Although opposed to slavery, Melville does not make Benito Cereno into an abolitionist tract; he is more concerned with a thrilling narrative and character portrayal. But although the mutineers are bloodthirsty and cruel, Melville does not make them into villains; they revolt as mankind has always revolted. -- Sterling Allen Brown, The Negro in American Fiction (Washington, DC, 1937) page 13.
... the image of Melville as subtle abolitionist in Benito Cereno may be a construction of generous wish rather than hard fact. -- Sidney Kaplan on Herman Melville and the American National Sin, The Journal of Negro History Vol. 42 No. 1 (January 1957) pages 11-37 at page 12.
He was too much of a giant to point his finger at one group and say, “You are bad.”
-- W. C. Taylor, "A Criticism of Melville's Benito Cereno" (1966). Plan B Papers. 506. https://thekeep.eiu.edu/plan_b/506
A reader who sees Delano as wholly a fool or wholly innocent and admirable misses the complexity of his character. -- Margaret M. Vanderhaar, A Re-Examination of Benito Cereno. American Literature 40.2 (May 1968) pages 179–191 at page 184.
It was as human as he could make it . . . Glenn C. Altschuler, Whose Foot on Whose Throat?, CLA Journal 18.3 (March 1975) pages 383-392 at 392.
From its whiteness, don't you think it a white's? -- Attributed to a song-and-dance man à la Bojangles.
"How do you get a position player ready to stand for 9 innings in the outfield? That takes a little time to build up.”
That "Benito Cereno" could have remained in the background of Melville's literary reputation until the 1980's seems almost incredible now.
Friends, that there is the gold standard of ridiculousness. Perfect threefold preposterousity is achieved by the statement's being
- Contrary to fact, demonstrably false yet
- Literally true since it really is un-believable ("incredible" because not at all credible); and
- Pronounced by a genuine expert with outstanding professional qualifications and experience. Yothers is current editor of the Melville journal Leviathan and author of a whole book on Melville's literary reputation, Melville's Mirrors: Literary Criticism and America's Most Elusive Author (Camden House, 2011).
The introduction draws on Yothers's extensive knowledge of Melville criticism (see Melville's Mirrors ) to trace the critical history of "Benito Cereno" from the Melville Revival forward: from the first fifty years or so, when obtuse--Delano-esque, dare one say--critics interpreted Babo as representative of metaphysical evil, a view that held sway into the 1970's, through more recent, more penetrating work that reads the story as antislavery critique, from Carolyn Karcher and Eric Sundquist in the late twentieth century through Ivy Wilson and Christopher Freeburg in the twenty-first. -- "Books in Brief." Leviathan 22, no. 3 (2020): 103-114. doi:10.1353/lvn.2020.0038.
What's going on is the memory-holing of certain facts and scholarship that (if acknowledged as objectively real) would interfere with the mythology of righteous resistance to racism and oppression by model and generally leftist intellectuals. This mythologizing of Melville studies conforms with the larger cultural orthodoxy now required by the theory and ruthless practice of identity politics. For more on critical race theory and the utopian dialectic that informs it, please see the great work of James Lindsay on New Discourses and even more entertainingly @ConceptualJames on Twitter.
To craft his neo-orthodox redemption narrative, Yothers first had to disappear several decades of academic discourse. One decade is particularly troublesome for the desired narrative. Wait, nothing very interesting or relevant happened in the 1960's? Margaret M. Vanderhaar knew better, writing in 1968 that
“It is probably no accident that the slavery question in “Benito Cereno” has been given so much attention in criticism in the fifties and sixties, the years of the explosive civil rights movement which has again, as in the mid-nineteenth century, placed “the problem of the Negro” in the forefront of American public consciousness.”
Vanderhaar, Margaret M. “A Re-Examination of ‘Benito Cereno.’” American Literature, vol. 40, no. 2, 1968, pp. 179–191. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2923660. Accessed 2 Apr. 2021.
More recently, Wyn Kelley echoed Vanderhaar's observation in her survey of critical studies for the Bedford College edition of Benito Cereno (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008):
"Studies of Benito Cereno especially proliferated in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960's, when critics began to realize the relevance of Melville's treatments of race and slavery." (page 145)
Memory-holing the fifties and sixties erases truly heroic struggles and achievements of the Civil Rights movement along with decades of vigorous scholarly debate about racism and anti-racism in Melville's best-known writings including "Benito Cereno." The problem for social-justice champs in the 21st Century is that brave stands for inalienable human rights did happen and did over time effect real improvements in everyday life--undermining counter-narratives of endless victimhood and oppression. Yothers parenthetically notes the impact of the Civil Rights era that Marvin Fisher records in Going Under: Melville's Short Fiction and the American 1850's (Louisiana State University Press, 1977) but places Fisher a distant third among Big League influencers since his reading of "Benito Cereno" (unlike that of Karcher and Sundquist) "does not take race as a primary focus" (Broadview Benito Cereno, page 26). Yothers's order of merit implies that for criticism to matter, race needs to be kept front and center.
Although Yothers does not mention critical race theory by that name, his ban of literary criticism during the Civil Rights era has a parallel in radical analyses of identity politics that diminish and eventually disappear Martin Luther King, Jr. As shown on New Discourses, proponents of CRT don't like it when anything matters more than skin color. The first piece linked below is by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, also co-authors of Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody (Pitchstone Publishing, 2020).
Wrecking the narrative of pervasive indifference and critical obtuseness B.C. E. (Before Carolyn and Eric), two different student editions published in 1965 testify to the vital place of "Benito Cereno" in Melville's reputation and, more broadly, the study of American literature--back when Carolyn Karcher was still an undergrad, in the front row (as I like to imagine) of H. Bruce Franklin's English class at Stanford ("the most exciting college course I ever took," she recalls in the preface to Shadow Over the Promised Land, page xiii).
Karcher's take on Benito Cereno depended on the text and select criticism provided in the 1965 casebook, Melville's Benito Cereno: A Text for Guided Research, published by D. C. Heath and edited by John P. Runden. Her use of Runden's edition in Shadow Over the Promised Land is conventionally and properly acknowledged on page 120 in a footnote, shown below:
|Carolyn Karcher uses and cites John P. Runden's 1965 edition of Benito Cereno|
Another option, not cited by Karcher, would have been to use the Benito Cereno Handbook edited by Seymour L. Gross and issued in 1965 by the Wadsworth Publishing Company. Like Runden's Heath edition, the Wadsworth Handbook gave excerpts from twentieth-century criticism along with edited texts of Melville's tale and source. Gross but not Runden printed excerpts from important articles in Phylon (founded 1940 by W. E. B. Du Bois at what is now Clark Atlanta University) by Charles I. Glicksberg (Autumn 1950) and Warren D' Azevedo (June 1956). Under the heading, "The Slavery Issue in Benito Cereno," Gross also excerpted the September 1950 article in Modern Language Quarterly by Joseph Schiffman. All three, Schiffman, Glicksberg and D'Azevedo, dealt explicitly with issues of race and slavery in "Benito Cereno"; but none are excerpted in the 1965 edition of Benito Cereno that Karcher chose to rely on--although Runden did summarize the articles by Schiffman and D'Azevedo in his annotated bibliography. Somehow Runden completely missed "Melville and the Negro Problem" the 1950 article in Phylon where Charles Irving Glicksberg had explicated things like "ironic tension" and point of view, reading Melville's Delano "as a satiric portrait" and "dramatic device, a mirror reflecting the prejudices of New Englanders of a certain type." Glicksberg went on to extol Melville's portrait of Babo, thirty years before Karcher:
Far from arousing feelings of hatred against the Negro, the incarnate image of evil, he presents a complex, artistically balanced story, which arouses mixed emotion. Though we sympathize with the plight of Don Benito, we admire the steadfast courage and indomitable spirit of Babo, a born leader, just as we admire the capacity for self-rule and the heroic resolution of the Negroes on board. If they went to extremes of butchery in their desperate bid for freedom, who shall presume to pass final judgment upon them? (As reprinted in Gross, Handbook, page 120)
So then, the principal burden of the Broadview edition to center the topic of slavery while approving Melville's anti-slavery cred, was carried early and eloquently by Glicksberg and D'Azevedo in Phylon; and by Schiffman (before Sidney Kaplan's counter-argument persuaded him to change his mind about Babo) in Modern Language Quarterly. Writing in 1950, Schiffman quoted the 1937 analysis of Benito Cereno by Sterling Brown as "the best I have seen"; and Seymour Gross reprinted Schiffman's endorsement of Brown in the 1965 Handbook (page 125).
All three takes from the 1950's, including Schiffman's extensive quotation from Brown, were excerpted by Gross. Comparatively speaking, Runden gave short shrift to "The Issue of Slavery," providing just two excerpts in that section from articles by Kaplan exposing racist-Melville and Allen Guttman defending anti-racist Melville. The opposing views of Kaplan and Guttman were also provided by Gross. Runden did however reprint a selection from The Wake of the Gods by Karcher's teacher H. Bruce Franklin that Gross wisely avoided, except to summarize in his bibliography (mistakenly alphabetized under "Bruce" instead of "Franklin"). I say "wisely avoided" because Franklin's book chapter, reprinted from Apparent Symbol of Despotic Command: Melville's Benito Cereno in the December 1961 New England Quarterly pages 462-77, is a bad example of source-study to show college students, except perhaps as an exercise in detecting confirmation bias. Hershel Parker rightly complained in "Benito Cereno and Cloister Life: A Re-Scrutiny of a Source," Studies in Short Fiction: Summer 1972, pages 221-32. Contra Franklin, Parker demonstrated that "Stirling was not a major source for 'Benito Cereno' "; and helpfully reviewed the math of taking accumulated similarities and parallels for evidence of anything else: "it is easy to forget that zero plus zero is zero."
Parker, Hershel. ""Benito Cereno" and "Cloister-Life": A Re-Scrutiny of a "Source"." Studies in Short Fiction 9.3 (1972): 222 and 232. ProQuest. Web. 4 Apr. 2021.See what happened? By solely depending on the edition of Benito Cereno with Franklin's errant essay in it, Carolyn Karcher overlooked pioneering work in exactly her field by Sterling Allen Brown, Charles Irving Glicksberg, Joseph Schiffman, and Warren D' Azevedo. Their work pre-dates Karcher's study by decades, having appeared in print from 24 to 43 years before Shadow Over the Promised Land. Ironically, given Karcher's fixation on race and racial injustice, the chapter on "Benito Cereno" in Shadow Over the Promised Land shut out a great Black scholar and poet in Sterling Brown, along with other groundbreaking, directly relevant scholarship in the journal Phylon. Brown also published essays in Phylon during the 1950's, as Meserette Kentake records on her fabulous site Kentake Page.
"an intellectual forum to articulate a black scholarly worldview. It was an outlet for academic work on African Americans and race issues during the period before white mainstream academic publications paid much attention to these subjects."
-- Burroughs, Todd Steven. "Phylon." Oxford African American Studies Center. December 01, 2009. Oxford University Press. Date of access 4 Apr. 2021, <https://oxfordaasc.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.001.0001/acref-9780195301731-e-46079>
Nevertheless.... Can you guess who did pay attention to Phylon and acknowledge early discussions of race and slavery in "Benito Cereno" including those of Brown, Glicksberg, Schiffman, and D'Azevedo? Badass bibliographers Maurice Beebe, Harrison Hayford, and Gordon Roper. All the relevant studies that Karcher ignored in 1980 had been duly inventoried in the 1962 Selected Checklist in Modern Fiction Studies which offered "a fairly complete list of the scholarly and critical discussions of Melville most likely to be available and useful" (page 312).
Again, one 1965 edition of Benito Cereno offered highly relevant excerpts from 1950's and early 1960's criticism that Karcher failed to engage or even acknowledge. Neither of the two 1965 books is mentioned anywhere in the Broadview Benito Cereno. (Also not listed in the Broadview bibliography, the Bedford College Benito Cereno, edited by Wyn Kelley for Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008.) In effect, Karcher memory-holed important criticism reprinted by Gross; Yothers effectually memory-holed both Gross and Runden in claiming that before the 1980's "Benito Cereno" stayed "in the background of Melville's literary reputation."
04 Oct 1937, Mon The Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) Newspapers.com
In his preface to Melville's Benito Cereno: A Text for Guided Research (D. C. Heath and Company, 1965), John P. Runden appraised the 1855 tale as "one of the most popular pieces in anthologies of American literature," widely and highly regarded "as one of Melville's most brilliant works." Not unlike Yothers after him, Runden contrasted the simplicity of earlier readings with more complex recent treatments of Benito Cereno
"as a fascinating puzzle, a literary enigma with moral, political, and even religious implications for which scholars and critics have offered keys or explanations."
The big difference is, Runden admitted varieties of interpretation, all valid in their way, including mainstream critical views of Benito Cereno as "a sublimated anti-slavery tract or, to the contrary, a not-too-subtle retreat from the author's earlier racial democracy." Pretty much everything was on the table (in happier days of wine and roses and guaranteed freedom of speech), not excluding the important observation that "the story and its characters seem to serve as a kind of Rorschach test not unlike the Gold Doubloon in the famed scene from Moby-Dick in which each of the characters reads his own life and values into the coin's inscriptions." Yes indeed. Which reminds me how Yothers repeatedly invokes Melville's "suggestion of sexual violence" against captive African women by Spanish sailors. Listen, I myself know most of the words to Brown Sugar, so you have me there, but still... Heeding Runden's hint about projection, younger or less experienced readers might wish to proceed more cautiously and not impute horrible violent sex crimes to fictionalized characters on the basis of one added comma.
OK, let me digress to explain the comma problem. The larger issue of whether and how Melville might have alluded to unspecified sexual violence is more interesting and complicated than I can well express here, so hopefully I can give the more expansive treatment it deserves another time, in another post. For now I want to emphasize the weakness of punctuation evidence which in this case is really non-evidence. Hard to believe, perhaps, but the meagre non-evidence of one added comma really is being presented to college students as good reason to condemn a group of men for "the fact" of phantom crimes nowhere recorded in Delano's 1817 narrative or Melville's fictional transformation. The relevant passage occurs near the end of Benito Cereno's formal deposition. In Melville's source-text, Cereno testifies "that the negresses of age, were knowing to the revolt, and influenced the death of their master." Melville added one comma there, setting off "of age" to clarify that the expression modifies "negresses." In once sentence Yothers reads the added comma as a rape charge, and rape conviction:
"Melville's additions heighten the sense that the women aboard the San Dominick had special grounds for rage and revenge against the men who had enslaved them, even to the point of highlighting that the women who were privy to the revolt were "of age" by his use of punctuation, emphasizing the fact that sexual violence had been perpetrated against the enslaved women." (Intro to the Broadview Benito Cereno, page 21)
Look how downright nasty the logic gets when editor turns Inquisitor. In the space of one sentence, what started off as a natural feeling of curiosity, a vague and amorphous "sense," hardens into "fact" before you can say "Mike Nifong" or "Group of 88." Reality check: Melville's added comma helps distinguish adult women from innocent children who did not actively participate in the revolt. In Delano's version, Benito Cereno also testified
"that the deponent has not seen the twenty negroes, from twelve to sixteen years of age, have any share in the execution of the murders; nor does he believe they have had, on account of their age, although all were knowing to the insurrection." (as quoted in Gross, Benito Cereno Handbook, page 88; and Runden, pages 93-94)
The short excerpt from Delano's narrative in the Broadview edition of Benito Cereno does not include the passage quoted above, or any of the appended documents that Melville incorporated with telling changes. Students using only the Broadview text won't be able to fact-check Yothers on the point of stressing that active participants in the revolt were "of age." In the specific context of Melville's story, the expression "of age" means that females who abetted murder and plotted torture were not children. For any critic alleging sexual violence, "of age" reinforces their victimhood. (Not explained, why enslaved minors would have been exempt from exploitation by Spaniards as cruel and wicked as Melville paints them according to Yothers.) To me, "of age" both in Delano's version and Melville's rewrite denotes moral responsibility and agency. Otherwise, without some such qualifier, innocent children could be deemed guilty of murder.Kind of like the loaded comma, the satirical print by Isaac Cruikshank titled The Abolition of the Slave Trade gets enlisted in Appendix A for supplementary visual confirmation of the claim that Melville's tale must somehow allude to "sexualized abuse that enslaved women endured as part of the slave trade." Yothers provides no further background, but the image depicts shocking physical abuse of a teenage girl on the Bristol slave-ship Recovery by Captain John Kimber, charged by abolitionist William Wilberforce with cruelly punishing and eventually killing her. Kimber's trial (and too quick acquittal) for murder has been investigated most recently by Nicholas Rogers in Murder on the Middle Passage (Boydell Press, 2020). Whatever happened on the Recovery, Cruikshank powerfully advanced the cause of abolition with his lurid caricature of the sadist-slaver and his suffering victim. As Rogers observes,
"It is a dramatic, disconcerting image, so disconcerting that it threatens to overwhelm whatever narrative one might construct around it."
Put it this way: if you can't imagine a Black Lady Macbeth, you might be a racist.
Illustration for Benito Cereno by E. McKnight Kauffer
London: Nonesuch Press, 1926
"And so it becomes important that we avoid assuming that Melville's vantage point in "Benito Cereno" was anti-slavery just because we would wish it to be, especially because, in the long history of criticism on the story, many early critics were able to overlook or dismiss the anti-slavery implications of the work." -- Intro to the Broadview Benito Cereno, page 37
Translation from Newspeak (more precisely, Doublethink): our preferred reading of "Benito Cereno" as irony-laden anti-slavery lit could be wish-fulfilment, in theory. But actually it's not, because remember how those obtuse and Delano-esque dinosaurs missed the anti-slavery elements that were obviously there, begging to be found by more discerning and acceptably race-obsessed critics in the 1980's and after.
Yothers repeatedly credits Sundquist with linking San Dominick, the name that Melville gives the Spanish vessel instead of Tryal, to the Haitian Revolution. Numerous critics before Sundquist made the Haiti connection, as Sundquist himself acknowledges in To Wake the Nations. For one, Jean Fagan Yellin in her 1970 article Black Masks: Melville's Benito Cereno:
“Both the temporal and nominal changes suggest the black insurrection that had occurred at Santo Domingo in the last decade of the 19th century.... (page 680)
Yellin, Jean Fagan. “Black Masks: Melville's ‘Benito Cereno.’” American Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 3, 1970, pp. 678–689. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2711619. Accessed 1 April 2021.
Earlier than that, H. Bruce Franklin related Melville's changes to Haiti, Toussaint L' Overture, and "the successful bloody rebellion of the slaves of San Domingo" (Apparent Symbol of Despotic Command, page 471). Years before Franklin, Sidney Kaplan queried in a footnote:
Was Melville thinking of St. Domingo when he changed the real Cereno's Tryal to the San Dominick? -- quoted in Runden, page 168; and Gross, page 129.
Kaplan, Sidney. “Herman Melville and the American National Sin: The Meaning of Benito Cereno.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 42, no. 1, 1957, pp. 11–37. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2715967. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.
Indeed, much of the groundwork for later studies focused on race and New World slavery was laid out by Sidney Kaplan in the hugely influential two-part essay published in The Journal of Negro History Volume 41 (October 1956) and Volume 42 (January 1957):
Herman Melville and the American National Sin - October 1956
Herman Melville and the American National Sin - January 1957
I doubt Sundquist needs or wants the extra credit Yothers bestows for identifying "echoes of the Haitian Revoultion" (Introduction to the Broadview edition, pages 22 and 26). Like Glicksberg and others, Sundquist does show how Delano's racist stereotypes reflect abolitionist fantasies, but the nuances of Northern bigotry lie well beyond the scope of the Broadview Benito Cereno.
As premised in Runden's 1965 edition, the central place of "Benito Cereno" in Melville studies is also recognized by Seymour L. Gross in the preface to A Benito Cereno handbook (Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1965):
Ever since 1928, when Edward J. O'Brien placed Benito Cereno first in his list of The Fifteen Finest Short Stories, calling it "the noblest short story in American literature," it has evoked more critical response than any other piece of Melville's shorter fiction, with the possible exception of Billy Budd. And, from a somewhat different quarter, the continuing viability of the story is evidenced in Ralph Ellison's choosing a quotation from Benito Cereno as an epigraph for Invisible Man (1952), which has been called the most profound novel about the Negro in America, and in Robert Lowell's recent (1964) verse-drama adaptation of Melville's novella. (Benito Cereno Handbook, page v)
Gross and Runden showcase a range representative criticism. For the Benito Cereno handbook, Gross organized selected criticism into three categories, one devoted to issues of racism and anti-slavery:
For the sake of focus, the criticism has been divided into three main but by no means absolutely discrete categories: essays that concentrate on the implications inherent in the narrative point of view, Amasa Delano; essays that assess Melville's attitude toward the Negro and slavery; and essays that set out to explicate Melville's use of the source and various thematic and symbolic motifs. Studies that approach the work from somewhat different angles are listed in the annotated bibliography in Part Five. (Preface to the Benito Cereno Handbook, page vi)
Disappeared down memory holes in Broadview, each of these 1965 editions packaged "Benito Cereno" with ribbons and bows for the rising generation of scholar-critics that included future stars Karcher and Sundquist. To enable close textual study, Gross and Runden helpfully reprinted all of chapter 18 from Melville's main source, Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels. Yothers excerpts only part of Delano's chapter 18, omitting extended and highly relevant personal reflections by Delano and all the appended Documents.
Both of the memory-holed 1965 books give the same long excerpt from the second part of Kaplan's two-part article on "Herman Melville and the American National Sin," cited above. Runden's version adds the last of Kaplan's footnotes which employed a handy label for the critical view of Melville's tale as ironized or "sublimated" anti-slavery narrative. Kaplan called that "the Brown-Schiffman-Glicksberg thesis," crediting Sterling Brown, Joseph Schiffman, and Charles I. Glicksberg with the same approach that Yothers would re-assign to gifted latecomers:
"Nonetheless, the Sundquist/Karcher view of "Benito Cereno" as primarily a critique of slavery prevailed." -- Introduction to the Broadview Benito Cereno, page 26
And here's where things get really interesting. As good as Brown-Schiffman-Glicksberg were on the anti-slavery side of "Benito Cereno," more than ably promoting anti-racist Melville, Kaplan was brilliant and devastatingly logical in exposing racist Melville. So persuasive was his evidence and reasoning, Kaplan eventually converted Schiffman to the racist-Melville team. In 1950 Schiffman had sided with Sterling Brown:
"Brown's analysis of Benito Cereno is the best I have seen...."--Joseph Schiffman, Critical Problems in Melville's Benito Cereno, Modern Language Quarterly volume 11 issue 3 (September 1950) pages 317-324 at page 323, footnote 23.But in Three Shorter Novels of Herman Melville (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), Schiffman had to concede that by "highlighting the savagery of the rebellion, Melville sullied his tale with racism."
Yet, as we shall see, the final truth that Delano will learn is that Babo is the embodiment of “malign evil,” Cereno of goodness maligned.... (Kaplan 1957, page 17)
The fact that for us, the heirs of Lincoln, his cunning ruthlessness is worthily motivated is not an issue within the story; to Melville “faithful” Babo is an “honest” Iago; to Delano and Cereno he is a ferocious pirate, not a black David. (page 20)
"Are you now, or have you ever been, a racist-Melville scholar?"
"Never! I've always held with Carolyn Karcher that Melville is anti-racist. Somewhat racist, but mainly anti-racist."
"But what about supremacy? Will you not finally denounce white-whale-supremacy?"
"Sure. With Ahab, and Karcher of course, I believe the key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white whale. Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity. Are we good?"
Until then, lock it down. Wear three or four masks at least, and keep checking Melvilliana for updates. You never know, Melville might have been canceled while we were fooling around just now. No fear here though! Melvilliana will be safe until they cancel Christmas.
- Amasa Delano, news and views
- Sterling Allen Brown on Benito Cereno
- Jazz Age Benito Cereno
- Pretty truly
- Hoyle on Benito Cereno, 1960