Former Augustan Stephen Benet had a short life, a long literary career


There are not many Augustians listed on a US postage stamp.

There aren’t many Augustians who have won the Pulitzer Prize. Twice.

There aren’t many Augustians from military families who were limited in combat by poor eyesight… so they served as a crack code breaker instead.

This is because there is only one Stephen Vincent Benet.

Born in 1898, Benet was considered one of the great American writers of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

He wrote poetry, fiction, short stories, plays and radio scripts.

He did all of this in a very short life before he died of a heart attack in 1943.

His second Pulitzer was awarded posthumously for an incomplete poem. To be so honored for a job that wasn’t even finished, you have to be pretty well thought out, and Benet certainly was.

His great themes of American expansion, patriotism and popular myths may be considered outdated today, but in his day he was a literary rock star and most of this talent’s formative years were here at Augusta.

Postage stamp from Stephen Vincent Benet issued in 1998

Benet’s family comes from a military tradition. His grandfather, also named Stephen Vincent Benet, was originally from Florida and spent time at the University of Georgia.

Benet’s father followed his own military career, which saw many assignments, including that of commander of the American arsenal in Augusta, where young Stephen came of age.

Benet once said he didn’t like Augusta when her family moved here from California, “but I got very attached … indeed.”

The arsenal, now the site of the Summerville campus of the University of Augusta, even includes the Benet house, named after his family.

It was in Augusta, they said, where young Stephen (called “Tibby” by his family) would stretch out and read under the tall oak trees along the Walton Way.

He also received a notice in The Chronicle for writing competitions for young people.

This was not surprising as Benet’s family also had a literary talent. His sister Laura has become a newspaper editor and biographer. His older brother, William, was also an editor and also won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Stephen, however, passed them.

The Chronicle of Augusta recognized his talent at a young age, publishing a laudatory story and review of his narrative poem published in the Century Magazinee. It was written before Benet finished his freshman year of college at Yale.

“If Mr. Benet can write undeniable proof of literary and artistic genius during his freshman year at university, his friends here can safely predict that a day will come when his name as a poet and writer will be well known in the world. across the country, and his friends in Augusta will follow his career with interest and pride.

Rarely do such predictions come true, but in Benet’s case they were.

In addition to the two Pulitzer Prizes, he has won the O. Henry Prize three times.

Although perhaps less famous in the present day, Benet was in his day a more honored poet than Robert Frost or TS Elliott, and much more popular commercially.

He even touched on the future.

Benet’s poem “The Mountain Whippoorwill, (Or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddlers ‘Prize)” is the inspiration for Charlie Daniels’ country music classic – “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”.

Bill Kirby has reported, photographed and commented on life in Augusta and Georgia for 45 years.

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