Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


A few days ago, I thought I'd dip into The Last Circle, a collection of poems and stories by Stephen Vincent Benet.  I read one story and found myself reading another, and another.  Pretty soon, I had read the entire book.

     Benet is probably best remembered today for his story The Devil and Daniel Webster and for his book-length poem John Brown's Body.  In some circles, he's known for ghosting the novelization of Mary Robert Rinehart's The Bat.  I suspect that few people read Benet today and that's a shame.  The Last Circle is a posthumous collection; Benet died of a sudden heart attack in 1943 at age 44.

     In her introduction to this collection, his widow, Rosemary Benet, wrote that there seemed to be a premonition with death in these stories and poems.  She's right, of course, but there is another common theme that runs through this book, and, indeed, through his career.  Benet was in love with America, her people, and her promise.  He often used American folktales and folk heroes to tell his stories.  He was a willing propagandist for his country during World War II, writing stories, radio dramas, and poems about all that was good about America.  He never turned a blind eye to our faults, but he lauded our initiative to try to move past them and to better ourselves.  He was for the ordinary man, the everyday woman.

     Here's part of a poem he wrote about Franklin Roosevelt:

               We remember the bitter faces of the apple-sellers
               And their red cracked hands,
               We remember the gray, cold wind of '32
               When the job stopped, and the bank stopped,
               And the merry-go-round broke down,
               And, finally,
               everything seemed to stop.
               The whole big works of American,
               Bogged down with a creeping panic,
               And nobody knew how to fix it, while the wise guys sold the country short,
               Till one man said (and we listened)
               "The only thing we have to fear is fear."
               Well, it's quite a long while since then, and the wise guys may not remember.
               But we do, F.D.R.

     In his story "This Bright Dream", Benet's narrator is an old woman who looks back on her roots, her family, and the ups and downs they endured:

                    It's a long road from Great-Grandpa to the little new great-grandchild.  I wish I could make
               a picture of it--I wish a picture could be made.  We've been Democrats and Republicans and
               Populists and Whigs and Federalists.  We've gone in wagons and airplanes, on horseback and
               afoot.  We've built things and torn them down and built them again.  And then there was a war,
               and the war before it, the war that kept the Union.  tht seems very far away, I know.  But
               when I was a young girl, there were scars on some of the houses still--scars where the shells
               had struck.  And Mrs. Jenkins' rosewood dining table with the brass plate where the solid shot
               had gone through.  Just a house like your house or my house--an ordinary house where ordinary
               people lived.  I keep thinking of that--and yet we had to keep the Union.  And I've been in the
               hospitals, too--I've heard them breathing, in the hospitals, in the flu epidemic.  I don't think
               anyone forgets.  I know that a woman doesn't.
                    And yet, there was a long time, when your father and I were married and afterward, when it
               seemed as if things were getting better, not only here but all over the world.  That's what I can't
               explain to Frank and Bertha Junior--that feeling we had.  They'd think it was just a dream, but
               it was real, it was true.  Oh, we worried about all sorts of things.  But we felt we could get
               through them, all together.  We felt there was greatness to come.

     There's an optimism that runs through his works.  Reading this book helped reinforce my sometimes shaky optimism.


1 comment:

  1. I'm very fond of "The Devil and Daniel Webster." I memorized "The Ballad of William Sycamore" in high school. Still remember a few chunks of it.