Melville’s Literature of Culture

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Andrew Amodeo April 28, 2016

Prof. Max Cavitch ENGL – 583

Melville’s Literature of Culture

Benito Cereno and its reflections of American sentiments toward slavery.

A major source of Melville's continuing power is the prescient insight he displays into the central problems of our culture: alienation; violence against women and the repression of the "feminine in man" that usually accompanies it; the widening gap between a decadent ruling class and the workers it impoverishes; racism and an ever-more-brutal assault against the world's peoples of color; an unbridled militarism that threatens our very existence while demanding that we resign our civil liberties and human rights in the name of national security. Benito Cereno obviously needs above all to be set in the contexts of the antebellum slavery controversy and of the prior historical events to which the story refers: the Spanish Inquisition; the introduction of African slavery into the Americas under Charles V; the African slave trade and its relationship to the activities of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English buccaneers; the Santo Domingo slave uprising of 1797-1804; the slave revolt on board the Spanish ship Tryal that the real Captain Delano had helped suppress; and the uncannily similar slave revolt that occurred on board the Spanish slave-trading schooner Amistad in 1839. Throughout the 1850s, Melville’s writing had come to mirror the collective consciousness of an American nation.

By 1853, Herman Melville’s commercial success as an author had failed. His last book, Pierre, was met with scorn and distaste on the part of critics and audience alike. Nonetheless, Melville could still sell his work as a writer of magazine pieces in publications such as Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. Benito Cereno is one of these pieces, published in three parts from October through December of 1855. It was later collected with four other previously published pieces and one new piece as Melville’s The Piazza Tales. Benito Cereno is the story of a puzzle. An American sealing vessel is at anchor off the island of St. Maria, “a small, desert, uninhabited island toward the southern extremity of the long coast of Chili”.1 The day is “mute and calm; everything gray” (p. 46). Early in the morning, the mate spies a stranger entering the harbor. The strange vessel seems uncertain in her movements, especially in the light, baffling winds. The vessel is hard to see because of the vapors “partly mantling” (p. 47) her hull. The American captain, Amasa Delano, surmises that she may be a ship in distress and sets off in his whaleboat to aid her.

As Delano comes closer to the vessel, it appears that “throngs of dark cowls” (p. 48) are peering over the bulwarks. He soon realizes, however, that the people peering over the side are not monks but slaves. She is “a Spanish merchantman of the first class; carrying negro slaves, amongst other valuable freight, from one colonial port to another” (p. 48). The mysteries surrounding the strange vessel’s first appearance are similar to the first sightings of the Amistad. The Amistad, too, was carrying slaves as well as other freight from one colonial port to another. In Benito Cereno, the strange vessel, the San Dominick, is in terrible shape: “The spars, ropes, and great part of the bulwarks, looked woolly, from long unacquaintance with the scraper, tar, and the brush” (p. 48); around her tops is “all now in sad repair” (p. 48); her hull seems “a sunken coral reef” with “a huge bunch of conglobated barnacles adhering below the water to the side like a wen” (p. 49). These details are similar to descriptions of the Amistad when first sighted.

Captain Delano climbs on board the vessel and is greeted by a tale of woe, a tale of scurvy, fever, near-shipwreck, and days without wind: “their provisions were low; their water next to none; their lips that moment were baked” (p. 49). He sends his boat back for supplies and stays on board the San Dominick to act as pilot. Here the mystery thickens. Delano senses that something is wrong on board the ship, but he can't figure out what it is. The reader must try to discern the truth through a maze of conflicting details. But the reader is led through this maze by Delano: “a person,” Melville writes, “of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man” (p. 47).

The Spanish captain of the San Dominick, Benito Cereno, is gentlemanly, rather young and appears in most ways quite passive. He looks on his people with “a dreary, spiritless look” and on his visitor with “an unhappy glance” (p. 51). He is a mixture of scrupulous good manners and thinly-veiled rudeness. At moments, he appears a tyrant. The “figure of a gigantic black” (p. 61), with an iron collar around his neck and a chain wound thrice around his body, appears before Cereno. The slave Atufal must ask Cereno's pardon, but refuses, yet obediently and respectfully he comes before Cereno every two hours--and has for sixty days. Atufal was a king in his own land, and because of his noble descent, he is sometimes compared to Cinque, the leader of the revolt on the Amistad.2 Delano thinks the punishment of Atufal exceeds the crime. He says to Cereno: “What, pray, was Atufal's offense, Don Benito? . . . if it was not something very serious, take a fool's advice, and, in view of his general docility, as well as some natural respect for his spirit, remit him his penalty” (p. 63).

Delano spends a long day aboard the San Dominick, as the wind ceases and the vessel is borne back to sea by the currents. Odd events continue to puzzle him. Three black boys and two Spanish boys share a scanty meal on a rough wooden platter. Suddenly, one of the black boys, enraged by a word dropped by one of the Spanish boys, grabs a knife and gashes the Spanish boy's head, inflicting a nasty wound. “In amazement, Captain Delano inquired what this meant. To which the pale Don Benito dully muttered, that it was merely the sport of the lad. ‘Pretty serious sport, truly,’ rejoined Captain Delano. ‘Had such a thing happened on board the Bachelor's Delight, instant punishment would have followed” (p. 59). Delano notices a Spanish sailor with a silk-trimmed undershirt, although “sadly faded and worn” (p. 66), who seems to be trying to tell him something. Another Spanish sailor thrusts a huge gordian knot into his hands and says in broken English (the first heard on the San Dominick ) “Undo it, cut it, quick.” Melville writes, “It was said lowly, but with such condensation of rapidity, that the long, slow words in Spanish, which had preceded and followed, almost operated as covers to the brief English between” (p. 76). But when an old black slave takes the knot from Delano and ferrets into it, nothing is found inside. Delano is puzzled by the fact that Cereno's personal slave, a small black from Senegal named Babo, never leaves his side. The nagging thought that Cereno may be plotting to kill Delano and take over his ship keeps worming its way into his conscience and then getting thrust aside. The story moves slowly and twistedly as Delano is lost in a web of doubt and confusion. He reassures himself: “am I to be murdered here at the ends of the earth, on board a haunted pirate-ship by a horrible Spaniard?--Too nonsensical to think of! Who would murder Amasa Delano?” (p. 77).

At long last, the San Dominick is anchored in the harbor, and Delano tries to leave the Spanish ship. Cereno walks him to the gangway and continues to hold his hand, offered in farewell, across Babo's back. Finally, Delano gets into his boat and pushes away from the vessel’s side. At that moment, Cereno leaps into the boat, calling to his sailors in Spanish. Babo follows, leaping into the boat with a dagger in his hand. Thinking that Cereno is trying to kidnap him and that Babo has come to protect his master, Delano clutches Cereno with one hand and grinds Babo into the bottom of the boat with his foot. Suddenly, a Portuguese seaman calls Delano's attention to Babo, “snakishly writhing up from the boat's bottom” (p. 99) with a second hidden dagger aimed at the heart of his master. “That moment, across the long-benighted mind of Captain Delano, a flash of revelation swept” (p. 99). He now realizes what the San Dominick truly is: a vessel in which the slaves are master and the Spanish enslaved. The whole deception was masterminded by Babo.

Like those on board the Amistad, the slaves on the San Dominick, after their successful revolt, had demanded that they be taken back to Africa. The captain promised to take them, but he secretly sailed the vessel in the shipping lanes off the South American coast, hoping to run into another vessel which would help him quell the insurrection. Almost out of water, he had headed for the island of St. Maria, expecting to meet a vessel there, as he did Delano's ship, the Bachelor's Delight. Melville includes court documents from the trial of the slaves held in Lima, Peru, and with these, the reader is able to piece together the story.

There are striking parallels between the story of the San Dominick and that of the Amistad, when 53 Africans rose up in 1839 under the leadership of Cinque and took control of the Spanish vessel Amistad, sailing between two ports on the island of Cuba. Yet it is not the story of the Amistad which is Melville’s source for Benito Cereno, but that of the Spanish ship Tryal. Harold H. Scudder first found Melville’s source and published his find in 1928.3 The source was not deeply hidden: it is chapter 18 of the text by a captain named Amasa Delano. Delano's book, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, was published in 1817. Scudder states that Melville “merely rewrote this Chapter including a portion of one of the legal documents there appended, suppressing a few items, and making some small additions” (p. 502). He adds later: “Captain Delano in this chapter sets down the actual facts . . . Melville has transformed them into a Gothic masterpiece. At first sight Melville’s story seems to differ from that of Captain Delano only in minor details, but on closer examination one perceives that these apparently trifling differences very materially alter the tone of the narrative” (p. 529).

The real Delano, like Melville’s Delano, is deceived into believing that Cereno is master of his ship. He is puzzled by several incidents, including the cutting of a Spanish boy's head by a slave boy; the sizeable gash that penetrates to the bone. He understands the true situation only after Cereno (but not Babo) leaps into the boat and a Portuguese sailor translates for Cereno. Delano spends much less time than Melville relating the story, and he spends more time on the heroic act of retaking the Spanish ship from the slaves. His is a straightforward historical account rather than a fictional account wreathed in ambiguity. The mystery, too, is removed, because Delano begins his chapter with the mate's account from the log book of the taking of the Tryal. He then backtracks to the beginning to tell the reader how he was initially deceived into believing the Tryal was under the control of its Spanish captain, Benito Cereno.

As stated above, the two stories are so close that the scholar can easily see where Melville borrowed names, words, phrases, and even whole sentences and inserted them into his text. For example, the story of the black boy cutting the Spanish boy's head reads in the original: “One of them [the slave boys] gave a stroke with a knife on the head of one of the Spanish boys. . . . I saw this and inquired what it meant. The captain replied, that it was merely the sport of the boys, who had fallen out. I told him it appeared to me to be rather serious sport.” In Benito Cereno, this same scene is described thus: “Suddenly, one of the black boys . . . seized a knife, and . . . struck the lad over the head, inflicting a gash from which blood flowed. In amazement, Captain Delano inquired what this meant. To which the pale Don Benito dully muttered, that it was merely the sport of the lad. ‘Pretty serious spot, truly,’ rejoined Captain Delano” (p. 59). The court documents Melville includes at the end of his text are especially close to the documents included by Delano.

What has intrigued scholars since 1928, however, are the changes Melville makes from Delano's Voyages and Travels. Melville renames the Spanish ship San Dominick and sets the date back from 1805 to 1799. Many scholars have suggested that these changes are inspired by the revolution in Haiti on the island of San Domingo. Abolitionists viewed the Haitian Revolution as the victorious seizing by the slaves of the same Rights of Man which Americans had seized two decades earlier in the American Revolution. Pro slavery forces, in contrast, saw the Haitian Revolution leading to “wholesale carnage” and “moral and economic degradation.”4

Melville also adds details which are not in the original source. Carolyn Karcher points out one such detail: the San Dominick is described as trailing “dark festoons of sea-grass” (p. 49), a detail not in the original but one strikingly reminiscent of the Amistad.5 Sidney Kaplan also notes the similarities between the description of the Amistad and that of the San Dominick. The following quotation, from a nineteenth-century newspaper, describes the Amistad, but could just as easily describe the San Dominick:

Her sides were covered with barnacles and long tentacles of seaweed streamed from her cable and her sides at the water line. Her jibs were torn and big rents and holes appeared in both foresail and mainsail as they flapped in the gentle breeze. Most of the paint was gone from the gunwails [sic ] and rail--over which [peered] coal-black African faces.6

Other scholars, too, make connections between the Amistad incident and Benito Cereno. Brook Thomas, for example, is intrigued by the legal aspects of the Amistad case in relation to Benito Cereno and how that reflects on Melville’s views of his father-in-law, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts. Despite his personal opposition to slavery, Judge Shaw upheld the Fugitive Slave Act as constitutional and used it to send an escaped slave, Thomas Sims, back to slavery. As Brook Thomas notes, Judge Shaw was similar in ideology to Justice Joseph Story, who wrote the opinion of the United States Supreme Court which granted the Africans from the Amistad their freedom.7

Jean Fagan Yellin suggests many of the similarities between Benito Cereno and the Amistad case noted above, but Yellin goes on to state: “Melville’s study of insurrection is not based on any of the numerous recitals of these much publicized recent uprisings (the insurrections on the Amistad and the Creole), but on a narrative published more than a generation earlier recounting a slave revolt that had occurred a generation before that.”8 Michael Paul Rogin writes: “Melville did not fictionalize the Amistad or Creole uprisings, where slaves threw off illegitimate authority. . . . He used instead the records of a slave revolt on the Spanish ship, The Tryal. On that ship the slaves overthrew their masters only to reenact their own enslavement. Melville fictionalized a mutiny that the slaves had fictionalized before him.”9

In contrast, Karcher believes that “Although Melville re-envisioned the story he found in Delano's reminiscences, he took his primary inspiration for ‘Benito Cereno’ from another source: the slave uprising on board the Spanish schooner Amistad.”10 Hers is the strongest statement of the Amistad case as source and inspiration for Benito Cereno. Melville may have read about the trial of the Amistad captives when he returned to New York aboard the merchant vessel St. Lawrence in October of 1839. Hershel Parker notes that Melville could have read of the Amistad uprising in many different newspapers, including 2-1/2 pages in the Albany Family Newspaper (copied from the New York Evening Star) on 12 October 1839 titled “The Africans Once More!”11 The story was headlined in newspapers across the country, especially in the northeast, and would continue to be in the papers until Melville sailed on his infamous whaling voyage aboard the Acushnet on 3 January 1841.

What is most persuasive about Karcher's argument is not that the Amistad incident was Melville’s chief source for Benito Cereno--it was not--but that her discussion of the Amistad incident allows her to argue that Melville meant the reader to look at the taking of the San Dominick from the slaves’ point-of-view. Delano is blinded by racism: Spaniards are deceitful and cruel; blacks are unintelligent. In a damning portrayal of Delano, Melville writes: “Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs” (p. 84). One of the most sinister scenes in Benito Cereno is Babo's shaving of his captain, but Delano only thinks: “There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one's person. Most negroes are natural valets and hairdressers” (p. 83).

By presenting the reader with such an obtuse narrator, Melville asks the reader to question Delano's perceptions. But Melville does not make it easy for the reader. Only Delano's thoughts and questions are presented. Later, after the recapture of the Spanish ship from the slaves, Benito Cereno's voice is occasionally heard--but never Babo's. As Karcher writes, “the events on board the San Dominick [reflect] Melville’s understanding of a problem with which all who have sought to recapture the slaves’ reality have wrestled--that the slaves’ ‘tyrants have been their historians,’12 as the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child put it. Reacting to a newspaper report of ‘hellish’ acts committed by slaves in the Red River Valley, Child had commented: ‘We never read such accounts, either of Indians or negroes, without asking ourselves, “What was their side of the story? What long-continued, insupportable wrongs drove human nature to such frightful atrocity, such reckless desperation?”13 Thus, the puzzle Melville presents us in Benito Cereno is not only the puzzle of what is going on--who is the master? who the slave?--but also the puzzle of how we should perceive and understand what is going on.

The Amistad case, too, asked such questions of those who responded to it. Was the story told by Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, the Spanish owners of the slaves kept alive to navigate the ship, the true one? Were the Africans buccaneers and bloodthirsty mutineers? Or was Captain Gedney of the Brig Washington the one who suffered when he was denied salvage money for the slaves? The view of the slaves as degraded savages was hard to sustain in the presence of Cinque. As Karcher, citing contemporary evidence, writes of Cinque: “He . . . impressed everyone who heard him speak as a consummate orator. Increasingly, journalists who came to ogle ‘savages’ left questioning many of their original stereotypes and prejudices.”14

With the help of a Yale linguistics professor, Josiah W. Gibbs, and especially James Covey, a former slave from Sierra Leone, Cinque is given the chance to tell his story. Steven Spielberg emphasizes the importance of hearing Cinque’s story in the movie “Amistad” when he flashes back to Cinque’s life in Africa before his capture by slave-traders and then includes the most disturbing sequence in the film: the horrors of the middle passage. But Babo never tells his story. Once he is seized in Delano's boat, he never speaks again:

As for the black--whose brain, not body, had schemed and led the revolt, with the plot--his slight frame, inadequate to that which it held, had at once yielded to the superior muscular strength of his captor, in the boat. Seeing all was over, he uttered no sound, and could not be forced to. His aspect seemed to say, since I cannot do deeds, I will not speak words. . . . Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. (p. 116)

Without Babo's voice, the reader must construct Babo's story by sifting through the details given by Delano--just as Melville did when he sifted through Delano's chapter 18 in Voyages and Travels to construct Benito Cereno.

Before the truth surrounding the strange fate of Benito Cereno becomes apparent, Herman Melville effects an intriguing juxtaposition between Don Benito and Babo while the latter adheres to the toilette of his "master." Captain Delano, while watching this masquerade of owner and slave, congratulates the slave on his mastery of the razor, brush and comb without realizing Babo's deadly control over the weakened captain. Melville describes the barber's scene in the cuddy with utmost care and illustrates Babo's role as an impromptu gentleman's valet with intricate detail. Though Melville reaches a climax in the narrative with the slave revolt, the reader is yet unaware of a mutinous plot or dangerous threat while Babo attends to the needs of Don Benito. In this passage, however, Melville foreshadows the treacherous by proffering agency unto Babo and leaving the fragile Don Benito in a realm of dependence and fear. Without divulging the premise of the climax, the hegemonic relationship of Babo and his feigned master is overtly demonstrated by Melville's dramatic details, yet left unexplained until the actual rendering of the slave revolt. By placing the master and slave in traditional roles while inverting the actual control of master over slave, Melville enshrouds the scene with unease by placing Babo into a sphere unaccustomed by his race.

Throughout the entire narrative, Babo often speaks for Don Benito, supports him physically and emotionally, and, most importantly, deftly plays the act of a subjugated man. Captain Delano does not doubt the legitimacy of Babo because Melville so convincingly places the slave into the position of dutiful servant and humble inferior. Moreover, when Babo begins his toilette of Don Benito, the narrator comments profusely on the slave's capacity for "avocations about one's person" (p. 73). He continues, "most Negroes are natural valets and hairdressers, taking to the comb and brush congenially as to the castanets, and flourishing them apparently with almost equal satisfaction" (p. 73). Since the narrator places Babo in such a "natural" position for a Negro, the reader, as well as the character of Delano, is duped into believing that Babo could not possibly harbor alternative motives. Babo's attention to the detail of his master's person, illustrates a stereotypical sphere acceptable for the slave - to break free from that role would require the greatest of imagination on the part of Captain Delano and of the reader. Melville's description of Babo's ease with the razor and scissors simply places him within the capacity allotted for a typical slave. Melville tricks the reader by catering to the stereotype of the slave and thus allows the "natural valet" to break free from the slave mould and become the intellectual impetus behind the revolt.

Melville draws Delano into the slave convention so far as to write about Babo and the race as a whole, "[They had] a certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture, as though God had set the whole Negro to some pleasant tune" (p. 73). Retrospectively, these words echo with menace. Babo, instead of following the "pleasant tune" of his race as described by Melville, shifts from the position of slave to that of master. Rather than by manifest force, Babo exerts mastery over Don Benito throughout the narrative while he is fulfilling the role of slave on the surface for the comfort of Captain Delano. As Babo shaves Don Benito, Melville's description of the typical slave avocation, "the docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind" (p. 73) implies the exact opposite of the puissant, intelligent Babo. Captain Delano, falling into the trap of believing in the "docility" of Babo, goes so far as to recall his past experiences in America, sitting in his doorway, watching the movement of the Negroes outside and thinking to himself about how he took to the race as man does to a Newfoundland dog. Melville's description of Delano's contentment proximal to what evolves into the formidable figure of Babo, illustrates the author's use of convention as a literary device. By maintaining a stereotype, Melville draws the reader into a trap of tranquility regarding Babo - a trap that is only realized towards the plot's crisis.

Though Melville maintains Negro slave clichés during the barber scene, he nevertheless creates an unconventional power relationship between Babo and Don Benito as the former attends to his duties as valet. Babo's grooming actions cause Don Benito inexplicable fear; Captain Delano however, never for an instant, gives the slave the agency of inducing fear in his master. When a bit of blood is drawn, Melville writes of Delano's interpretation, "Poor fellow, thought Captain Delano, so nervous he can't even bear the sight of barber's blood; and this unstrung, sick man, is it credible that I should have imagined he meant to spill all my blood, who can't endure the sight of one little drop of his own?" (p. 75). Though Don Benito is clearly reacting to some horrible fear or attack of nerves, Delano chastises himself for thinking that the Spanish captain is a murderer, never interpreting the signs as an implication of Babo's control over his own master. Since Delano's vision of Babo is that of conscientious, dog-like devotion to Don Benito, the letting of blood during the shaving accident and Benito's ensuing nerves, points to interpretations other than Babo's actual command over the situation.

Through language, Melville hints at the actual dominion of the slave; however, Delano only once considers the situation to be somewhat odd. Melville writes, "the idea flashed across him that possibly master and man, for some unknown purpose, were acting out, both in word and deed, nay, to the tremor of Don Benito's limbs, some juggling play before him" (p. 76). After this "flash" of doubt however, Delano disregards his feeling and simply interprets the situation as odd due to the quaint heraldic shaving cloth draped over the body of Don Benito. After this moment of doubt, Melville again alludes to a perverse power-play as Babo finishes shaving his master: "He sat so pale and rigid now that the Negro seemed a Nubian sculptor finishing off a white statue head" (p. 76). Nothing could be more apparent than the sculptor-marble/master-object parallel in this description - Babo's command of Don Benito - yet Melville still confounds Delano and the reader by the supposed blood-thirsty intent of the weak Don Benito. In one sentence, Melville demonstrates the power and agency of the slave over the master in a strange inversion of positions. The "Nubian sculptor" has utter control over the rigid white man and, though Babo never once overtly swerves from the path of perfect servitude, exerts complete control over Don Benito during the entire interaction.

After Babo finishes his work on Don Benito, Melville again writes subtly about the control of the slave over his master. Paralleling the metaphor of the sculptor, Melville writes, "all this being done, backing off a little space, and pausing with an expression of subdued self-complacency, the servant for a moment surveyed his master, as, in toilette at least, the creature of his own tasteful hands" (p. 77). The words "at least" signify Babo's control over Don Benito beyond that of the toilette, though Delano "playfully complimented" (p. 77) him after he ceased his cutting and trimming. Figuratively, the character of Don Benito resides in the "tasteful hands" of Babo. The slave, unbeknownst to the American, has complete command of the situation on the ship. However, through this act of master and slave, Melville hides the true interactions of the pair under the guise of a conventional slave duty. Only once does Delano consider the charade to be eccentric; and, when he does look upon the scene with distrust, he feels a threat from the Spanish captain rather than the dutiful slave.

By placing Babo in the common role of a slave, Melville creates an astonishing climax when Babo unmasks his true position as pilot of the slave revolt. As he strops the razor along the "smooth, oily skin of his open palm," Melville contains Babo in a role that befits him as a Negro slave. The minutiae concerning the shaving and cutting, places Babo painstakingly into the prevailing character of a slave, and, by adhering to the accepted character, Babo's intellectual capacity to lead a mutiny is all the more surprising. Melville feeds upon the predominant ideas of the day concerning slavery and uses those stereotypes in the barber scene to further propagate Babo's typical character. Yet Melville, in turn, takes the slave conventions and uses them as a literary tool to create an non-conformist character of color that breaches convention and attempts to murder the master that he so tenderly cared for. The paradoxical relationship between the two men during the shaving scene tricks both the American captain and the reader into believing that Babo simply maintains the hackneyed images of other slaves of the day. By creating an acceptable slave image of Babo, Melville can create within the slave a concealed character that subverts his own trite role. While Delano watches the scene in the cuddy, Babo plays the perfect valet. However, as Melville describes the slave holding the razor "suspended for an instant" (p. 74) above the terrified Don Benito, the reader receives one glimpse into the physical control of slave over master. By utilizing the cliched master-slave relationship, Melville actually inverts the positions of Don Benito and Babo so that the latter eventually exerts his mastery through violence and action.

Melville’s Benito Cereno captures the American culture surrounding slavery during the contemporary period in which he wrote. His choice of source material is easily determined: the legal aspects of the Amistad case, which allowed the captives to win three trials and gain their freedom, are too clear-cut for Melville; he sets his story back to 1799, before the slave trade was abolished; and he confronts the reader with blacks who have killed not two whites, but many. Despite the origin of his tale, however, both plausible sources offer Meville the setting in which he can offer his commentary on a tyrannical slave culture, and explore the opposing power dynamics present in such a system. In a story wreathed in ambiguity and misperception, the reader is asked to consider who is the savage and who the innocent. No easy answers are given, which is finally the story's greatest strength.

1 Melville, Herman. The Piazza Tales (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1987), p. 46. All quotes from the text will come from this edition and subsequent page references will appear in the text.

2 Kaplan, Sidney. “Herman Melville and the American National Sin: The Meaning of ‘Benito Cereno’” [originally published in Journal of Negro History in 1957] in Robert E. Burkholder, ed., Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), p. 39.

3 Scudder, Harold H. “Melville’s Benito Cereno and Captain Delano's Voyages,” PMLA, 43 (June 1928), 502-32.

4 Sundquist, Eric J. “Benito Cereno and New World Slavery” [originally published in Reconstructing American Literary History, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch, in 1986] in Robert E. Burkholder, ed., Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), p. 147.

5 Karcher, Carolyn L. “The Riddle of the Sphinx: Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’ and the Amistad Case” [published here for the first time] in Robert E. Burkholder, ed., Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), p. 201.

6 Kaplan, p. 38.

7 Thomas, Brook. “The Legal Fictions of Herman Melville and Lemuel Shaw” [originally published in Critical Inquiry in 1984] in Robert E. Burkholder, ed., Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), p. 121.

8 Yellin, Jean Fagan. The Intricate Knot: Black Figures in American Literature, 1776-1863 (New York: New York University Press, 1972), p. 217.

9 Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), pp. 212-213.

10 Karcher, p.199.

11 Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 151.

12 Child, Lydia Maria. Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (Boston: Allen and Ticknor, 1833), p. 180, quoted in Karcher, p. 199 and n. 8 (p. 223) and n. 4 (p. 222).


 Child, Lydia Maria. “The Slave Murders,” unsigned editorial, National Anti-Slavery Standard, 23 June 1842, p. 11, quoted in Karcher, p. 199 and n. 9 (p. 223). Karcher continues in her note: “The murders in question are described in an article titled ‘Horrible Events!,’ excerpted on the previous page from the Natchez Free Trader.”

14 Karcher, p. 202 and n. 21 (p. 224).

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