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John Brown's Body
Stephen Vincent Benét

ONE of the remarkable literary achievements of the year is Stephen Vincent Benet’s long narrative poem of the American Civil War, John Brown’s Body. The story goes that against the advice of his friends Benet had begun a long narrative poem of the Civil War. With the aid of a Fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation he had gone quietly abroad to work on it. Two years later he sent the completed poem, 100,000 words long, to his publishers. They warned him that though it was a magnificent piece of work it would probably have only a small sale. Discouraged, he opened no more mail before sailing for home —second class, for his money was almost gone.

But the glorious surprise that awaited him in New York recalled the morning when Byron woke up to find himself famous.

As Benet walked dejectedly down the gangplank he was overwhelmed by a swarm of photographers and reporters. For meanwhile his book had been published; the Book-of-the-Month Club had made it their August selection; critics had unlimbered their most powerful superlatives; enthusiasm among readers was boiling over; more than a thousand people a week were buying it.

This was the 100,000 word Civil War poem that the author’s friends had said nobody would read!

Indicative of the praise of the critics but capping them all is this tribute from the New York Evening Post:

“Benet by one gigantic leap has become our first poet, our Homer who sings an Iliad of the Civil War."

The book is selling faster than most novels, which seems to dispose effectually of the hackneyed old axiom of the publishers that poetry won’t sell. It depends upon the poetry!

Benet has given us a book that is one of the life-long companion sort. One will want to pick it up again and again.

There have been many quotations printed in the magazines and reviews, but I have not seen quoted the cry of the Union Army ending with:

“Army of the Potomac, army of brave men,
Beaten again and again, but never quite broken,
You are to have the victory in the end
But these bleak months are your anguish.
Your voices die out.”

Nor the other side of the picture:

“Let us hear the voices of your steadfast enemy;
Army of Northern Virginia, fabulous army,
Strange army of ragged individualists,
The hunters, the riders, the walkers, the savage pastorals,
The unmachined, the men come out of the ground,
Still for the most part living close to the ground
As the roots of the cow pea, the roots of the jasmine,
The lazy scorners, the rebels against the wheels,
The rebels against the steel combustion chamber
Of the half-born new age of engines and metal hands.
The fighters who fought for themselves in the old c’an fashion,
Army of planters’ sons and rusty poor-whites,
Where one man came to war with a hair trunk
Full of fine shirts and a body-servant to mend them,
And another came with a rifle used at King’s Mountain
And nothing else but his pants and his sun-cracked hands
Aristo-democracy armed with a forlorn hope,
Where a scholar turned the leaves of an Arabic grammar
By the camp fire glow, and a drawling mountain twang
Told Chaty stories old as the bawdy world.
Where one of Lee’s sons worked a gun with the Rockbridge battery
And two were cavalry generals.

Praying army,
Full of revivals, as full of salty jests,
Who deflated on God, and Darwin and Victor Hugo,
Decided that evolution might do for the Yankees
But that Lee never came from anything with a tail
And called yourselves ‘Lee’s miserables faintin’"

When the book came out that tickled your sense of romance.

Army of improvisators of peanut-coffee
Who baked your bread on a ramrod stuck through the dough
Swore and laughed and despaired and sang ‘Lorena,’
Suffered, died, deserted, fought to the end.

Sentimental army, touched with ‘Lorena,’
Touched by all the lace-paper-valentines of sentiment,
Who wept for the mocking bird, on Hallie’s grave
When you had better cause to weep for private griefs,
Touched by women and your tradition-idea of them,
The old book-fed, half-queen, half-servant idea,
False and true and expiring.

Starving army
Who, after your best was dead and your Spring lay dead,
Yet held the intolerable lines of Petersburg
With deadly courage.

You too are legend now
And the legend has made your fame and dimmed that fame,
—The victor strikes and the beaten man goes down
But the- years pass and the legend covers them both,
The beaten cause turns into the magic cause,
The victor has his victory for his pains—
So with you—and the legend has made a stainless host
Out of the dusty columns of footsore men
Who found life sweet and didn’t want to be killed,
Grumbled at officers, grumbled at governments.

That stainless host you were not. You had your cowards,
Your bullies, your fakers, your sneaks, your savages.
You got tired of marching. You cursed the cold and the rain.
You cursed the war and the food—and went on till the end.

And yet there was something in you that matched your fable.
What was it? What do your dim faint voices say?
Will we ever get home? Will we ever lick them for good?
We’ve got to go on and fight till we lick them for good.
They’ve got the guns and the money and lots more men
But we’ve got to lick them now.

We’re not fighting for slaves.
Most of us never owned slaves and never expect to.
It takes money to buy a slave and we’re most of us poor,
But we won’t lie down and let the North walk over us
About slaves or anything else.

We don’t know how it started But they’ve invaded us and we’re bound to fight
Till every last damn Yankee goes home and quits.
We used to think we could lick them in one hand’s turn.
We don’t think that any more.

They keep coming and coming.
We haven’t guns that shoot as well as their guns,
We can’t get clothes that wear as well as their clothes,
But we’ve got to keep on till they’re licked and we’re independent,
It’s the only thing we can do.

Though some of us wonder—
Some of us try and puzzle the whole thing through,
Some of us hear about Richmond profiteers,
The bomb-proofs who get exempted and eat good dinners,
And the rest of it, and say, with a bitter tongue,
‘This is a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,’
And more of us, maybe, say that, after a while.
But most of us just keep on till we’re plumb worn out,
We just keep on.

We’ve got the right men to lead us,
It doesn’t matter how many the Yankees are,
Marse Robert and Old Jack will take care of that,
We’ll have to march like Moses and fight like hell
But we’re bound to win unless the two of them die
And God would not be so mean as to take them both,
So we just keep on—and keep on—”
To the wilderness, To Appomattox, to the end of the dream.”

Throughout the narrative one is taken right into the heart of things; in fact into the very hearts and minds of the soldiers and while the language is strong at times is that not in keeping with the strenuous subject?

Here, for instance, is the soliloquy of a Union soldier, a barrel-chested Pennsylvanian, when after two or three years of fighting armies approach his own country, his own home:

Jake Diefer, the barrel-chested Pennsylvanian,
The steer-thewed, fist-plank-splitter from Cumberland,
Came through the heat and the dust and the mountain roar
That could not drown the rustle of the tall wheat
Making its growing sound, its wind rustle sound,
In his heart that sound, that brief and abiding sound,
To a fork in the road that he knew.

And then he heard
That mixed undocile noise of combat indeed
And as if it were strange to him when it was not strange.
—He never took much account of the roads as they went,
They were always going somewhere and roads were roads
But he knew this road.

He knew its turns and its hills,
And what ploughlands lay beyond it, beyond the town.
On the way to Chambersburg.

He saw with wild eyes
Not the road before him or anything at all
But grey men in an unreal Wheatfield tramping it down.
Filling their tattered hats with the ripe rough grain
While a shell burst over a barn.

"Grasshoppers!" he said
Through stiff, dry life, as he tried to gauge
That mountain roar and its distance.

“The Johnnies is there!
The Johnnies and us is fighting in Gettysburg,
There must be Johnnies back by the farm already,
By Jesus, those damn Johnnies is on my farm!"

Diefer is but one of the characters coming up again and again in the tale. In fact he is not one of the major characters at all, but it's the sort of narrative that impresses all its characters upon you clear limned; and, as already intimated, a volume to go back to again and again with keen anticipation ever alive regarding future such returns to the book. J.M.

John Brown's Body (1928) (pdf)

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