Fiction writer, artist. The son of John Bennett and Eliza Jane McClintick, Bennett was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, on May 17, 1865. Wanting to become an artist, he had to work to support his family instead. In the 1880s he published prose and silhouettes for children in St. Nicholas Magazine. The publication serialized his most famous work, Master Skylark, which appeared in book form in 1897. A tale of Shakespeare’s time, it was considered one of the best American historical novels for children. Its success convinced Bennett to drop out of the New York Art Students League and write another book. In 1898 ill health drove him to Charleston, where he renewed his acquaintance with the Smythe family, whom he had met a few years before at Salt Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Bennett’s second book, Barnaby Lee, was published in 1902. Its proceeds enabled him to marry Susan Smythe the same year. Turning his attention to the riches of the area, he wrote The Treasure of Peyre Gaillard (1906).
During these years Bennett tried to interest publishers in African American spirituals, and he made a close study of Gullah, the language of lowcountry blacks. He also studied black folklore, amassing tales of the disappearing oral tradition. He presented a lecture on this subject in 1908, but the local press castigated him for using blacks as a subject. Dejected, he nearly gave up writing. During World War I, he came into contact with the younger DuBose Heyward, as they raised money for Liberty Loans. After the war, when the Pittsburgh native and war veteran Hervey Allen came to town, Heyward and Allen became friends, and both turned to Bennett, who mentored them in weekly “fanging” sessions. Stirred by the new spirit of modern poetry, Allen, Heyward, and Bennett joined with a group of fledgling women poets under Laura Bragg, including Elizabeth von Kolnitz (later Hyer) and Josephine Pinckney. Together they launched the Poetry Society of South Carolina in 1921. Bennett agreed to participate only after being assured that he would be a figurehead. But as the careers of the younger artists took off, Bennett was left to run the organization.
Bennett published one folktale, Madame Margot, in 1921 but was not able to complete the collection as The Doctor to the Dead until 1946. In the interim he published a collection of his earlier silhouette tales, The Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo (1928). Although his published work is notable, perhaps his greatest personal contribution to arts and letters was to the individuals he mentored and the fields of study that he fostered. He was a pioneer in the study of many African American and other historical topics and was instrumental in the creation and publication of Heyward’s landmark novel Porgy (1925). As founder and sustainer of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, Bennett was a key player in the revival of literary and cultural life in the city and the state. The father of three, Bennett died on December 28, 1956, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery; he was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1998.
Greene, Harlan. Mr. Skylark: John Bennett and the Charleston Renaissance. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.