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Benét, Stephen Vincent

Entry updated 1 September 2021. Tagged: Author.

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(1898-1943) US author, active from before 1915, very briefly involved in World War One until his myopia was discovered; brother of William Rose Benét. He was initially most noted for his moderately copious Poetry, including an Arabian fantasy, The Drug-Shop; Or, Endymion in Edmonstoun (1917 chap). The earliest examples of poems with direct sf interest are probably "Winged Man" (in Young Adventure: A Book of Poems, coll 1918), which visualizes Icarus's flight reaching "the highest steeps of Space", and "The Tinsel Heaven – a Dream", a Posthumous Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] involving Space Flight, which was interpolated into his first novel, The Beginning of Wisdom (1921) ; a late Christmas fable, "Doc Mellhorn and the Pearly Gates" (25 December 1938 Saturday Evening Post), is also a Posthumous Fantasy. Benét was most famous during his lifetime for the American epic or "cyclorama" John Brown's Body (1928), and is perhaps best remembered since his death for the last line of "American Names" (October 1927 The Yale Review): "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee" ... Wounded Knee Creek being the site of the 29 December 1890 massacre of up to 300 members of the Lakota people, a key moment in the American appropriation of Lakota lands "protected" by treaty.

Though he never stopped writing poetry, Benét became better known in his later career for stories, around 120 of them in all, many published prominently in the Saturday Evening Post and other Slicks. Much of this work has generally (and unfairly) been forgotten though two fantasy stories stand out. The Devil and Daniel Webster (24 October 1936 Saturday Evening Post; 1937 chap) was later filmed as The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), for which Benét co-wrote the screenplay, and was also published with an inferior sequel and other fantasies in Thirteen O'Clock: Stories of Several Worlds (coll 1937), along with Benét's best-known single sf tale, "The Place of the Gods" (31 July 1937 Saturday Evening Post): the much better known vt, "By the Waters of Babylon", is given in the collection. It is a clever Ruined Earth story about a tribal adolescent boy who on a culture-changing vision quest designed to test his ability to lead his people contemplates, New Zealander fashion, from the far banks of the great river Oud-dis-sun, ruins of a vast destroyed City he calls "newyork" (ie New York). Crossing the river to "the Place of the Gods", he soon comes to a mysterious cavern with stars on the ceiling (ie Grand Central Terminal) (see Ruins and Futurity), and ultimately discovers the desiccated but indisputably human corpse of one of New York's long-perished inhabitants, a sight which inspires him to return to his people and recreate civilization [for Euhemerism see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. "By the Waters of Babylon" is a major exemplar of a theme which became, after World War Two, a Clichéd subgenre in the field.

Written at about this time and similar in tone, From the Earth to the Moon (1958 chap) is the scenario for an unproduced film version of the Jules Verne novel. Other fantasies also followed: one of the most familiar of them, Johnny Pye and the Fool-Killer (18 September 1937 Saturday Evening Post; 1938 chap), the Fool-Killer being Death, was included with other tales, like "The King of the Cats" (February 1929 Harper's Bazaar) and "Into Egypt" (May 1939 Ladies' Home Journal), in Tales Before Midnight (coll 1939). Along with much poetry (see below), all the stories here mentioned (excepting the screenplay) were later assembled in Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Benét (coll 1942 2vols; cut vt The Stephen Vincent Benét Pocket Book 1946).

Of strong sf interest from Benét's later work are the poems variously sorted under the surtitle Nightmares and Visitants, some of them independently in Burning City: New Poems (coll 1936 chap), and the whole of them, under the surtitle, in the 1942 Selected Works (see above). They include several visions of Ruins and Futurity, typically dramatized through Disasters afflicting New York, as in "Metropolitan Nightmare" (1 July 1933 The New Yorker) – whose first publication date has also been given, almost certainly wrongly, as 1927 – where metal-eating termites, generated by the heating of the globe (see Climate Change), devour the metropolis. In "Notes to be Left in a Cornerstone" (18 April 1936 The New Yorker), the city had aeons before been destroyed by the maddening "light" of modernity itself, which is seen in the future-directed narrative as "a whip and a sword" that drove aspirant humanity to self-destruction. The narrator of "Nightmare Number Three" (27 July 1935 The New Yorker) bemusedly witnesses a revolt of the Machines, thinking he might survive as a slave (see Slavery) to keep them oiled; and the slightly later "Nightmare for Future Reference" (2 April 1938 The New Yorker) describes a Ruined Earth America subsequent to World War Three, after a mysterious virus (see Pandemic) has sterilized the human race.

The final Nightmares and Visitants poem Nightmare at Noon (1940 chap), which is set in World War Two, pictures German planes bombing a Near Future New York: its closing lines allow the inference that any sort of denial of planetary crisis may bring on the End of the World:

Go tell fire it only burns in another country,
Go tell the bombers this is the wrong address,
The hurricane to pass on the other side.
Go tell the earthquake it must not shake the ground.

The bell has rung in the night and the air quakes with it.

[JC]

Stephen Vincent Benét

born Fountain Hill, Pennsylvania: 22 July 1898

died New York: 13 March 1943

works (selected)

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