Friday, November 28, 2008

Stephen Vincent Benet

I inherited a box of old books, mostly book-of-the-month club hardbacks, nothing particularly special jumped out but on the inside flap of the Book "Western Star" was a bio of it's author and as it often does the word "radio" jumped out. Who the hell is this guy?
"The words Mr. Benet used to describe Americans apply equally well to him. He ws always moving on... Millions of Americans have heard his great radio programs, They Burned the Books and Listen to the People, among others... There have been unprecedented tributes to his memory in newspapers, magazines and on the air..."
He was an American poet, novelist, and writer of short stories. He did a number of epic poems which I find dull dated and dry but were clearly popular in their day. He was born in Bethlehem, PA, into a military family and was relocated several times. He grew up in Benicia, California and rural georgia to name a few. He attended military school in the end, but was too myopic for actual service. He remained a staunch militarist, and supporter of the allies in WWII.

Benét made a number of radio broadcasts and worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He wrote a series of radio scripts, including "We Stand United" which was read over the CBS network by Raymond Massey in November of 1940. That same year he published "The Undefended Border" which was broadcast on the Cavalcade of America Program in December of that year. Massey also narrated that work. That same program also aired his work "A Child is Born" in December of 1942 on NBC but actually re-performed it in December of 1943 by popular request. That same year, on Flag day, President Roosevelt read at the end of his speeche a peice by Benet, witten just for the occasion titled "Toward the Century of Modern man, Prayer"

He published "Listen to the people in 1941 it was broadcast over the NBC Blue Network on the 4th of July 1941. He wrote They Burned the Books in 1942, which was read over the NBC network in May of 1942 a spart of a big Lester O'Keefe production. That year WABC and the CBS network all carried his play "A time to Reap" on Thanksgiving He had done a similar, but much smaller production the previous year on the NBC red network.

In 1944 his script "Your Army" was performed on all 4 big networks across 600 radio stations and on shortwave. He died in 1943 just missing his own big radio finale.

His works in the cannon of WWI propaganda were almost as ubiquitous as war bonds. He was a rabid patriot and nationalist. It makes sense then that these programs were produced not by Nabisco and Kraft but by big propaganda machines like The Council for Democracy, the America United Rally, The office of War information.. etc. It is what Mark Twain called "Art for the wrong reasons."

In 1945 a post-humus collection of his radio scripts was published under the title "We Stand United." many of these begin as letters from variosupeoples to Adolf Hitler and begin with the words "Dear Adolf." This last text is not only in the public domain but also readily availabel online so I've posted it for download here. Most of it reads like WWI radio propaganda.. which was conceeded by Norman Rosten in the forward:
"His weapon was the word, and Stephen vincent benet rolled up his sleeves and began turning out weapons. Here in this book of radio plays, are some of them. they are modern, built to specification, made for the need and cause of our time. Propaganda? That word used to be the big boogeyman of the thirties."
His and many of the Benet family papers are at the Cornell University Library in Ithaca, NY. It reveals that his sister Laura also wrote radio scripts.