John Brown’s Body

Copyright 1928
Checked out 5 times in 37 years
Last checked out 14 years ago

This is a first edition of Stephen Vincent Benet’s 377 page epic poem about the Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929, so this first edition could be considered a treasure except for 2 things. First, it’s slowly falling victim to that villain of the South: mildew. Second, the work has unjustly fallen into obscurity, as expressed by its having been purchased for $2.50 in 1972 (noted in the front papers), and by my having only the most tenuous recollection of having heard of the book and none whatsoever of the poet. I’m no encyclopedia of poetry, but I’ve read pretty widely of 20th Century American poetry and I think it’s a shame that at least an excerpt of this work hasn’t crossed my path. For this review, I browsed the book, opening it here and there. One of the first passages I opened to was this marvelous description of Southern forests and rivers and even of a certain rugged Southern character:

By the Pittsburg Landing, the turbid Tennessee
Sucks against black, soaked spiles with soil-coated waters.
That country is huge and disorderly, even now,
–This is Ellyat’s tune, this is no tune but his–
Country of muddy rivers, sombre and swollen,
Country of bronze wild turkeys and catfish-fries
And brushpile landings going back to the brush.
A province of mush and milk, a half-cleared forest,
A speckled guinea-cock that never was cooped
But ran away to grow his spurs by himself.

And I have to wonder why the following lines, among others invoking the ghost of John Brown, haven’t become standard Halloween fare for their sheer spookiness:

A dead man saw him striding at Seven Pines,
The bullets whistling through him like a torn flag,
A madman saw him whetting a sword on a Bible,
A cloud above Malvern Hill.

But these are all lies. He slumbers. He does not stir.
The spring rains and the winter snows on his slumber
And the bones of his flesh breed armies and yet more armies
But he himself does not stir.

All 377 pages are not of equal quality. Benet’s portrayal of Sally Dupre, the narrative’s Southern belle, is far too saccharine. She’s a stereotype. There are other flaws as well. But if we can admit the books of James Fenimore Cooper, which I consider literary embarrassments, into college classes of American Literature, surely we can admit mention of and excerpts from this work. I’m certainly grateful, as a reader of poetry, to have discovered it at the Albertville Public Library.

These reviews, however, are not for me to grouse about academic exclusions but to advise on whether certain books belong in certain libraries. Since this is a poem about the Civil War, and since the Civil War remains so much a part of Southern identity, I say Albertville should keep a copy of this book on its shelves. This particular volume, because of its mildew, should be removed and replaced with a new one. Thankfully, an edition is currently in print.

I would also recommend that John Brown’s Body be part of any larger metropolitan library and certainly any academic library. I would not recommend it for small libraries outside the South. Too few people outside the South feel connected to the Civil War and too few people are interested in reading a book-length poem.

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About jppoetryreader

Poetry reviewer and poetry consultant for libraries
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