Stephen Vincent Benét

Active - 1925 - 2004  |   Born - Jul 22, 1898   |   Died - Mar 13, 1943   |   Genres - Drama, Musical, Comedy, Crime, Historical Film

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Stephen Vincent Benét was born in Bethlehem, PA, one of three children of a career army officer named James W. Benét and the former Frances Neill Rose. He grew up in a very well-read household. His father, in particular, had a wide range of interests in all subjects, historical and military, as well as poetry. Both of his siblings enjoyed successful literary careers, but Stephen was the most successful of them. Achieving this career took some time, however. He survived a childhood bout of scarlet fever with impaired eyesight and other health problems, and was schooled at home as a result. In an effort to give him a chance to focus on his social life, his parents enrolled him in a military academy where the strict regimen and bullying left him virtually traumatized. He got through a less severe military school in Georgia and immersed himself in the works of Thackeray, Kipling, Conrad, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and G.K. Chesterton, among others. He won numerous poetry prizes beginning in his early teens and was regularly published by the time he was ready for college. At age 16, Benét sold his first poem to The New Republic, and his first book of poetry was published when he was 17. He attended Yale University and became a well-known figure in the school's literary community, winning several prizes and getting his work published as an undergraduate.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Benét tried many times to enlist in the armed forces, only to be rejected because of his eyesight and weakened health. Instead, he worked for the state until the armistice and returned to Yale to finish his B.A., later pursuing a graduate degree there. Benét was one of the most active and successful literary personalities at the university, publishing his poetry regularly and collaborating with professor and future actor Monty Woolley on a new edition of Christopher Marlowe's Tambourlaine the Great. In 1921, he published his first novel, The Beginning of Wisdom, which dealt with his travails in military school. Over the next two years he published two more novels, but his greatest recognition came from his poems, which included The Ballad of William Sycamore, his first successful effort at celebrating American history and folklore -- elements that would be central to his most famous and important works. Benét's novels and poetry didn't generate enough income to provide security for his family. His short stories, however, coupled with his work as a reviewer of books and theater made up the difference and allowed Benét to keep writing full-time. His first great success came in 1925 when he began a historical poem about the Civil War, which he published as John Brown's Body, a 15,000-line epic that became a huge success upon publication during the summer of 1928. It became the most widely sold and published American poem since the 1840s and transformed Benét into the leading literary figure of his time as the 1920s drew to a close. In 1929, Benét made his first journey to Hollywood under the aegis of D.W. Griffith, who engaged Benét in writing the script for the legendary director's first talking picture, Abraham Lincoln. The experience wasn't a happy one, however, and Benét was eager to return to New York as soon as his work was finished.

Over the next decade, Benét's reputation was built principally on his short stories, most notably The Devil and Daniel Webster, a retelling of the Faust legend in decidedly American terms, encompassing the history and legends surrounding the American Revolution and the post-Andrew Jackson era; the piece was just as popular and successful as John Brown's Body had been. For most of the '20s and all of the '30s, Benét represented the American literary establishment, while authors such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald were lamenting the "lost generation." Benét was fundamentally an optimist whose work celebrated America's history, founders, and its ordinary citizens. He quickly became one of the most influential literary figures of the '30s, editing books of poetry aimed at younger students, and serving as an advisor to numerous publishers, as well as lecturing to audiences both in and out of the literary community. Until the rise of Bennett Cerf in the '50s, there was no figure of comparable public recognition and stature to Benét in literature. He was an outspoken supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and a fierce opponent of totalitarianism. These sentiments began appearing in some of his work in 1933.

Benét's health began to decline, even as his reputation and influence reached their peak. He suffered from strokes and endured chronic pain from arthritis of the spine during the '30s, and in 1939 he was hospitalized for nervous exhaustion. Though he had been unhappy with the results of his visit to Hollywood, Benét wasn't averse to the sale of his own work to film companies. A number of his stories, including The Sobbin' Women (which became the basis for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and Everybody Was Very Nice, were sold to Hollywood, the latter filmed at Warner Bros. as Love, Honor and Behave (1938). In 1941, The Devil and Daniel Webster was filmed at RKO under producer/dirctor William Dieterle, with a screenplay by Dan Totheroh. The resulting movie, starring Walter Huston and Edward Arnold, is considered one of the finest screen adaptations ever done of a literary work and one of the best films to come out of RKO. Further, that film adaptation of Benét's work became the inspiration for the score that won Bernard Herrmann his first Oscar in the year he was competing against himself for his work on Citizen Kane.

When America entered the Second World War, Benét threw himself into the war effort with the same fervor that he'd approached the First World War -- only this time as a civilian and leading public figure. Despite his worsening health, he wrote numerous articles and radio scripts to build morale, and helped to organize writers and others on behalf of the cause. He began a new epic work, a planned nine-book poem about the European settlement of the United States; only one volume was completed before he suffered a heart attack in 1943 and died. This work, Western Star, was published posthumously and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1944. Benét's popularity declined during the post-World War II era, and by the '60s, only The Devil and Daniel Webster was being widely read. His optimistic view of America seemed particularly out of place in the academic world of the '20s and beyond. His work was barely studied at the college level, whereas entire courses were built on the far more pessimistic works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Benét, however, remains one of the most fascinating literary figures of the early 20th century, and the continued popularity of the movies adapted from his work -- most notably The Devil and Daniel Webster and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (of which the latter was also served as the basis for a television series, Here Come the Brides at the end of the '60s) speaks well for the durability of his work.

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