Writing in 1942, Horace Gregory said of Stephen Vincent Benét that,
Benét's work is deeply engaged in an exploration and celebration of "Americanness". We see in the "Invocation" to John Brown's Body, the poet's powerful investment in a national exceptionalism, born of a diverse population:
Stepchild of every exile from content And all the disavouched, hard-bitten pack Shipped overseas to steal a continent With neither shirts nor honor to their back.
Yet, this breeds a certain incoherence on the part of the poet as he claims an essential American character, "the naked body" beneath a rag-tag collection of "altered garments". Benét cannot, then, ultimately accept the multiple as that which is, but seeks a deeper thing, a national character "seeded from no foreign grain". That the poem swings back and forth between America-as-multiple and America-as-essential without any difficulties, in an acceptance without recognition of complixity suggests what many critic find deficient in his work; as Lawrence Broer puts it, Benét "appears lacking in depth, subtlety, and originality" (Broer 1).
Nonetheless, his verse is sometimes powerfully moving, as in the "Litany for Dictatorships" in the 1935 volume, Nightmares and Visitants. The poem is simple in construction and execution; being, as advertised, a lenghty list of the expanding crimes of the totalitarian regimes of the then-young 20th Century. However, as the lines pile up and the poem takes on a repetitious chant-like quality that both stresses the extent of the crimes and also gives them a sort-of religious significance, as the victims of the modern state become unwilling martyrs to corrupt idealism.
For those denounced by their smug, horrible children For a peppermint-star and the praise of the Perfect State, For all those strangled or gelded or merely starved To make perfect states; for the priest hanged in his cassock, The Jew with his chest crushed in and his eyes dying, The revolutionist lynched by the private guards To make perfect states, in the name of the perfect states.
The engery and conviction of Benét's poetry may seem to tend toward an excessive simplification, but, nonetheless, its emotional force offers a window on the poet and his times.