John Brown's Body by Stephen Vincent Benet (1927)
Today is Juneteenth, the day to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States. On this date in 1865, the last American slaves were freed in Galveston, Texas, when General Gordon Granger read the federal orders that all enslaved persons in the state of Texas were now free.
America's Civil War was a bloody and tragic affair where social, economic, racial, moral forces inevitably clashed. It was not a war about state's rights, it was not a war of "Northern aggression," it was a war about slavery, pure and simple. Well, maybe not so simple. It was also a war that, in theory, could propel our country closer to the ideals of a democracy. It was a war that had heroes and villains on both sides -- heroes rightly or wrongly defending their homes and a way of life, villains espousing hatred and bigotry and lacking a moral compass.
Winning a war and winning a peace are two separate things. Reconstruction, for many, became another word for revenge. Over the post-war years, groups formed that committed horrific acts of terror. "Strange fruit" hung from trees. Yet the North had won and the South had lost and by the 1920s, veterans of both sides realized that this was their last chance to cement their differing legacies. The Confederate battle flag, seldom used or flown during the five years of the Confederacy, became an important symbol of the South. Southern women raised money to erect statues of Southern military heroes in an attempt to support Jim Crow laws And in the late Twenties, an idealistic poet tried to make sense of it all.
Stephen Vincent Benet knew that America was made of a fabric of people, some good, some bad, and most just trying to get along. For him, America was a melting pot and its plurality was its strength. Its people, from all corners of the country, were what made America great. And its people were what would help America continue on its democratic, progressive path. Benet had won the first ever Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry in 1926. He went to Paris (because the money would last longer there) and began to write his epic poem. It took him two years, but he finished John Brown's Body, an epic poems of some 15,000 lines, a work that put him alongside other American poets such as Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. John Brown's Body won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1929.
With the Civil War as a background, Benet explores the tapestry of America, using various well-drawn characters from opposing sides and classes. While abolitionist/martyr John Brown is a guiding light through the epic, the character is left behind about a third of the way through the book. Abraham Lincoln becomes both hope and salvation. Benet, like Lincoln, views the bloody war as a necessary evil, something that had to endured so that something better would emerge from the crucible.
The very first lines of the poem clarify Benet's thesis:
"American muse, whose strong an diverse heart
So many men have tried to understand
But only made it smaller with their art,
Because you are as various as the 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,
"Swift runner, never captured or subdued,
Seven-branched elk beside the mountain stream,
That half a hundred hunters have pursued,
But never matched their bullets with the dream,
"But where the great huntsmen have failed, I set my sorry
And mortal snare for your immortal quarry."
Benet treats his subject and characters with respect and honor because their hopes and aspirations are what will keep this country on the path forward.
John Brown's Body is a humanistic and optimistic expression of the American dream through its tragic past. It is an enlightening, positive and hopeful work. It is the type of book I needed right now.
The popularity of the book has lessened over the years. And that's a shame.