Tuesday, August 14, 2012

John Brown's Body

“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.”

The front flap of the book advertises itself as the “high tide in American poetical literature.” This 1928 Book-of-the-Month Club selection was later reprinted in 1954 by Rinehart and Company, Inc. with illustrations by Fritz Kredel and Warren Chappell.

When I pulled this volume off the shelf from my grandmother’s collection I was more than surprised by its mass. Here is a poem that sprawls to more than 360 pages in length. Good heavens… Did people really read 360 page poems back then? Are there publishers who would even publish a 360 page poem today?

The 1990 New Statesman review cited at Amazon.com calls it “one of the most widely read poems of our time…” That was 22 years ago and I can’t help but wonder, has anyone reading this blog today read John Brown’s Body in its entirety?

The New Statesman called it “Magnificently readable.” And in point of fact it is a more readable poem than you might expect. No matter where you crack the spine it yields vivid imagery and lively action. Wait. I just opened to a page that seemed sappy, but most of the other pages that I opened to were quite generous with mull-worthy words.

Most of the reader reviewers at Amazon.com seem to revere this American classic. One calls it a tragically under-appreciated masterpiece. Others express this same sentiment and eight of the nine give it five stars.

The thing is, people are no longer reading poetry. In fact, a lot of people don’t even read any more. And when they do it’s generally one of the more popular contemporary writers. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 was on the receiving end of 1,930 customer reviews. Quite a contrast to Benet’s nine. The Great Gatsby, published in the same decade has over 1,400 reviews. And book one of Fifty Shades of Grey has generated over 10,000. Like, whoa. And half are bad reviews, the first being, “Did a teenager write this?” This has not, however, stopped people from reading the book. Literary quality is evidently not the source of its appeal.

Ah, but I just caught a whiff of a best seller here. Someone could re-write Gatsby for a contemporary audience and call it The Grey Gatsby. I smell a bidding war for the screen rights.

No wonder Steven Vincent Benét's ego lies a-mouldering in the grave. 

No comments: