Georgia on His Mind

HISTORYb-e2c4f149Fire on the mountains—
snakes in the grass.
Satan’s here a-billin;—
oh, Lordy, let him pass!

— Portion of the poem The Mountain
by Stephen Vincent Benet,
which was the inspiration for Charlie Daniel’s
song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”

MANY HAVE ENJOYED Charlie Daniel’s incredible fiddling in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” or the movie musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but may not have known that both had an Augusta connection—they were inspired by the work of poet and author Stephen Vincent Benet. 

The talented Benet, although not a native Augustan, spent his coming-of-age high school years living in the building that now bears the Benet name on the Summerville campus of Georgia Regents University. There he wrote his first published verses and there he learned about the American South firsthand. 

The first Stephen Vincent Benet in America was the son of Spanish immigrant Peter Benet who settled in St. Augustine, Fla., when it was still Spanish territory. He was born there in 1827, only eight years after the Adams-Onis treaty, negotiated by Augustan John Forsyth, made Florida a territory of the United States. He attended University of Georgia before becoming the first Floridian to get an appointment to West Point after Florida’s admission to the Union as a state in 1845. Following graduation from the academy, he became a career army officer and, in spite of his Southern birth, a loyal Union soldier in the Civil War. By the time of his retirement, Stephen Vincent Benet was a brigadier general. 

He and his wife Laura Walker had two sons—Laurence Vincent, who graduated from Yale and also became an executive in ordnance with the Hotchkiss Company, and James Walker, who followed in his father’s footsteps, graduating from West Point and spending a career in the U.S. Army. 

Born in 1898 in Bethlehem, Penn., to Colonel J. Walker Benet and his wife Frances Neill Rose, the second Stephen Vincent was the youngest of three remarkably talented children. Sister Laura became a successful writer. Brother William Rose, who won a Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1942 for his The Dust Which Is God, was best known as a critic and editor, and one of the founders of the Saturday Review of Literature. Twelve years after the birth of William Rose came the third child, named for his paternal grandfather. He too inherited the family love of reading and talent for writing. He asked for a typewriter for his sixth birthday.

The Benets moved often during Stephen’s childhood—to the arsenal in Watervliet, N.Y., in 1899, Rock Island, Ill., in 1904, and Benecia, Calif., in 1905. Stephen Benet loved California, but in 1911 his father received command of the arsenal at Augusta, Ga., the most significant post in the Southeast. Thirteen-year-old Stephen, now the only child remaining at home, was not eager to move to Augusta from beautiful California. His years in Augusta, however, would prove important to his writing throughout his career, bringing him an understanding of the South crucial to some of his best work. 

The young boy was surrounded by history. The Augusta Arsenal his father commanded had been built in the mid-1820s on land purchased by the U.S. government from planter Freeman Walker, a U.S. Senator during the Missouri Compromise debates in 1819-1820. The main buildings had been deconstructed at the 1819 arsenal on the Savannah River closer to town and reconstructed a couple of miles away in Summerville on the “Hill.” In 1861, in front of the building next to the commandant’s house, the Arsenal had been surrendered by a predecessor of his father’s to the Georgia Confederate troops at the demand of Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown. During the war, the Arsenal and the Confederate Powder Works, built near the site of the original Arsenal between the 1845 Augusta Canal and the river, churned out munitions and gunpowder for the Confederacy. 

In the Benets’ time buildings constructed by the Confederates were still in use on the Arsenal grounds and the tall chimney of the powderworks still stood, reflected in the waters of the canal. Benet heard stories of the Civil War in the book-lined parlor of his home, told by the older ladies of the Hill whom his mother entertained with tea. On the grounds near their home were two cemeteries: the easily recognizable stones of soldiers in the Arsenal cemetery and,  in the adjoining acre, the more ornate monuments of the Walker family, including that of Confederate General W.H.T. Walker who had been killed in Sherman’s 1864 Atlanta Campaign. Although by the time the Benets arrived, the neighborhood, with its grand resort hotels the Bon Air and Partridge Inn, played host to Northern winter colonists every “season.” The history and culture of the South still infused the place and Stephen soaked it in.

History, including the history of the Civil War, became a passion of the young man. Benet attended the Summerville Academy a block from the Arsenal’s guardhouse entrance, where he found the life of a coed school more enjoyable than that of his military academy in California. Under the large oaks on the Arsenal grounds near the commandant’s home, Benet composed his verse. Pounded out on his Underwood typewriter (now housed in Special Collections at GRU), his first poems were accepted for publication during his Summerville Academy years. 

He wrote older brother Bill in 1915 to congratulate him on the birth of his daughter and to share his own good news: “The New Republic paid me fifteen (Count ’em, FIFTEEN) luscious dollars for Icarus [Winged Man]. I feel terribly cocky…An uncle of a niece. The possessor of fifteen dollars. What more could anybody want?” 

By the time he graduated in 1915 from Summerville Academy, he had received word that his book of poems entitled Five Men and Pompey would be published by a Boston company. The Augusta Chronicle wrote in December 1915, “If Mr. Benet can write, in his freshman year at college, such undeniable evidence of literary and artistic genius his friends here can sagely predict that the day will come when his name, as poet and writer, will be well known throughout the country, and his Augusta friends will watch his career with interest and pride.” It was prophetic. In 1917 Yale Alumni Weekly announced “the Albert Stanburrough Cook Prize in poetry had been awarded to Stephen Vincent Benet of Augusta, Ga.” And for over almost three decades Augusta followed the rise of Benet in the literary world. 

In the fall of 1915, while his parents remained in Augusta, the young man went off to Yale. He was in good literary company; classmates included Thornton Wilder and Archibald MacLeish, both future Pulitzer winners as well. While at Yale Benet published two volumes of verses and in his third year was elected the chair of theYale Literary Magazine. After this year, he tried to join the service in WWI, memorizing the eye chart to pass the eyesight test. Within days, his vision difficulty became obvious and he was honorably mustered out. 

After completing his bachelor’s degree he went into the Yale master’s program, acquiring a degree in 1921. In Paris on a Yale fellowship in 1920-21, he met and married his soul mate Rosemary Carr, who was working as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune. For two decades she served as his muse. Less than a year after his marriage the Nation magazine published his poem “Poor Whipporwill or How Hill Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddler’s Prize,” the story of a Georgia mountain boy who could “fiddle down a possum from a mile high tree.” Georgia was still on his mind.

The crucial point in Benet’s career was receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 1926, which allowed him to concentrate on his writing. He and Rosemary returned to Paris where living expenses were cheaper and for two years he meticulously researched and wrote what became his magnum opus, John Brown’s Body. In its first two years in print, the 15,000-line book poem sold more than 130,000 copies and in 1929 won the Pulitzer for poetry. John Brown’s Body is Civil War history in verse with accurate portrayals of the main players based on Benet’s research, combined with fictional stories of planters, farmers, soldiers, abolitionists and enslaved African Americans, to reflect the lives of ordinary Northerners and Southerners in the tragic conflict. Benet tried to capture the views of both sides without judgment. While The Augusta Chronicle would have preferred a more Southern bias, it nonetheless agreed that winning the Pulitzer was a “Notable distinction, regardless of what some folks may think about [the poem].” 

Benet’s time in Georgia clearly influenced the poem, the Georgia “…of pine and river and sleepy air, of summer thunder and winter rain….” His main fictional protagonist, planter Clay Wingate, knows this is “his Georgia,” that “wherever the winds of Georgia run, It smells of peaches long in the sun.” Benet was flooded with letters from all over the country testifying to the effect the book had on its readers. Students studied it in their classrooms. In England the BBC produced it. Soldiers read it during World War II. As his biographer Charles Fenton wrote, “It made [Benet] a national figure at the age of thirty, known to thousands of Americans who knew the name of no other living American poet.”

Benet continued to produce poems, novels, essays and short stories. By the early 1930s, he had begun work on another narrative poem, Western Star, that was to explore the history of the United States from settlement through the westward movement. But other projects, including his 1934 novel James Shore’s Daughter and his best-known short story, the O. Henry Award-winning “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” intervened. Over the years that story appeared in various forms—as a play, an operetta and a movie—and generations of schoolchildren read it. It solidified his reputation as an American storyteller. 

In the late 1930s Benet tried to get back to the work on his narrative poem. He spent the last summers of the decade researching the history of American settlement. However, in addition to the distractions of lecturing, editing, mentoring, working with literary organizations and writing short stories to support the family, Benet’s enthusiastic patriotism propelled him to spend much of his time conscientiously supporting Roosevelt in the mobilization efforts of World War II. The Benets, after all, were army folks. The day after the 1940 presidential election, well-known American actor Raymond Massey read Benet’s “We Stand United” speech on radio, which was enthusiastically received around the country. He also composed a portion of “Freedom From Fear” in President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech. He wrote radio scripts for the Council for Democracy, including a series in 1942 entitled Dear Adolf in which each of six broadcasts in the series was a fictional letter from various stereotypical Americans—a farmer, housewife, soldier, worker, naturalized citizen. All monies received for war work Benet sent directly to the Army Fund or USO. 

Through his writing Benet was devoted to morale on the home front, though he longed to finish his narrative poem of America’s founding. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Overworked and long wracked by arthritis and poor health, Benet died of a heart attack in his wife’ s arms on March 13, 1943—he was 44 years old. A few months later, Western Star was published, one book of the proposed nine. It won Benet’s second Pulitzer. 

By that time Augusta was more than 25 years in his past, but its subtle influences remained. These were his only years in the South, yet they set the stage for his work, influenced the content and permeated the imagery in much of his best work. In a 1936 letter to author Margaret Mitchell, Benet wrote: “We were eight years in Augusta when I was growing up and I can still shut my eyes and remember the particular look of that country. I hated it at first…and then grew very fond of it indeed…I still remember reading…at night in the middle of a typical Georgia thunderstorm. My!” φ

Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell is an Augusta historian, author and director of the Center for Study of Georgia History at Georgia Regents University-Augusta.       


This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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