Places: John Brown’s Body

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1928

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Epic

Time of work: 1859-1865

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedEllyat farm

Ellyat John Brown’s Bodyfarm. New England farm of the Ellyat family. Because Benét organizes his poem as alternating pictures of the Civil War as seen from the perspectives of Americans on both sides, he creates a number of fictional characters whose stories reflect those of the larger groups affected by the struggle. Jack Ellyat, the protagonist, comes from a small farm in New England. With great care, Benét sketches both the farm and the surrounding forests and meadows to give readers a sense of the region this character represents. Relying on the reader to bring to the poem certain preconceived notions of regionalism, the poet is able to use a kind of shorthand to suggest values associated with men such as Ellyat.

Wingate Hall

Wingate Hall. Plantation home of Clay Wingate and his family, which the poem contrasts with the simple farmstead on which Ellyat is raised. Benét’s portrait of the southern plantation perpetuates many of the stereotypes about the South. Plantation lifestyle, founded on the system of slavery that Northerners considered an abomination, helps produce in Benét’s young protagonist a sense of honor sometimes devoid of discretion, a predilection for paternalism in dealing with those beneath him in social standing, and an attitude of chauvinism masked as chivalry in his treatment of women. Wingate Hall could have been located in any one of the Southern states, making it an appropriate symbol for the lifestyle that was to disappear at the end of the war.

Vilas home

Vilas home. Home of the Vilas family in the wilderness of the Tennessee woods that becomes a refuge for Jack Ellyat after he escapes from the Confederates who capture him at the Battle of Shiloh. The frontier people in John Brown’s Body are represented in the poem by a number of fictional characters from Kentucky and Tennessee, including the Vilas family. Benét uses the episodes at the Vilas home to discuss the effect of the war on those who still believe that America offers the chance to escape from civilization. The woods around the Vilas home are crisscrossed by soldiers of both armies, and it becomes clear to the Vilas clan that America as a frontier nation must inevitably give way to the encroaching modern industrial age.

*Battlefields

*Battlefields. Benét uses real battlefields, such as those at Bull Run, Shiloh, and Gettysburg, to emphasize the themes of heroism and self-development in his fictional protagonists. Both Ellyat and Wingate fight at these three major battles and, as a result, learn something of the horrors of war. Additionally, they come to understand something of themselves and the values for which they are fighting.

*Washington, D.C

*Washington, D.C. and *Richmond, Virginia. From time to time throughout the poem, Benét shifts the focus to the Northern and Southern capitals. Because this is a historical work, Benét is faithful to the historical record. His major reason for setting some of the action in these cities, however, is that the principal historical figures who determined the strategy for conducting the war were located here. Character studies of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis are important to Benét’s portrait of the country in crisis. Nevertheless, the cities also have metaphorical value. The mood of politicians and the populace in these two cities shifts with the vicissitudes of battle, and the poet makes it clear that the attitudes of citizens in Richmond and Washington reflect in great part those of the larger populations in the North and South.

BibliographyCapps, Jack L., and C. Robert Kemble. Introduction to John Brown’s Body, by Stephen Vincent Benét. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. The editors identify Benét’s sources, mark recurring motifs in the poem, and identify and annotate the names of persons, names of places, and literary quotations and allusions in the text.Fenton, Charles A. Stephen Vincent Benét: The Life and Times of an American Man of Letters, 1898-1943. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958. Discusses Benét’s sources for John Brown’s Body, his writing habits, and the contemporary critical and popular responses to the poem.Gregory, Horace, and Mary Zaturenska. A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946. In this survey, the authors devote a few pages to Benét. They identify the virtues of John Brown’s Body–clarity, vividness, occasional humor, easy rhythms, and patriotic purposes–and then its defects–stereotypical characters and shallow treatment of griefs and delights.Monroe, Harriet. “A Cinema Epic.” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 33 (November, 1928): 91-96. A laudatory contemporary review of John Brown’s Body, stressing its several movielike aspects.Stroud, Perry. Stephen Vincent Benét. New York: Twayne, 1962. Contains a long chapter praising John Brown’s Body as an epic poem of historical and philosophical significance. Discusses its clusters of imagery, notably those involving Phaeton and his chariot, stones, and seeds, its contrasting realistic depiction of war and romantic conception of love, and its varied meters–blank verse, versatile long line, and poetic prose.
Categories: Places