History Piece

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

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The Thirties
By mid-decade, Benet found himself torn between the financial necessity of turning out commercial stories that that paid the rent and the more serious writing that he preferred. In spite of the almost constant pain of arthritis, his output was impressive and highly regarded. His April, 1935 article on “The Professor’s Punch” (published in Pictorial Review) received an O. Henry Memorial Prize. So did “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” published a year later in the Saturday Evening Post. Then there was a third O. Henry Prize for “Johnny Pye and the Headless Horseman” (published in the Saturday Evening Post) in March, 1937. In that same year, Benet collaborated with his fellow Yale graduate and good friend, Douglas Moore, on an operetta The Headless Horseman. In 1939, the two collaborated again in The Devil and Daniel Webster. Here Benet wrote the libretto for an operetta composed by Douglas Moore. A year later, Benet received a fourth O. Henry Prize for “Freedom’s a Hard-Bought Thing” (published by the Saturday Evening Post) in May, 1940.

In the National Service
And it was at this time that Benet started his work on Power and the Land. While the details of the arrangements for this work are not known, Benet obviously looked forward to working again with his close friend Douglas Moore. And this REA film seems to have fit in with Benet’s politics. Benet was a strong support of what he called liberal democracy – as reflected by F.D.R’s New Deal. Indeed, Benet had been alarmed by what he considered the intolerance of some anti-FDR forces at home and the threat of fascist aggression abroad. Benet became a strong supporter of the New Deal and devoted much of his time in the late thirties in an effort to alert Americans to the threat, at home and abroad, to democracy as he saw it. In June, 1940, France had fallen to the Nazi’s. And only an extraordinary and heroic evacuation effort by the British, civilians and military alike, had rescued their Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. These events shocked the complacency of many Americans. And to Benet, as evidenced in his 1940 article on “Freedom’s a Hard-Bought Thing,” great issues were at stake

This context suggests that Benet’s commentary in Power and the Land is not just about rural electrification. The American people, Benet undoubtedly believed, would soon be facing their greatest trial. Were the American up to it? Judging by the following excerpt from the commentary, Benet obviously thought so. And he may have hoped that the American people thought so too.

(Commentary from Power and the Land)

The knives are cutting
The load piled high
The sun beats down from the August sky
We built our freedom and strength this way
From Mississippi to Iowa (I oh way)
From Oregon to the rocks of Maine
We’re building it still together
When we get together
We’re hard to stop
We can raise the crop
And harvest the crop
We can get the power and get the light
We can get the things we want today
With neighbors working the self same way
Working together to cut the corn

Benet’s willingness to work with his good friend Douglas Moore in writing the script for Power and the Land is part, it could be suggested, of his devotion to public service in the coming war years. Benet’s father and grandfather were regular army. And he seems to have felt the call of duty. At least in part, it appears that his narration for Power and the Land may have been designed to reassure Americans that they, like the Parkinsons and other farmers portrayed in Power and the Land, could accomplish anything if they just worked together for the general good.

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