Historical Markers
Stephen Vincent Benet Historical Marker
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Stephen Vincent Benet

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
NE corner, Ostrum and Bishopthorpe Sts., Fountain Hill

Dedication Date:
May 7, 1960

Behind the Marker

There is rust on the land.
A rust and a creeping blight and a scaled evil,
For six years eating, yet deeper than those six years,
Men labor to master it but it is marker not mastered.

Stephen Vincent Benet wearing a three piece business suit.
Poet Stephen Vincent Benet, 1929.
In these words, Pennsylvania-born poet Stephen Vincent Benét described the Great Depression in his 1933 poem, "Is it Well with these States?" In the 1930s, Benét was one of a number of American writers and artists whose works contained social commentary that reinforced the public's perception of the collapse of the old social order. By using legendary folk heroes, national symbols and icons, and historical events, he and his contemporaries attempted to illustrate the common values and experiences of Americans. They sought what anthropologist Ruth Benedict described as "what it means to be a culture" or, what is the "American Way."

Benét was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1898. As the son of a U. S. Army officer he moved around during much of his childhood, and spent several miserable years in military school. He always preferred reading and writing poetry to athletics, so it was no surprise that he pursued a literary career after entering Yale University in 1915. Soon he was publishing poetry in the New Republic, Century Magazine, The Seven Arts, and other leading magazines.

After graduating from Yale with both a bachelors and masters degree, Benét wrote poetry based on American themes. His first critically acclaimed poem, "The Ballad of William Sycamore," (1922) about the life and hardships of a fictional pioneer, illustrated his ability to tell stories in a popular form based on folktales and ballads. In 1926 Benét moved to Paris to create "John Brown's Body," about the fiery abolitionist and the coming of the Civil War.

Red, white, and blue poster advertising an exhibition of watercolors at the Bessemer Gallery. Image shows half an eagle and half a painter's palette.
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Poster for a Federal Art Project exhibit in Pittsburgh at the Bessemer Gallery,...
The decision to write an epic poem about American history surprised some of his contemporaries. Many of the American literary expatriates living in Paris, including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scot Fitzgerald, believed that a prosperous post-war America had become a society focused on self-promotion and materialism rather than on its founding virtues of courage, truth, and honesty.

These peers advised Benét that a story about America would fail, but his commitment paid off. "John Brown's Body" soon sold more than 130,000 copies. In 1929 the 15,000-line poem won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Benét was now one of America's best-known poets.

During the Great Depression, prominent artists and writers attempted to redefine the national identity. As unemployment and bread lines grew, more and more Americans questioned the success of the American capitalism. American artists and writers calls for the reform of American society found new acceptance.

After the crash of 1929, which took most of Benét's savings, his work became more political and he used his celebrity to condemn what he considered threats to core American values and Americans' political freedom. In 1935, the Saturday Review of Literature published the first of his series of "Nightmare" poems about the Great Depression and the rising specter of fascism.

Painting of Benet, head and shoulders.
Stephen Vincent Benet commemorative 32-cent stamp, by Michael J. Deas for the...
That same year, Congress established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide work for unemployed Americans. The WPA then launched five programs to assist American artists, writers, and actors with employment, and to create art that celebrated the nation's regional cultures and the lives of ordinary Americans. Artists in the Federal Art Project painted murals and frescoes in post offices, union halls, and other buildings.

In Pittsburgh, WPA artists painted twenty murals in the marker Highland Park Zoo. The WPA art project helped launch the careers of Laura Slobe of Pittsburgh, Katherine Milhous and Dox Thrash of Philadelphia, Denten P. McGovern of Johnstown, Charles H. Rudy of York. Funded by the WPA Theater project, Philadelphian Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) composed the pro-union musical "The Cradle Will Rock," which a young Orson Welles directed on Broadway in 1937.

In 1937 Benet wrote "The Devil and Daniel Webster," a series of short stories about farmer Jabez Stone, who elicited the help of Daniel Webster to help him break a contract he had made with the Devil. Stone had promised his soul in exchange for seven years of prosperity in order to feed his family. Benét's story of Webster's victorious defense of a common farmer over the Devil came to symbolize for many the triumph of the common man over the economic powers that preyed upon and enslaved Americans through unfair contracts and their control of the courts and government. In 1941, the film version of Benet's story, All That Money Can Buy, won an Academy Award for Best Music, and an Oscar nomination for Walter Huston as Best Actor.

In the late 1930s, Benét continued to write short stories, and also wrote for radio and as a Hollywood screenwriter. A strong supporter of American entry into the World War II, he completed a short history of the United States, which the Office of War Information distributed in Europe. In 1943 Benét died unexpectedly from a heart attack. The next year, he won a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for his unfinished epic, "Western Man."
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