Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Benét, Stephen Vincent

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(1898-1943) US poet, short-story writer and novelist, brother of William Rose Benét; he was primarily known in the interbellum for his poetry, including the book-length US epic John Brown's Body (1928) as well as individual poems like "American Lines", whose closing words – "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee" – would have a relevance to the Native American rights movement he could hardly have guessed. He was, in fact, deeply involved in the Matter of America, and much of his fiction reflects that involvement, though often in Slick-Fantasy terms – his best-known stories first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. Of about 120 short stories – many never collected – a dozen or so are of fantasy interest. "The Barefoot Saint" (1929), whose mildly ironic cadences reflect the influence of James Branch Cabell, early demonstrated SVB's companionable smoothness of style, but is too visibly written as a parable to engage the imagination. It was not until the publication of his single most famous tale – The Devil and Daniel Webster (1936 Saturday Evening Post; 1937 chap), soon transformed into an Opera (1939 chap), a play (1939 chap) and a movie, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) – that he was able to deploy that smoothness in the telling of an effectively resonant Tall Tale. With impressive eloquence, the story fabulizes US history through the defence by Daniel Webster (1782-1852) of a farmer who has made an injudicious Pact with the Devil; with Webster's victory the Frontier is metaphorically declared open for business. Two sequels, "Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent" (1937) and "Daniel Webster and the Ides of March" (1939), are of lesser interest.

In SVB's second famous fantasy tale, Johnny Pye & the Fool-Killer (1937 Saturday Evening Post; 1938 chap), Pye outwits Death the Fool-Killer by refusing to accept an offer of Immortality. The two famous stories, plus several others of fantasy interest, were assembled in Thirteen O'Clock: Stories of Several Worlds (coll 1937) and Tales Before Midnight (coll 1939), both volumes themselves assembled as Twenty-five Stories (omni 1944); a posthumous collection, The Last Circle (coll 1946), includes less interesting material, though "The Land Where There is No Death" (1942) is a moving Allegory in which a man's lifelong search for meaning transforms him into a teller of immortal tales – but, as is typical of SVB, the allegorical element tends to denature the fantasy. In his work the tall tale tends, in the end diminishingly, to be self-regarding. [JC]

other works: Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Benét (coll 1942 2 vols; cut vt The Stephen Vincent Benét Pocket Book 1946); From the Earth to the Moon (written 1935; 1958 chap); The Devil and Daniel Webster and Other Stories (coll 1967).

see also: Archibald MacLeish.

Stephen Vincent Benét


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.