Thursday, July 1, 2021

Hoyle on Benito Cereno, 1960

Norman E. Hoyle's 1960 PhD dissertation Melville as a Magazinist was supervised at Duke University by Arlin Turner during the latter part of Turner's tenure as managing editor of American Literature. I bought a hard copy from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses fifteen years ago but did not think to consult it when surveying academic criticism before 1980 for the Melvilliana post on 

Did I overlook important counter-evidence? Could it be that Hoyle's obtuse and Delano-esque take in 1960 fully justifies the recent claim by a leading Melville expert that Benito Cereno "remained in the background of Melville's literary reputation until the 1980's"?


Hoyle's seventeen-page treatment presents "Benito Cereno" as Melville's acknowledged "magazine masterpiece," already canonical and more, being exalted above the rest of Melville's short fiction including even "Bartleby."
As the praise which has been accorded it will attest, the much-anthologized "Benito Cereno" is indeed in Melville's best style, for it is in the tradition of his great sea stories. (160)
Now regarded as Melville's magazine masterpiece.... (161)

But what about the proposition that academic dimwits failed to perceive Melville's ironic indictment of slavery and systemic racism in Benito Cereno before the advent of Karcher?

Compared with Babo, Delano is himself a primitive. The brain of Babo, "that hive of subtlety," had on short notice planned the entire deception." (171)

...could it not be, returning to our earlier discussion of the possible implicit indictment of Benito Cereno, that Melville is in fact suggesting that Aranda and Don Benito are destroyed by their own evil as much as that of the Negroes? (173)

When we recall Benito Cereno's statement that the "negro" cast the dark shadow on him it becomes apparent, I think, that the reference is to more, much more, than Babo. It is his own blackness reflected in Babo that causes Don Benito to faint. The Dominicans, the Black Friars, are associated with the most violent and ruthless aspects of the Inquisition, and their use in the imagery of "Benito Cereno" effectively suggests the inquisitional inhumanity of the slave trade.... (174-5) 

...  Slave trading Melville thus portrayed as a decaying system; its world (the San Dominick in its microcosm) is rotting. That Aranda's slaves were able to overthrow their captors is in itself sufficient evidence of the system's decline. Like the Inquisition, it had decayed from within. Don Benito's own decline, then, certainly does not begin with his subjugation by the evil Babo; because he was a part of an evil system he had known the "negro" long before his meeting with Babo. Melville, in fact, seems to be suggesting quite the reverse. The blacks had indeed once been the innocents the reader at the beginning of the story believes them; it is they who have been corrupted by their contact with Aranda and Benito Cereno. If the "negro" had cast a shadow on Don Benito, the "white" had cast an even darker shadow upon Babo. (176-7)

Personally, I don't see any good reason to deny Melville's Babo a capacity for thinking and doing evil on his own, independent from corrupting external influences including the experience of slavery and oppression. The inversion of stereotypes that Hoyle perceived in "Benito Cereno" merely replaces one racist construction with another and is therefore still racist. For a comparable dialectic Hoyle appealed to the interesting example of 17th century metaphysical poetry, specifically Donne in The Message. Without the metaphysics, Hoyle's argument seems grounded in the same racial essentialism that drives Critical Race Theory today. To the same reductive conclusion, that evil originates in whiteness. 

To be sure, the entire discussion by Hoyle sixty years ago ignored the systemic racial discrimination actually being practiced then and there by Duke University. Nonetheless, Hoyle's unpublished PhD dissertation--supervised by the managing editor (1954-1963) and future editor (1963-1979) of American Literature, completed at Duke the year before the Board of Trustees voted to desegregate the graduate and professional schools--offers another example of how the recognition of Delano's obtuseness and Babo's brilliance and Melville's implicit critique of slavery and racism was standard academic fare, long before Carolyn Karcher published Shadow Over the Promised Land (Louisiana State University Press, 1980).

Checking now, I see the 1960 study with Norman Eugene Hoyle's take on "the inquisitional inhumanity of the slave trade" as portrayed in "Benito Cereno" is not one of the four "UNPUBLISHED PAPERS AND DISSERTATIONS" cited in Karcher's bibliography. For future reference:

HOYLE, NORMAN EUGENE. "MELVILLE AS A MAGAZINIST." Order No. 6006244 Duke University, 1960. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. 

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