Daughter of James and Frances Rose Benét
The oldest child of an army family, Laura Benét moved often, from Brooklyn, New York, to Springfield, Massachusetts, to Washington, D.C., and other posts. She went to private schools, including the Emma Willard School in Troy, and graduated from Vassar College in 1907.
At first working at a settlement house, Benét was also employed as a placement worker for the Children's Aid Society in New York, a sanitary inspector for the Red Cross in Georgia during World War I, and an editorial assistant for the book pages of the New York Evening Post, the New York Evening Sun, and the New York Times. A freelance writer since 1930, she published 28 books, mostly biographies and fiction primarily intended for young people. The Boy Shelley (1937), one of nine of Benét's books that had remained in print into the 1980s, was her favorite.
Benét never married, although she said she was in love twice but "lost out." After her father's death, she remained with her mother, a close companion whose death devastated her. Completion of Come Slowly, Eden (1942), a novel about Emily Dickinson, saved her from a nervous breakdown. After that, she lived alone in New York City.
Benét received a medal from the National Poetry Center in 1936, had her poems recorded at the Library of Congress in 1958, and in 1967 received an honorary degree from Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In 1978, the Empire State Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters gave her special recognition.
Benét's six slim books of poetry are only a small part of her output, but she considered herself a poet first. In Fairy Bread (1921), the poems are lyrical, light, and fanciful; several, like the riddle-poem "Circles," accurately reflect a child's world. Touches of her later depth and versatility appear, as in "The Dragon's Grandmother," with its thoughtfully realistic portrait of an old woman. In Noah's Dove (1929) there are wryly amusing animal portraits, humanistic insights into ordinary events, and striking images, like church bells described as "hypodermics pricking the dulled stuff of thought."
Impressionism and understated humor continue in Basket for a Fair (1934), but formal aspects like rhyme seem forced, and the personal note is missing. Benét's sharpest insights again occur in animal poems, where sly amusement toughens the rhymes. The poems in Is Morning Sure? (1947) are more solid, yet still characteristically delicate. Benét considered In Love with Time (1959), a Wake-Brook Foundation Award Book, the best example of her work. Many poems have a personal base, and some comment directly on her career and role as a woman. Two particularly effective poems are blank verse portraits of Benét's grandmothers, with acute commentary on their ways of life.
Bridge of a Single Hair (1974), published when Benét was 90, has quiet and simple poems that range widely, linking everyday life with deeper meanings and emotions, and otherworldly presences. There are still disturbing off-rhymes and inconsistent rhythms, but most of the poems transcend them with an evocative strangeness or strong lyrical statement.
Benét also wrote full-length biographies of Poe, Stanley, and others. Although originally published as books for young people, Benét rightly felt they can be enjoyed by anyone. Except for occasional preciousness and sentimentality, these full-length works contain a wealth of specific detail, sharp characterization, and lively dramatized incident. Reviewers commented on the thorough research and skillful writing, one calling Thackeray: Of the Great Heart and Humorous Pen (1947) an "astonishingly satisfying book" with character analysis and descriptions "so detailed…that the reader feels that he would recognize Thackeray at any party."
Benét first wrote about Emily Dickinson in the novel Come Slowly, Eden (1942), a well-researched and imaginative recreation of Dickinson's love affairs. The Mystery of Emily Dickinson (1974) was a response to her publisher's request for a documented biography. Benét also wrote six collections of short biographies, of which Famous American Poets (1950) was best received. They are good for reference or quick but sympathetic characterizations.
When William Rose, Stephen Vincent and I Were Young (1976) is a visit with Benét and her brothers during their childhood. She vividly recreates characters and incidents ranging from their nurse's objection to her "Spanish eyes" to the serious illnesses of brothers William, eighteen months younger, and Stephen, born 12 years later.
Benét has the gift of fantasy. As a New York Times reviewer wrote of the stories in Goods and Chattels (1930), "she has a child's imagination and a child's faith along with an adult's comprehension of human happiness and misery." These qualities keep biographies and novels engrossing and moving, and make her poetry worth repeated reading. Benét herself knew her limits. "I am a good poet," she said, "not a great one like my brothers." She wrote of her grandmother words that can be applied to herself: "It was a grief to her that she had talent /Yet never that rare jewel known as genius." Benét had a life of considerable accomplishment and modest recognition, but personally and professionally lived in the shadows of two famous brothers.
The Hidden Valley (1938). Enchanting Jenny Lind (1939). Roxana Rampant (1940). Young Edgar Allan Poe (1941). Caleb's Luck (1942). Washington Irving, Explorer of American Legend (1944). Barnum's First Circus and Other Stories (1949). Coleridge, Poet of Wild Enchantment (1952). Stanley, Invincible Explorer (1955). Famous American Humorists (1959). In Love with Time (1959). Famous Poets for Young People (1964). Horseshoe Nails (1965). Famous English and American Essayists (1966). Famous Storytellers for Young People (1968). Famous New England Authors (1970).
The papers of Laura Benét are at the Lockwood Memorial Library, State University of New York at Buffalo, and in the Brooklyn College Manuscripts Collection.
Modern Maturity (Feb.-March 1978). Vassar Quarterly (Winter 1977).
—CAROL B. GARTNER