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by Bamber Gascoigne

Stephen (Vincent) BenÚt (1898-1943)


American poet, novelist, and writer of short stories, best-known for John Brown's Body (1928), a long epic poem on the Civil War, which BenÚt wrote in France. Stephen BenÚt received two Pulitzer prizes for his poetry. He was one of those rare poets who was both popular and critically acclaimed.

"American muse, whose strong and diverse heart
So many men have tried to understand
But only made it smaller with their art
Because you are as various as your land,
As mountainous – deep, as flowered with blue rivers,
Thirsty with deserts, buried under snows,
As native as the shape of Navajo quivers
And native, too, as the sea-voyaged rose."

(from John Brown's Body)

Stephen Vincent BenÚt was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, into an army family. His father was Colonel J. Walker BenÚt. Frances Neill (Rose) BenÚt, Stephen's mother, was a descendant of an old Kentucky military family. Because his father was an avid reader, who especially loved poetry, BenÚt grew up in home, where literature was valued and enjoyed. Most of his boyhood BenÚt spent in Benicia, California. At the age about ten, BenÚt was sent to the Hitchcock Military Academy. However, he preferred reading to athletics and did not like the insensitivity of his school mates. Later wrote about his experiences in his poem about Shelley at Eton: "His pile of books scattered about his feet, / Stood Shelley while two others held him fast, / And the clods beat upon him." BenÚt completed his secondary education in Augusta, Georgia, where his father had been assigned a new post. BenÚt's first book, Five Men and Pompey (1915), a collection of verse, was published when he was 17. It showed the romantic influence of William Morris as well as the influence of modern realism.

BenÚt was rejected from the army because of his defective vision. During the war he worked in Washington as a cipher-clerk in the same department as James Thurber, who also had poor eyesight. BenÚt received from Yale his master's degree, submitting his third volume of poems, Heavens and Earth  (1920), instead of a thesis. In Yale his contemporaries included Thronton Wilder and Archibald MacLeish.

BenÚt's first novel, the autobiographical The Beginning of Wisdom (1921), showed the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He continued his studies at Sorbonne, France. He stayed at the home of his Uncle Larry, the managing director of a munitions firm, whose apartment  had a view on the Seine and Eiffel Tower. Later he took a room in Montparnasse, lived somewhat bohemian life and met his wife and moral compass of his life, the writer and journalist Rosemary Carr. Many of his playful love poems were collected in Tiger Joy (1925). Sylvia Beach, who ran the Shakespeare and Company bookstore on Paris's Left Bank, brought him to meet Gertude Stein

Back in BenÚt in the United States, BenÚt set out to make a living as a writer. In New York City the family lived first at 220 East 69th Street between Third and Second Avenues, and then at 215 East 68th. Visitors often dropped by without prior notice. BenÚt's study was full of books, from the floor to ceiling, in piles on tables and chairs and spilling onto the carpet. An omnivorous reader himself, BenÚt used to read aloud to his children in the evening after dinner, Tales of King Arthur, Kilping, Oz books, Arthur Conan Doyle.

During the 1920s he published the novels, Young People's Pride (1922), serialized in Harper's Bazaar, Jean Huguenot (1923), and Spanish Bayonet  (1926), a historical novel about the 18th-century Florida dealing with BenÚt's ancestors. With John Farrar he wrote two plays, Nerves and That Awful Mrs. Eaton, which opened and closed in September 1924. After their failure he did not attempt any form of dramatic for several years. In 1930 he worked with Gerrit Lloyd on the screenplay for D.W. Griffith film Abraham Lincoln.

In 1926 BenÚt won a Guggenheim fellowship, enabled him to focus solely on writing, without constantly worrying about money and bills. With his wife, he went back to France. They took an apartment on the rue Jadin, and moved then to 89 avenue de Neuilly (now avenue Charles-de-Gaulle), in suburban Neuilly, just beyond the city limits of Paris. Several expatriates lived there, among them the writer William Seabrook and the director King Vidor. Also the American Hospital was located there. After the renewal of the grant, BenÚt returned to Paris, taking an apartment on the rue de Longchamp. BenÚt lived for four years in France. Becoming more self-consciously an American in character, BenÚt began to work on his poem about the Civil War, John Brown's Body. "So, from a hundred visions, I make one, / And out of darkness build my mocking sun." Already in his childhood, BenÚt had been fascinated by his father's old Rebellion Records and his Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

While in France, BenÚt collected background material from libraries for his epic poem. Published in New York by Doubleday, Doran & Co., it became a bestseller, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and has remained in print since its appearance. Seen from the perspective of a young, small town boy, it interweaved stories of historical and fictional figures, from the raid of Harper's Ferry to General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House. BenÚt's collection of verse appeared with the acclaim of critics, although Harriet Moore labelled it a "cinematic epic" in Poetry, and some other critics, in tune with the times, tried to find from it important social issues. In a 1941 preface to the work, BenÚt insisted that John Brown's Body "is meant to be heard. It is meant for everybody, not only for the scholars. It is not a highly complicated puzzle box which you can open only with a special set of keys. . . . Poetry is open to any reader who likes the sound and the swing of rhythm, the color and fire of words."

BenÚt's financial success was brief: he lost almost all of his earnings in the stock market crash, that signaled the beginning of the Great Depression. Upon the invitation of D.W. Griffith, he went to Hollywood, where he co-wrote the screenplay for Griffith's film Abraham Lincoln (1930). BenÚt was paid $1,000 a week for twelve weeks.  "Nowhere have I seen such shining waste, stupidity and conceit as in the business and managing end of this industry," he said in a letter to his agent Carl Brandt. "If I don't get out of here soon I'm going crazy." ('BenÚt as Dramatist for Stage, Screen, and Radio' by  David Garrett Izzo and Lincoln Konkle, in Stephen Vincent BenÚt: Essays on His Life and Work, edited by David Garrett Izzo, Lincoln Konkle, 2003, p. 218)  When the script was finished, BenÚt turned down Griffith's offer to develop his idea of a film about the history of Texas and the stand at the Alamo. He never worked in Hollywood again. Later he contributed to two films, Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941) and All That Money Can Buy (1941), but did not leave New York.

Before directing his energy to new works, BenÚt published a collection of ballads and poems, written over a period of fifteen years. It celebrated American names and people, such as William Sycamore, whose "... father, he was a mountaineer / His fist was a knotty hammer..." 

"I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin titles of mining claims,
The plumed war bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat."

In 1929, BenÚt was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and nine years later to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the 1930s BenÚt published among others A Book of Americans (1933) with his wife. It was nostalgic excursion to the past, "When Daniel Boone goes by, at night, / The phantom deer arise / And all lost, wild America / Is burning in their eyes." BenÚt popular poem, 'American Names,' which appeared first in Ballads and Poems (1931), ended with the famous line 'Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.'

James Shore's Daughter (1934), a story about wealth and responsibility, is usually considered among BenÚt's best achievements. The Burning City (1936) included the bitter 'Litany for Dictatorships,' in which BenÚt attacked fascism and mass mentality: "We are all good citizens here. We believe in the / Perfect State." The Headless Horseman (1937) was an one-act play, inspired by Washington Irving's story.

Thirteen O'Clock (1937) included the celebrated 'The Devil and Daniel Webster', originally published in the Saturday Evening Post. It was later made into a play, and opera (music by Douglas Moore), and a motion picture entitled All That Money Can Buy, directed by William Dieterle and starring Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch. The music by Bernard Herrmann was awarded an Oscar. In the story a hard-pressed farmer, Jabez Stone, makes a deal with the Devil, but is saved from the pit by a famous lawyer's pleading at his 'trial.' The jury which he calls to hear Webster's case in compounded out of the greatest villains of American history. BenÚt based his tale on Faust, but set it in the 19th-century New England. This work had two sequels, 'Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent' (1937) and 'Daniel Webster and the Ideas of March' (1939).

The short story 'Sobbin' Women,' collected in Thirteen O'Clock, later inspired Stanley Donen's musical film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), starring Howard Keel and Jane Powell. The story was taken from Plutarch's tale of the kidnapping and rape of the Sabine women, but its beginning also had similarities with Aleksis Kivi's novel Seven Brothers (Seitsemńn veljestń) from 1870, which came out in English in 1929.

In 'Johnny Pye and the Fool-Killer,' published in Tales Before Midnight (1939), BenÚt Americanized the Death, whom the hero outsmarts by refusing to accept an offer of immortality. Besides the horror, mystery and fantastic, BenÚt was interested in science fiction. The dystopic tale, 'By the Waters of Babylon' came out in 1937, years before the Atomic Bomb. The tale was set in the future, in a world after the Great Burning  the fire which fell out of the sky. Poor vision had plagued BenÚt throughout his life, and he was also crippled by arthritis and suffered a bout of mental illness. These personal problems perhaps affected his later fantasies, such as 'The Minister's Books' and 'The Angel Was a Yankee,' collected in The Last Circle (1946).

Besides making a number of radio broadcasts, BenÚt wrote a series of radio scripts, including Listen to the People (1941) and They Burned the Books (1942), a radio drama in verse, his best-known contribution to the war effort. His short stories, produced during these years, were often produced under pressure to pay bills. In the early 1940s BenÚt was a strong advocate of America's entry into the war  in the United Nations Day speech President Roosevelt read a prayer specially composed by the author. The antifascist poem Nightmare at Noon (1940), published in Life magazine and beginning with the lines, "There are no trenches dug in the park, not yet. / There are no soldiers falling out of the sky," became a national sensation. For the Office of War Information BenÚt wrote a short history of the United States, which was translated and distributed in Europe.

BenÚt died of a heart attack in New York City, on March 13, 1943. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Stonington, Conneticut. In 1944, BenÚt was posthumously awarded in the Pulitzer Prize for Western Star. The poem was the first volume of a large verse epic about the American frontier. BenÚt's elder brother, William Rose BenÚt, became a journalist, and also a Pulitzer Prize winner, who helped found the Saturday Review of Literature. BenÚt's The Reader's Encyclopedia (1948) was for decades the standard American guide to world literature.

For further reading: Stephen Vincent BenÚt by William Rose BenÚt (1943); Stephen Vincent BenÚt: The Life and Times of an American Man of Letters, 1898-1943 by Charles A. Fenton (1958); Stephen Vincent BenÚt by Parry Stroud (1962); 'BenÚt, Stephen Vincent,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Stephen Vincent Benét: Essays On His Life and Work, edited by David Garrett Izzo and Lincoln Konkle (2003); With a Dream So Proud: The Life of Stephen Vincent BenÚt by Donnell Rubay; edited by Mary Eichbauer, Lois Requist (2016) - See also: The Headless Horseman; Washington Irving

Selected works:

  • Five Men and Pompey, 1915
  • The Drug-Shop, 1917
  • Young Adventure, 1918
  • Heavens and Earth, 1920
  • The Beginning of Wisdom, 1921
  • Young People's Pride, 1922
  • Jean Huguenot, 1923
  • The Ballad of William Sycamore , 1923
  • King David, 1923
  • Nerves, 1924 (play, with John Farar)
  • That Awful Mrs. Eaton, 1924 (play, with John Farrar)
  • Tiger Joy, 1925
  • Spanish Bayonet, 1926
  • John Brown's Body, 1928
  • The Barefoot Saint, 1929
  • The Litter of Rose Leaves, 1930
  • Abraham Lincoln, 1930 (screenplay with Gerrit Lloyd)
  • Ballads and Poems, 1915-1930, 1931
  • A Book of Americans, 1933 (with Rosemary Carr BenÚt)
  • James Shore's Daughter, 1934
  • The Burning City, 1936 (includes 'Litany for Dictatorships')
  • The Magic of Poetry and the Poet's Art, 1936
  • The Headless Horseman, 1937
  • Thirteen O'Clock: Stories of Several Worlds, 1937 (includes 'The Sobbin' Women,' made into a film under the title Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954, and 'The Devil and Daniel Webster', basis for a play, an opera, and a motion picture All That Money Can Buy / The Devil and Daniel Webster, 1941, dir. William Dieterle, starring Walter Huston, Edward Arnold, James Craig, Anne Shirley)
  • Johnny Pye and the Fool Killer, 1938
  • Tales Before Midnight, 1939
  • The Ballad of the Duke's Mercy, 1939
  • Nightmare at Noon, 1940
  • Elementals, 1940-41 (broadcast)
  • Freedom's Hard Bought Thing, 1941 (broadcast)
  • Listen to the People: Independence Day, 1941, 1941
  • A Summons to the Free, 1941
  • Cheers for Miss Bishop, 1941 (screenplay with Adelaide Heilbron, Sheridan Gibney)
  • Selected works of Stephen Vincent BenÚt, 1942 (2 vols.)
  • Nightmare at Noon, 1942 (in The Treasury Star Parade, ed. by William A. Bacher)
  • A Child Is Born, 1942 (broadcast)
  • They Burned the Books, 1942 (broadcast)
  • Twenty-Five Short Stories by Stephen Vincent BenÚt, 1943
  • Western Star, 1943 (unfinished)
  • America, 1944
  • O'Halloran's Luck and Other Short Stories, 1944
  • We Stand United, and Other Radio Scripts, 1945 (with a foreword by Norman Rosten, decorated by Ernest Stock)
  • The Bishop's Beggar, 1946
  • The Last Circle: Stories and Poems, 1946
  • The Stephen Vincent Bene┤t Pocket Book, 1946 (edited, and with an introduction, by Robert Van Gelder)
  • From the Earth to the Moon, 1958
  • Selected Letters, 1960 (edited by Charles A. Fenton)
  • Selected Poetry and Prose, 1960 (edited with an introd. by Basil Davenport)
  • Stephen Vincent BenÚt on Writing, 1964 (edited and with comment by George Abbe)
  • Ballad of William Sycamore, 1790-1871, 1972 (illustrated by Brinton Turkle)
  • Thirteen O’Clock, Stories of Several Worlds, 1982 (illustrated by Jim Spanfeller)
  • The Devil and Daniel Webster and Other Writings, 1999 (edited with an introduction by Townsend Ludington)

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