BWBC 36: THE DEVIL & THE FATE OF ENGLISH LITERATURE

If you want writers to be forgotten the easiest way to do it is to teach them to high school students. Case in point, Stephen Vincent Benet, Pulitzer winning poet, short story and play writer. He’s the guy who wrote “The Devil & Daniel Webster”. No, I haven’t read it either. But I recognize the name. Which I know is the equivalent of Toni Colette saying to Daniel Craig in Knives Out, “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you.”

But so, that’s this guy.

The writer of a story I should’ve read but didn’t, which is vaguely familiar in that it’s American Literature from a certain era, the same era as Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but which for some reason I assumed was Corny Hawthorne. After reading “The Curfew Tolls” I realize Benet’s much closer to Bradbury. If Benet’s been forgotten it’s probably more due to the fact that he died youngish in the decade before the advent of television.

“The Curfew Tolls” by Stephen Vincent Benet

It’s 1788 and the General Charles William Geoffrey Estcourt is in the south of France taking the waters. He’s writing to his sister complaining about how dull the town and his fellow patients are. The only person he finds of note is a retired artillery officer from the French army, a small, intense man with a reputation for banditry.

The two bond over old poets and the General writes his sister all the details of his conversations with this strangely intense little man. As they talk they engage in wargames and the artilleryman tells how he’d fight this or that battle. The General finds his friend’s strategies equally shocking and amusing, and despite himself becomes quite close to the little man.

For his part the man invites the general around to his house and shows him off to his large family. The two also discuss fate and time and how cruel genius can be when born into eras that have no use for it nor provide the right setting for it to flourish. Before long (or from the start, if you know a bit of history) you figure out the little man is Napoleon, except he was born a generation too early and so he has had no chance to attain the power he did because the French king and aristocracy are still on hand. And while that’s meant to be a big reveal, it’s to Benet’s credit that the story’s an enjoyable read even if you’ve already figured it out. The twist is also why I think of Benet as suffering the same fate. It’s curious to imagine what his impact would’ve been if he had been born a decade or two later and come of age alongside the advent of television.

I will admit I enjoy alt-history stories like this, and one of my favorites plays with this same idea of minds and time needing to be in sync for genius to be recognized. That story is “Steam Engine Time” by Lewis Shiner and you can read it here if you want. 

Next week, a story by an actual French man.

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