Stephen Vincent Benét was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the son of a colonel in the US army. Because of his father’s profession he and his two siblings moved around frequently during their childhood and Stephen attended various schools. In keeping with a family military tradition he was sent at the age of ten to Hitchcock Military Academy in San Rafael, California and went on to Summerville Academy in Augusta, Georgia and then Yale. Whilst at Yale he was a member of the editorial board and later its chairman. He won his first poetry prize at the age of thirteen and had his first book of poetry published three years later. He was awarded his MA in English for his third book of poetry in lieu of a thesis.
In 1920 he went to France on a Yale scholarship and met his wife Rosemary Carr there. They married in 1921 and had two children. In 1926 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship award and while living in Paris wrote the narrative poem of the Civil War, John Brown’s Body, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1929. In addition to poetry, he also wrote short stories and won the O Henry Award on three occasions for An End to dreams in 1932, The Devil and Daniel Webster in 1937 and Freedom’s a Hard-Bought Thing in 1940. He later rewrote The Devil and Daniel Webster as a play and also as a folk opera set to music by the American composer Douglas Moore.
Benét died in New York City of a heart attack in 1943, aged 44. The following year he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry posthumously for Western Star, an epic verse narrative on American history. He was a prolific writer who published several volumes of poetry during his lifetime including Five Men and Pompey (1915) and The Ballad of William Sycamore in 1923. Between 1928 and 1943 he was one of the best known living American poets, his poem American Names containing the line Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee later becoming the title of a famous novel by Dee Brown. Among his other well known poems are Difference and The Mountain Whippoorwill.