Margaret Mitchell wrote to tell Benét that when she first encountered John Brown’s Body , she had to stop reading it after she reached the part where he speaks about Georgia: “The reason was that you had caught so clearly, so vividly and so simply everything in the world that I was sweating to catch, done it in a way I could never hope to do it and with a heart-breaking beauty. … It was months before I could bear to try to write again.”
That “simply” is true. Benét set himself the task of refining a clear American language, one capacious enough for poetry yet idiomatic and spare. His success gleams through passage after passage of the long poem and is perhaps most succinctly displayed in his wonderful short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” where, at a single stroke, he managed to produce something that might have been the result of whatever long, complex distilling process it is that creates great folklore.
He wrote John Brown’s Body when he was in his late twenties; he was dead at forty-four. His eyesight was too poor to allow him service in the First World War, but when the Second came along, the government recognized what a warm, rational, persuasive voice he had—saw that he had, in effect, been preparing himself his whole life to explain America to the world. He did so with low-key eloquence and honesty—how well the propaganda he turned out holds up half a century after it did its job!—and at a pace that eventually killed him. He was as much a casualty of the war as any soldier who fell on Tarawa or at Aachen.
John Brown’s Body used to be enormously popular; it is still tenuously in print, and any used-book store is likely to have a copy or two. Give it a try. If you’re interested in the Civil War, or in how America got from the nineteenth century to the twentieth (“The prairie-schooners crawling toward the ore / And the cheap car, parked by the station door”) or in romance (the book has two main love stories, some incidental ones, and the occasional “black-eyed charmer / Whose virtue,” as one of Benét’s Southern horsemen puts it, “one hopes, is her only armor”) or in what an autumn morning tasted like when you were little, you’ll be glad you did.