History Piece

 
The Making of Power and the Land (1939-1940)


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Introduction
Stephen Vincent Benet, the accomplished and popular American poet and author, was retained by the REA to write the script for Power and the Land. Benet had been born on July 22, 1898 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania into a distinguished military family. His grandfather had been a Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, serving as Chief of Ordinance from 1874-1891. Stephen’s father, Captain James Walker Benet, was also a career officer. But Stephen’s father was as comfortable and accomplished with poetry, literature and history as he was with military ordinance. Stephen’s mother, Frances, was also skilled in correspondence and in verse. Not surprisingly, Stephen’s older brother (William Rose) and sister (Laura) also became noted authors. The Benets were a remarkably gifted family.

Early Years
The literary inclinations of the youngest son, Stephen Vincent Benet, emerged very early. In August, 1915, one month before he matriculated at Yale, Benet had sold his first poem to New Republic. At Yale, Benet was rightfully regarded as somewhat of a prodigy, publishing his first book of poems (Five Men and Pompey) during his freshman year. In his second year, he was elected to the editorial board of Yale Literary Magazine, becoming chairman in 1918. In July of that year, Benet, with the United States at war with Germany, enlisted in the Army. Because of poor eyesight, however, Benet had managed to pass the physical examination only by memorizing the eye chart. This was shortly discovered and he was then given a honorable discharge. Subsequently, Benet returned to Yale where he received his B.A. and then an M.A. Having been granted a fellowship from Yale, Benet traveled to Paris where he completed his first novel (The Beginnings of Wisdom), and had the good fortune to meet, Rosemary Carr, whom he will marry in Chicago in 1921.

John Brown’s Body
Although he was first of all a poet, Benet, in order to make a living, had to become a skilful author of short stories and novels. His early writings appeared in the such popular periodicals as Literary Digest, Harper’s Bazaar, Ladies’ Home Journal, Everybody’s, and Cosmopolitan. In 1926, Benet received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Having thus been granted a temporary respite from grinding out short stories, Benet took his growing family to Paris, where they could live more economically. (To view Benet family film footage of Stephen and Rosemary Benet in France, circa 1927, click here.) While in France, Benet focused his creative energies on an epic poem on the Civil War. This poem, John Brown’s Body, was selected by the Book-of-the-Month-Club as its election for August, 1928. In 1929, Benet’s epic poem received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

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John Brown’s Body established Benet as an American man of letters. According to biographer Parry Stroud, it “was the boldest attempt in our literature to treat our history poetically.” “The scope, structure, and style of the poem, nearly fifteen thousand lines in length, make it, broadly speaking, an epic in the classical sense, but it is an epic with uniquely American qualities and themes.” (Stroud, Stephen Vincent Benet, p. 46) It became one of the all-time best sellers. The royalties began to flow in, and for a short time in 1929, Benet even worked as a scriptwriter (at the princely sum of $1,000 a week) for D. W. Griffith’s film on Abraham Lincoln. But these good times ended with the Depression. Benet lost most of his early royalties from John Brown’s Body in the collapse of the stock market. And in the thirties Benet, by financial necessity, returned to the formula short story. At times, the wolf seemed to be at the door.


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