Although Stephen Vincent Benét gained popularity for his poetry and stories during his lifetime, little scholarly attention has been paid to his work. Some of his works, however, including his epic poem about the Civil War, John Brown’s Body , and his short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” are considered minor classics. He was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes: one for John Brown’s Body and the other for Western Star , a long poem about American pioneers. “An End to Dreams” won the O. Henry Award in 1932. Benét’s work seems to lack originality and be old fashioned in its unabashed patriotism. Henry W. Wells, in his article on Benét for College English , argues that he “suffers from an inescapably romantic and youthful disposition for extremes of sentiment.” Yet he also claims that Benét should be remembered and read for his inspired historical reflections. Wells insists that his two Pulitzer prize-winning works are “noble and refreshing contributions to American literature” from “one of the most enlightened poets of our times.” Basil Davenport, in his introduction to Benét’s Selected Prose and Poetry , echoes Wells’s assertion when he suggests, “There is no one to touch Benét in the variety and skill of his treatment of American themes.” He also asserts that “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” is a “legend so perfect that it seems to have been always a part of our folklore.” In his article for Modern Language Notes Gordon Bigelow (in a review of a book by Charles A. Fenton) writes, “Benét’s best work in prose or verse usually came when he was able to exploit imaginatively the myth and fact of the American past.” In his study of Benét, Joseph Wood Krutch, considers his work to be “solid” and insists that “it uses American material in a way which is not only interesting but tending at the same time to make the American past more dignified, more meaningful and more comprehensible to the imagination.” R. L. Duffus wrote in the New York Times “Whether he wrote in solid prose or in measured lines he was a poet. He had the kind of imagination that sees meaning . . . and relations[hips]” that others miss. In his study of Benét in the Dictionary of Literary Biography , Joel Roache claims that Benét’s vision of the human ability to “transcend its limitations” will assure for his short stories “a modest but secure reputation for at least several more generations.” Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins examines Benét’s mix of modernist and realist elements in the story.
Modernism, one of the most fruitful periods in American letters, emerged in the decade that followed World War I (1914–18). Modernist authors such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald became part of what Gertrude Stein called, the “lost generation”—the generation who saw, often firsthand, the horrors of war and who struggled to survive despite a sense of lost values and ideals. The 1920s became an age of confusion, redefinition, and experimentation. The spirit of the Roaring Twenties, or the Jazz Age as Fitzgerald called this period, was reflected in modernist themes. On the surface, the characters in many of the literary works of this decade live in the rarified atmosphere of the upper class. They drink, party, have sexual adventures, but underneath the glamorous surface emerges the meaninglessness at the heart of their existence. This meaninglessness was compounded in the 1930s when the Great Depression hit and so many Americans lost their wealth. The modernists reflected the zeitgeist (a German word for “spirit”) of their age—a time when, in the aftermath of World War I, many Americans lost faith in traditional institutions such as the government, social norms, religion, and even the worth of family relationships.
Each modernist writer focused on different ways to cope with this loss: some of their characters try to drown a sense of emptiness in the fastpaced life of the 1920s, some in sexual relationships, and some in personal notions of courage. All ultimately have difficulty sustaining any sense of fulfillment and completion in the modern age.
Not all writers in the 1920s and 1930s dramatized the tenets of modernism in their works. Many, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Willa Cather, continued the tradition of realism, the dominant literary mode of the end of the nineteenth century. Realism focuses on the commonplace and the everyday, giving readers an impression that what is being presented is an accurate portrait of ordinary experience. Some incorporated the old with the new, combining elements of both schools. One such writer was Stephen Vincent Benét. In his award winning short story “An End to Dreams,” Benét adroitly combines modernist subjects with realist sensibilities as he explores one man’s pursuit of the American dream.
James Rimington could walk into any story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and be at home. Like Jay Gatsby, James is devoted to the American dream, to the belief that anyone can achieve financial success. Humiliated by the “grinding” poverty of his youth, which forced him to wear a patched jacket, James vows not to let anything stand in his way as he strives to gain wealth and the power it affords. After seeing a rich classmate gain popularity, James concludes, “if you had a pony and your father owned the bank, they wouldn’t laugh at you.” He believes that “you could stop being poor if you wanted to enough.” He is unable to recognize the decency of the residents in his small town, including his mother, who works selflessly for her family, and the value of their slow-paced but fulfilling lives. He turns down a job offer from the president of the local bank, which promised advancement but not the kind that would satisfy James. His ambition drives him to abandon the girl he loves and move to New York City where he becomes as corrupt as the “pirate” John Q. Dixon, eventually beating the powerful tycoon at his own game. James ends up like many modernists characters. His single-minded pursuit of wealth has thrown him into a world of “the books and the pictures, the charities and the gifts” because “one was not interested enough.” He had plenty of women, but they were “light and hollow as figures made of pasteboard; they had no importance.” All he had was his work and the power it gained him, but ultimately those were not enough to save him. Money could not buy him health, and as he lies apparently dying in his hospital bed, reviewing his life, he cannot find one person to help him, not one person who cares about his fate. If the story had ended here, it would be an apt illustration of modernist themes with its focus on the meaninglessness in the materialism and superficiality of the American dream. But this ending would not fit Benét’s own sensibilities. When James awakes from his dream of what might have been, he becomes a realist hero: he has made a nobler choice for the direction of his life. He is rewarded for that choice by the loving attention his family offers him, the immediate attention his wife Elsa expresses to him in the hospital. She refuses to leave his side and his children and sister are “just crazy” to see him. Realist literature centers on conduct and the consequences of actions, especially on the dynamics of cause and effect relationships. While realist writers incorporated the idea of individuality from the Romantics, they focused on the ability to choose, which involved deliberation, weighing alternative actions through a consideration of consequences. A responsible choice produces a moral hero, and as such, a definition of self. A classic illustration of this point can be found in Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn . Huck’s decision to “go to hell” on behalf of Jim the runaway slave makes him a realist hero. In the southern states before the American Civil War, Huck makes the moral and risky choice of helping Jim escape against the socially approved evil of slavery. James weighs his alternatives in the story, deliberating about whether to stay in his hometown and marry Elsa or strike out for success and glory in New York City. By the end, James has made a responsible choice, rejecting the shallow pursuit of wealth and power and opting for the quiet but fulfilling small-town life with the comforts of human connection in his family. Benét’s own sensibilities are evident here in his depiction of the extremes of the two choices: one offering a materially successful but emotionally empty existence, while the other offers the joys of family life.
Benét’s vision of the American dream is illustrated in James’s choice. Basil Davenport, in his introduction to Benét’s Selected Prose and Poetry writes that the attitude Benét expresses in his work is that life is “too good to waste in being rich and proper.” Commenting on Benét’s continuing popularity in America, David H. Webster concludes in his review of Benét’s Selected Prose and Poetry (1960) that Benét is “significant in the sixties partly just because he rejected some of the attitudes common in the twenties and thirties.” In “An End to Dreams,” Benét gives James a clear choice that is not available in modernist works. Relationships do not work out so smoothly in Fitzgerald’s and Hemingway’s worlds. They are destroyed by the pressures of the post-war age. Benét’s ending appears to ignore those pressures in its celebration of family values and commitment. Yet the story presents a more complex vision of human desire. Ironically, through the depiction of his realist hero, Benét employs a modernist technique as he focuses on James’s subconscious.
Influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, modernists explored the psychology of their characters, often attempting to convey both subconscious and conscious motivations. To accurately reflect these levels of consciousness, modernists employed stream-of-consciousness narratives (disjointed reflections of the conscious mind) and replaced traditional omniscient narrators with subjective points of view limited by the narrow, sometimes distorted vision of reality of a given character.
While James’s narrative is not strictly stream of consciousness, it is subjective and fragmented as it jumps back and forth in time. Benét explores in a Freudian way James’s subconscious desire for wealth and power that is so strong that it causes him to dream about an alternate world based on a moment in his past when he had to choose his path. Benét thus creates a realist text with an ironic modernist twist in its Freudian suggestion of dual layers of consciousness.
“An End to Dreams” echoes and at the same time overturns the modernist focus on spiritual stagnation, yet Benét complicates the issue in his presentation of James’s dual worlds, suggesting Freud’s contention that dreams reveal the dreamer’s subconscious desires. At the end of the story, after James awakes from his dream and finds Elsa at his side, he is “at peace,” but in that final moment, he knows “the measure of his victory and defeat.” His choice to stay in his hometown can be viewed as a defeat since it denied his ambition, his dreams of glory. Despite the fact that he is at peace, his dream and sense of defeat suggest that he has some regret about the choice he has made. Benét’s adept combination of modernist themes and technique with realist sensibilities creates a compelling portrait of one man’s ambivalent attraction to the American dream. In his examination of James’s conflicting desires, he illustrates the complex nature of that dream.
Wendy Perkins, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Stephen Vincent Benet, Published by Gale Group, 2010