on 24 December 1998
During the Pax Romana the emperor Augustus commissioned Vergil to write an epic history of the Romans. The result, of course, was The Aeneid, a stunning blend of epic poetry and historical fiction that some would argue has yet to be topped. John Brown's Body is the closest thing we have to an epic poem "about" America. And while it takes place during the civil war and makes no claim to be an authoritative history, the book is no less impressive as a literary feat. No book in the history of this country has so artfully depicted our nation's great schism.
Written in the 20s, John Brown's Body redefines the word ananchronism. Its contemporaries are The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Professors widely praise these modern works for their groundbreaking aesthetics, and not without justification. However, it's hard to imagine a more daring or daunting task than the writing of John Brown's Body. Never mind the fact that he pulled it off marvelously. Stephen Vincent Benet remains the only writer to have even _attempted_ to write an American epic poem. Stephen Vincent Benet deserves high scores both for degree of difficulty and final product. Yet conventional education regarding 20th century American books never seems to give him these high marks.
Why Benet and his book don't get the recognition they merit is a terrific question. Is his book canonically superior to Gatsby and Their Eyes? No. And on some level, it's difficult to see what someone living in Taiwan could glean from this document of American struggle and triumph. To wit, the book can also be criticized for being slightly skewed toward a Yankee perspective. But as a whole, the book is outright better than a lot of works revered as American classics.
What does better mean? What it should mean. Simply a more impressive work of art. More entertaining. More provactive. More fun to read. More intellectual depth, conveyed subtly and beautifully, embedded skillfully but not invisibly in an absorbing tale. On these counts, John Brown's Body is vastly superior to classics like The Sun Also Rises; The USA series of John Dos Passos; Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis; and certainly Hawthorne's later novels. Yet John Brown's Body continues to get short shrift, to the point where it's well nigh unfindable in many a book store. One can only hope that the critics and canon-makers of later generations restore the book to its proper place, high atop our shining history of American letters.
on 7 June 1998
This book, in my opinion, is probably one of the greatest ever written. It is well laid out, it tells a gripping story that will keep you reading until the last line. "It is here."
on 9 September 1998
I have no idea how to write a review of this epic (in the literal sense, not in the nonsensical way _Star Wars_ or _Shogun_ are billed as "epics") of the American Civil War. Vast and intricate, panoramic and intimate, at turns funny, cruel, sentimental, vile and tragic..but always honest, courageous, and unflinching...always spellbinding. There are not many works of poetry I can not read without getting a tear in my eye, but this is one of them. The surrender at Appomattox, the death of Lincoln, and the catalog of the Army of Northern Virginia, ending in its sublime tribute to Robert E. Lee, in particular, choke me up every time I read them.
John Brown's Body will not serve as a history of the Civil War--you need to know the outlines of the history before you dive in--but I know of no where else in literature you can turn to receive a fuller impression of what the period was _about._
This is, in my estimation, the greatest work of poetry ever written by an American. That it goes largely untaught in our schools is a great and inexplicable shame. That any student of the Civil War should be without a copy is simply inexcusable. This book deserves your attention.
on 4 January 2010
I first read this poem 30 years ago and have read it every year since. My father who had travelled extensively in the USA in the 1930s passed it to me when I asked for a History of the Civil War. No it is not a History, and it may not be fully historically accurate, but it has the essence in a fine balanced way. It is America's Aeneid or Iliad. Benet has a wonderful gift for catching the "voice" of his characters in the meter of the poetry through which they speak whether Lincoln or Lee, Kentucky Farmer or Southern Son, Slave or Soldier. Read this and never think of the USA the same way again. I hope no American, White of Black, from the North or South, cannot read it without pride, and sadness. I hope Europeans reading it will discover a new depth to their appreciation of the strange and wonderful creation that is the United States. And I hope that critics will discover this oddly ignored and forgotten genius and master of the epic form.