How Stands the Union?

25 Short Stories
  Stephen Vincent Benet
    The Sun Dial Press, Garden City, NY, ©1943
    University of Michigan Libraries
    Dewey 828 B465

I’m reading 25 Short Stories, a collection of seminal American works by « Stephen Vincent Benet », one of my favorite authors.

Two of the works are Doc Mellhorn and the Pearly Gates and By the Waters of Babylon. Both are works of fantasy. In the former, a country doctor passes away and receives his due, entry into Heaven. But he finds it boring there, so he takes the back roads and sets up shop in Hell, treating all kinds of the damned for all their afflictions and generally relieving torment. This, of course, won’t do at all, so he’s kicked back up to Paradise. It’s one of my all-time favorite short stories.

The post-apocalyptic vision of By the Waters of Babylon is eerie in many ways in that it shows a post-nuclear-war, irradiated America … but it was written in the 1930s, some years before the first atomic bomb exploded over Trinity Site, New Mexico. It’s the granddaddy of the post-apocalyptic science fiction/fantasy stories that were extremely popular throughout the Cold War, none of which can top it.

Also in the volume is The Sobbin’ Women, a short story which inspired the musical and motion picture « Seven Brides for Seven Brothers » (and is superior to both). The story is based on « the rape of the Sabine women », a founding legend of the Roman Republic. The title is a sly commentary on American frontier ignorance; the lead character tells the seven backwoodsy brothers about the Romans and the ‘Sobbin’ women’ and puts the central events of the story in motion.

And then there’s _The Devil and Daniel Webster, which contains this opening passage:

‘It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire.

‘Yes, Dan’l Webster is dead—or, at least, they buried him. But every time there’s a thunderstorm around Marshfield, they say you can hear his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky. And they say that if you go to his grave and speak loud and clear, “Dan’l Webster—Dan’l Webster!” the ground’ll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake. And after a while you’ll hear a deep voice saying, “Neighbor, how stands the Union?” Then you better answer the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible, or he’s liable to rear right out of the ground. At least, that’s what I was told when I was a youngster.’

I’d certainly be afraid to go to his grave and have him ask me that question now. We’re more divided than ever, albeit from within, not along regional lines, and the Republic is dead, the Empire transcendent.

But maybe he’d drag me into the grave with him … or else come out fighting, whooping the dickens out of the current crop of Christo-Fascists plaguing the country. That would be something!

Stephen Vincent Benet. Great stuff.