Herman Melville: “Benito Cereno,” 1855

Robert Shore: “The San Dominick”

…Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person 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. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.

I’d never read “Benito Cereno” before; I’m not sure I’d ever heard of it, in fact. That’s a shame, because Melville does some very interesting things here, and does them very, very well. It’s another tale I read in preparation for the upcoming “Fiction of Relationship” class taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, offered free online through Coursera.

It’s a difficult novella to read, and not just because of the usual 19th century verbiage. The story is designed to expose slavery, and the racism that is the basis of slavery, as malignant, dangerous, and downright stupid, and to do that, of course, it must be loaded with racism. But though the skin crawls at some of the comments (the animal imagery in particular), thematically it’s worth a read, because it packs a punch, landing squarely on racism’s nose.

However: it belittles racism by belittling the mid-19th-century version of the “white liberal.” As a 21st century white liberal, I have to take into account that what to me seems like a worthy psychosociological message might read very differently to someone of African heritage, particularly to those African-Americans who are descended from slaves. I don’t want to mimic Captain Amasa Delano’s tunnel vision.

In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.

The text is available online in several formats of both audio and print. It’s based on an historical incident, written up by Captain Amasa Delano himself in Chapter 18 of his volume A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. An edition of this chapter of his work is available online, following the fictional story.

The interplay between fiction and reality is always interesting; sometimes real life plays out in narrative fashion, and sometimes it needs a little help. In many respects Melville remains very true to fact: in his essay “Israel Potter: Common Man as Hero,” pre-eminent Melville scholar Hennig Cohen states: “When he wrote “Benito Cereno” he evidently saw undisguised adherence to the facts of his source as an asset, and not simply to document. He had long since discovered the usefulness of authentic fact to embody symbolic significance…”

Yet there are differences, and they’ve been enumerated by many researchers, helpfully enumerated by Henry Hughes in “Seeing Unseeing: The Historical Amasa Delano and his Voyages” available online at the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society (Captain Delano having been from Duxbury).

To give a few specific examples, Margaret Y. Jackson’s research of the differences are well-enumerated and expanded upon in “Subversive Dialogues: Melville’s Intertextual Strategies and Nineteenth-Century American Ideologies” by Moonsu Shin. While he kept the names of the two ship captains intact, he changed the names of the ships, from the Spanish ship Tryal to the St. Dominick, and the year of the event, possibly to evoke the Black Friars of the Dominicans and/or associate the character Babo with the slave revolt in Haiti led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. For that matter, Babo was merely a name in Delano’s source account, the ringleader who was killed during the retaking of the ship; it was his son, Mure, who stood at Benito Cereno’s side through the day. Melville seems to have merged these two characters into his fictional Babo.

No wonder that, as in this state he tottered about, his private servant apprehensively followed him. Sometimes the negro gave his master his arm, or took his handkerchief out of his pocket for him; performing these and similar offices with that affectionate zeal which transmutes into something filial or fraternal acts in themselves but menial; and which has gained for the negro the repute of making the most pleasing body-servant in the world; one, too, whom a master need be on no stiffly superior terms with, but may treat with familiar trust; less a servant than a devoted companion.

I find the most fascinating aspect of the story to be the way Melville presents events with multiple interpretations, without tipping his hand audiobook coveras to what is actually going on. The reader sees events through Captain Delano’s eyes, and so is fooled along with him. Yet at the same time, the reader – this reader, at least – wants to distance herself as far as possible from Delano throughout. While Delano thinks, at first, that Cereno is merely depleted by the horrible circumstances of his voyage – disease, lack of provisions, calms – he repeatedly entertains other ideas: Cereno is an imposter, not a captain at all; Cereno is a murderous maniac and is figuring out how to murder him and take over his ship. He keeps changing his mind. I find a similarity to the protagonist in Bartleby, who wavers over and over between compassion and frustration. The constant here is how Delano sees Babo: the faithful servant, helpful, always at his master’s side, when in fact it is Babo who holds the knife.

Yet, it’s obvious on second reading what’s going on, that Delano blanches when he doesn’t know how Babo wishes him to react to a situation; that Babo is directing him, keeping him from being alone with Delano at any time, insisting he “needs rest” whenever Babo wants to convey how to handle a situation. Babo is, in every important way, the author of the tale, Cereno is the narrator (who is always under the control of the author, whether the author admits it or not), and Delano, along with us, is the reader.

Several scholars have taken on the task of analyzing exactly how Melville managed to pull this off. Johannes D. Bergman, in “Melville’s Tales” refers to this as “a complex non-dramatic third-person narration,” apparently used by Melville in only one other story, “The Bell Tower,” which also deals with enslavement. He reveals the technique was not an unqualified success:

The tale’s unreliable, even deceptive, narration led some readers to think it an ‘artistic miscarriage,’ as Newton Arvin called it. For Arvin the atmosphere of the tale is built up tediously with a silly portentousness; Melville is too tired to rewrite. George William Curtis, commenting on the story for Putnam’s in 1855, said “[Melville] does everything too hurriedly now.” Curtis was particularly concerned that the “dreary documents” at the end had not been worked into the proper narrative.

– Johannes D. Bergman, “Melville’s Tales” in A Companion to Melville Studies, ed. John Bryant, p. 265

It’s interesting that the documents of the trial appearing at the end of the story may not have been originally what Melville intended; according to “Melville Biography: A Life and the Lives”
by James Barbour, Melville “sent Putnam’s the completed portion along with legal documents pertinent to the narrative. The reader for the magazine failed to see that Melville may have intended the documents as an outline of the conclusion, and, though complaining about the lack of continuous narrative, recommended that the story, ‘Benito Cereno,’ be printed.

Willliam B. Dillingham looks at the narration in detail, finding four separate narrative voices: the Official, Individual, Authorial, and Reportorial. Merton M. Sealts, in his Critical Review of Dillingham’s Melville’s Short Fiction from 1977, gives an overview: “Three of these represent aspects of the vision of the common and ordinary world with which Melville was almost constantly at odds. The most important view is, as always, the submerged one, underlying and undercutting the others.”

For more information on Dillingham’s four voices (I can’t find the original), I rely on Darren Hughes, who looked at the work in his paper, “That First Comprehensive Glance

The “official” voice is that of the deposition section, which serves as the “legal stamp” that officially settles the affair. However, like Cardwell, Dillingham identifies Melville’s rhetorical use of irony here, claiming that he “transforms the deposition [into] . . . a commentary on the vanity and foolishness of ordinary mankind who cannot see or will not see the sameness of all.”

The “individual” voice is Delano’s, distinguished from the others by its literalness and by its simplistic figures of speech. According to Dillingham, because Delano is blunt-thinking and incapable of irony, his perception is likewise limited, provoking juvenile similes like his description of the negresses as “unsophisticated as leopardesses; loving as doves.”

Dillingham’s is a subtle, but important, distinction, as it necessarily attributes all of “Benito Cereno”‘s complex metaphoric language to the “authorial” voice. “Its style,” Dillingham writes, “is a metaphor for its message. . . . Melville depicts what Delano sees, but the terms of that depiction, that is, the figures of speech that make the correspondences necessary for the idea of similitude, are usually not Delano’s” (244-45). Instead, the story’s trademark irony — which deliberately targets Delano and, therefore, could not represent his own point of view — is clearly “authorial.”

Finally, Dillingham identifies a fourth narrative voice, the “reportorial,” which is distinguished from the “authorial” by its neutral tone and informational function. Dillingham cites the story’s opening paragraph as an example of the “reportorial” voice: “It embodies no worldview or any character’s viewpoint. It furnishes facts and is nonevaluative.”

– Darren Hughes, “That First Comprehensive Glance”

In “More Apparent Than Real,” Dane Barca creates his own vocabulary for this effect: the Ocular Fallacy: “The assumption that the gaze accurately reads what it actively misreads is a condition I call the ocular fallacy.” He credits this to not only racism, but to imperialism, and uses the “Gordian Knot” scene to support his view (on the digressive side, I’m quite fond of his paper, not only because it’s a great term, but because Barca sounds like a fascinating person: English PhD, law student, elite bartender).

Melville set himself a tough task: with whom do we, as the reader, identify? Sympathize? Do we stick with Delano in spite of his horrific view of slavery and race? Do we feel sympathy or disgust for Cereno? What about Babo, who never tells us his side of the story, who is robbed not only of his freedom but of his voice? Yes, in the story he commits atrocities against Cereno’s sailors as he leads the slave revolt. Yes, two wrongs don’t make a right. But when you’ve been kidnapped, enslaved, and degraded, is there anything that makes a right? And is it not possible Babo is acting in the best traditions of the South American slave owners, from whom he learned his vicious cruelty? Do we not reap what we sow?

The ending reminds me a bit of Bartleby, which, now that I think of it, also has a title character who is not the protagonist, and also deals in ambiguity. Edward H. Rosenberry, in “Melville’s Comedy and Tragedy,” notes: “In Benito Cereno (‘The Negro’) and Bartleby (‘I know where I am’) occur moments of tragic illumination.” To me, Cereno’s final exclamation, “The negro” is right up there with “The horror.” To what is Delano referring? I don’t really know; see, ambiguity is not a recent invention of TNY. Perhaps that his worldview has crumbled with the realization that a mere slave could take power over him. Perhaps that he’s seen what slavery is like.

But this class is, after all about relationships. I have no idea which relationship will be considered for this work: Cereno and Babo? Cereno and Delano? Delano and Babo? The reader and the text? The real people vs fictional characters? I’ll have to see; in the meantime, I’ve just been enjoying the story as a story, as an opportunity for the kind of literary archeology I haven’t done in a long time.

[References not linked to an online source were found in A Companion to Melville Studies, edited by John Bryant, Greenwood Press 1986]


2 responses to “Herman Melville: “Benito Cereno,” 1855

    • Hi Phil – wow, I can’t believe someone bothered to read this post – thanks. It was a terrific story, I’m surprised it isn’t taught more.

      Maybe the universe is telling me it’s time to re-read Heart of Darkness – I’ve got an annotated copy around here somewhere – since it’s come up three times in the past month or so.

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