By the Waters of Babylon
"By the Waters of Babylon" is a post-apocalyptic short story by Stephen Vincent Benét first published July 31, 1937, in The Saturday Evening Post as "The Place of the Gods". It was republished in 1943 in The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, and was adapted in 1971 into a one-act play by Brainerd Duffield.
Set in a future following the destruction of industrial civilization, the story is narrated by a young man who is the son of a priest. The priests of John’s people (the hill people) are inquisitive people associated with the divine. They are the only ones who can handle metal collected from the homes (called the "Dead Places") of long-dead people whom they believe to be gods. The plot follows John’s self-assigned mission to get to the Place of the Gods. His father allows him to go on a spiritual journey, but does not know he is going to this forbidden place.
John journeys through the forest for eight days and crosses the river Ou-dis-sun. Once John gets to the Place of the Gods, he feels the energy and magic there. He sees a statue of a "god" — in point of fact, a human — that says "ASHING" on its base. He also sees a building marked "UBTREAS". After being chased by dogs and climbing the stairs of a large building, John sees a dead god. Upon viewing the visage, he has an epiphany that the gods were humans whose power overwhelmed their good judgment. After John returns to his tribe, he tells his father of "the place New York." His father warns him against recounting his experiences to others in the tribe, for sometimes too much truth is a bad thing, that it must be told little by little. The story ends with John stating his conviction that, once he becomes the head priest, "We must build again.
In the story, John talks about how he must cross mountains: the Appalachian Mountains. John travels East from the mountains to the great river, Ou-dis-sun, the Hudson River. John looks down at the river from a series of great cliffs, which may be presumed to be the New Jersey Palisades. After building a raft and floating down the river, John gets to the Place of the Gods with the great ruins. At the Place of the Gods, John comes across the remains of a statue with the word "ASHING" which could be a statue of George wASHINGton, and finds a ruined building named "UBTREAS" (the United States Sub-Treasury building on Wall Street which is better known as the Federal Hall National Memorial). John walks through a building with stars on the ceiling and tunnels. This could be Grand Central Terminal. After running from dogs, John stays in a place called the Biltmore, which would be the New York Biltmore Hotel.
Benét wrote the story in response to the April 25, 1937 bombing of Guernica, in which Fascist military forces destroyed the majority of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. This story took place before the public knowledge of nuclear weapons, but Benét's description of "The Great Burning" is similar to later descriptions of the effects of the atomic bombings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. His "deadly mist", and "fire falling from the sky" seem eerily prescient of the descriptions of the aftermath of nuclear blasts. However, the "deadly mist" may also be a reference to chemical weapons in World War I, particularly mustard gas, a feared weapon of war that Benét's generation was very familiar with. The story was written in 1937, two years before the Manhattan Project started, and six years before there was widespread public knowledge of the project.
Influence on later work
In 1955 Edgar Pangborn wrote "The Music Master of Babylon", a post-apocalyptic story told from the point of view of a pianist living alone in a ruined New York City, and after decades of total isolation encountering two youths from a new culture which had arisen in the world, who come exploring the ruined city.
Pangborn depicted a different world than that of Benét. But, he referred to Benét's story in his title and many details. Pangborn returned to that devastated world in many of his later writings, such as the novel Davy.
Elements of the plot and themes of By the Waters of Babylon appear in the 1970 feature film Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
- Anthem (novella)
- List of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction
- The title is a reference to Psalm 137 in the Bible.
- Rivers of Babylon (disambiguation)
- The term post-apocalyptic paraphrases Izzo.
Date of publication is from "BENÉT, STEPHEN VINCENT", in Miscellaneous Story Anthologies
Benét changed the title when selecting works for Thirteen O'Clock. (Fenton, 1958)
- Book Information: Pocket Book of Science Fiction, the. Donald A. Wollheim, ed. (1943). Steven Jeffery / IBList.com, 2007
- Description from the play catalog of Dramatic Publishing.
The adaption is distinct from the 2003 play of the same name by Robert Schenkkan.
- Wagar, p. 163, who also calls him a "young savage" (p. 25). Macdonald, p. 267-268, who calls him a "young brave". In the play adaptation, he appears as a young man and, in a non-speaking part, as a boy. (Duffield, 1971)
- Text of "By the Waters of Babylon"
- Source is Izzo, who also notes that Benét wrote other stories and poems in response to the threat of Fascism in the 1930s.
- Published 1954 by Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine, appeared 1959 in The World That Couldn't Be, Ed. H.L. Gold, Doubleday.
- Benét, Stephen Vincent; Henry C. Pitz (illus.) (July 31, 1937). "THE PLACE OF THE GODS". Saturday Evening Post 210 (5): 10–11, 59–60 (4p).
- Benét, Stephen Vincent (c1937 repr. 1971). Thirteen O'Clock: Stories of Several Worlds. Ayer Co Pub. ISBN 0-8369-3793-7. Check date values in:
- Duffield, Brainerd; Stephen Vincent Benét (1971). Stephen Vincent Benet's By the waters of Babylon; a play in one act. Chicago: Dramatic Pub. Co.(WorldCat) (preview)
- Fenton, Charles A. (1958 repr. 1978). Stephen Vincent Benet: The Life and Times of an American Man of Letters, 1898-1943. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-20200-1. Check date values in:
- Izzo, David Garrett. "Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943)". The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2007-06-20. (about the author)
- Macdonald, Andrew, Gina Macdonald, and MaryAnn Sheridan. (2000). Shape-shifting: images of Native Americans in recent popular fiction. Contributions to the study of popular culture, no. 71. Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-30842-X.
- Wagar, W. Warren (1982). Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-35847-7.