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The American in charity: "Benito Cereno" and gothic anti-sentimentality.

In 1852, a year after the publication and rather tepid reception of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville released to the world a novel he had promised was "much more calculated for popularity." "A regular romance," he called it in a letter to his publisher, though the romance that followed--the novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities--is anything but regular. (1) It is a novel in which, among other things, an amplifying strain of gothicism, and of gothic opacity, comes gradually to consume the plot, the major characters, and finally the narrative voice itself, much to the predictable dismay of the author's contemporaries. (One newspaper, the New York Day Book, gave its notice the pithy title, "HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY." (2) Still, before the novel's incest and murder plots are fully ripened, Melville pauses to consider young Pierre Glendinning's fate as an author, and the more general fate of authorship in America. In a chapter called "Young America in Literature," he writes:
      Pierre himself had written many a fugitive thing, which had brought him,
   not only vast credit and compliments from his more immediate acquaintances,
   but the less partial applauses of the always intelligent, and extremely
   discriminating public. In short, Pierre had done that, which many other
   boys have done--published. (3)

For Melville, this is irony so broad and unregulated it might as well be called sarcasm; and the clear bitterness he felt over the treatment of Moby-Dick, particularly at the hands of the "Young America" clan of authors and editors, is on uncomfortably naked display here. That nakedness is probably what motivated one critic to aver that "whether the satire has the serious political implications which have been attributed to it may be doubtful." (4) We might have reason to be a bit more credulous than this, since the anger here, uncontoured though it may be, is directed not just at what this critic calls a "literary clique" but at, precisely, "the public"--the very same "public" who, as Melville goes on to write, "had applauded [Pierre's] gemmed little sketches of thought and fancy." At issue, in other words, is more than any literary clique, more than that "high and mighty Campbell clan of editors" who so unabashedly overpraise Pierre, but a specifically civic body, a "public" whose capacity for literacy, and aptitude for literary responsiveness, Melville wishes to worry over. And this makes sense, since the question of literacy--of a person or group's fluency with a variety of communicative acts and interpretive tools--is, for Melville, ever a matter of dramatic and necessarily civic consequence. We need only think of all the scenes of failed reading, impotent silence, and interpretation gone awry on that floating allegory of national fate, the Pequod. The moral is difficult to miss: civic health, in Melville's fictional cosmos, requires able readership.

Pierre appears in 1852, and the years immediately following do nothing to allay Melville's anxieties about the readerly capacities of the American public. But the events of those years do, it seems, focus his misgivings. Melville's breath, we might say, had time to straighten, his brain to bubble cool, so that what would come from him by 1855 was no longer that sneering broadside vitriol, but the rigidly controlled, exactingly apportioned anger of a writer who has passed beyond wounded authorial pride into a vastly more embracing fatalism. In the essay that follows, I want to contend that the vehicle Melville fashions to carry this anger, this furious dismay before a direly inept and seemingly ineducable American readership, is the great novella of slave revolt "Benito Cereno"; that its method is, in a complicated way, gothic; and that what not indirectly inspires and crystallizes this anger--what transpires so momentously between Moby-Dick and "Benito Cereno"--is the publication and unprecedented reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe's sentimental epic, Uncle Tom's Cabin, in 1852. (5) "Benito Cereno" responds to Uncle Tom's Cabin in at least two ways. It does so, first, in its assault on the self-satisfied and pointedly sentimental mode of reading emblematized by the guileless American ship captain, Amasa Delano; and it does so, second, in the very locutions, the very turns of diction and syntax, it borrows from Stowe, and then calculatedly re-deploys. Trading on Stowe's use of a kind of offhand racial knowingness, a casually assured knowledge of black traits and black life, Melville assumes exactly this rhetorical posture in several conspicuously racist passages of unclearly indirect discourse--passages in which, as I hope to show, what is at stake is any reader's capacity to withstand authorial invitations to credulity. And it is precisely this literacy, this capacity to resist easy credulity and complacent self-assurance, which Melville fears sentimentality, as exemplified by Stowe, has been working assiduously to erode in American readers.

This line of argument goes slightly against the grain of recent movements in antebellum literary scholarship, particularly where race and genre are concerned. In much strong new work, we have been asked to reconsider the role of the gothic--of gothic forms, characterizations, figures, and rhetorics--within ostensibly sentimental genres. Works like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Our Nig, and Uncle Tom's Cabin itself have been shown to make strident use of gothic motifs as a counterpoint, or complicating addendum, to their markedly sentimental strains: maternal affection has been shown to be crossed with a violent fear of loss, filial obedience cut with rage, and so on. One fine example of this is Julia Stern's reading of Our Nig, in which she argues that the domestic spaces of the book--kitchens, dining rooms: usually sentimental safe-havens--are the sites of the novel's most gothic scenes of rivalry, fury, violence, and terror. (6) The gothic, in such an account, implicitly critiques the sentimental, though without abandoning it: more accurately, it completes the sentimental, enhancing its efficacy by extending the range of its sanctioned affects.

"Benito Cereno," I am suggesting, makes a different kind of argument, one that pits gothic occlusion and opacity against sentimental modes of reading and response, and sentimental readers, the better to show how easily sentimentality consorts with a particularly American racism. This reading is aligned with accounts of Melville's career by Ann Douglas and Gillian Brown, both of whom argue (with differing emphases) that after Moby-Dick Melville turns dramatically against the American reading public, and particularly against its seemingly insatiable appetite for "feminized," sentimental literatures. What results from this anti-sentimentalism, they contend, is an aggrieved "revolt against the reader" in Melville, and a more widely thematized "misanthropy"--a contention seemingly embodied to perfection by "Benito Cereno," a text more vengefully disposed toward its readers, and more thoroughgoing in its misanthropy, than anything else Melville would produce. But I believe that the blistering assaults on readership in "Benito Cereno"--a text neither Douglas nor Brown takes up--show Melville's hostility toward sentimentalism to proceed on significantly different grounds than these critics suggest. For "Benito Cereno" is not a text unduly dismayed by effeminacy or "feminization" (as Douglas has it), or by the de-individuating caprices of the marketplace, for which women were so often made an emblem (as Brown argues). Much more directly and urgently, "Benito Cereno" arraigns sentimentality for the profound and self-exculpatory misapprehensions of an explosive, inhumane, and unsustainable racial standoff that it sponsors. (7) Sentimentality, the work finally suggests, is an American way of reading the gothic text of race in the New World--gothic in its violence, in its atmosphere of dread, and not least in its unyielding opacity, its resistance to easy legibility. (8) Or rather, sentimentality is, for Melville, a way of misrecognizing that text, of subsisting in a state of often grossly self-satisfied ignorance of its most dire aspects and consequences. There are many figures in "Benito Cereno" around whom such ominous ignorances revolve, but the one to whom we, as readers, are most intimately, exasperatingly tied is, of course, the cheery and indefatigably good-hearted Captain Amasa Delano.

The Generosity and Piety of Captain Amasa Delano

What sort of reader, then, is Amasa Delano, of Duxbury, Massachusetts? In the broadest view, he is plainly a bad one, which fact the narrative voice shares with us early on, in terms not very uncertain. We are introduced to Delano as he spies a ship, flying no flag to announce its origins or intentions, coming into an isolated harbor:
   Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of
   stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano's surprise
   might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of
   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. (9)

We will return to this intensely provoking passage shortly, but for now I would note only that Delano's not more than ordinary intellectual acuity is presented here in relation to his capacity as a reader: that is, to his understanding and use (or misunderstanding and misuse) of "the sort of stories ... associated with those seas." There is perhaps the solace of his "benevolence of heart," but this passing approbation--backhanded, we will later learn--only mildly mitigates, without at all canceling, the charge against him, as clearly put here as it ever will be, of dimwittedness and a more particular readerly incompetence. (10) And of course the plot of the novella, once it is fully revealed, bears out exactly this condemnation. Delano has moments of seeming fluency, to be sure: he successfully interprets the "baked" lips of the slaves as evidence of the ship's lack of water (49); he even reads the person of Captain Benito Cereno with close-grained scrutiny: "Eyeing Don Benito's small, yellow hands, he easily inferred that the young captain had not got into command at the hawsehole, but the cabin-window" (58, emphasis added). But despite these brief interpretive successes, or the appearance of them, what Delano suffers on board the San Dominick is no general incompetency but, precisely, a catastrophic failure of reading. Confronted with a veritable crush of signs and portents--the frail captain, the vigilant Babo, chained Atufal, the oakum-pickers and hatchet-polishers, the flaring moments of violence and unease--he is unable to arrange them accurately or truthfully. As a reader of the text of the San Dominick, he fails to discern that the Spanish vessel is in fact in the grips of a complex, meticulously plotted mutiny, that the slaves have successfully revolted, and that the dutiful Babo is in fact the revolutionary in command. (11) Delano's illiteracy in this regard is very nearly fatal, and in a way that the text again renders plain, and that critics have frequently described, it is his cheery, unselfconscious, absolutely intractable racism--his offhand white supremacism--that drives and sustains this illiteracy. For most of what prevents him from discovering the plot, even despite his several moments of deep suspicion, is his unruffled confidence that a slave like Babo, so naturally docile, so ideally suited to those watchful and pleasant "avocations about one's person," could never surpass the "unaspiring contentment of a limited mind" common to all Africans (83, 84). The blacks in league with a piratical Cereno? "But they were too stupid," Delano reminds himself (75). Believing this, he cannot see what's before him. As Jean Fagan Yellin has it, "Because he is incapable of imagining the Negro in any but a passive role--devoted servant, victimized savage, exotic primitive--Delano cannot perceive the true situation on the San Dominick." (12)

This much, by now, we know. More remarkable, I think, is that this pervasive racial illiteracy is linked explicitly to Delano's winning "benevolence of heart," and that this peculiar "benevolence" is equally a matter of reading and readerly aptitude. For Delano's failure as a reader is accretive; it comes slowly, and in stages. It is not so much that Delano cannot make any order or coherent narrative out of the portents he fronts; he does so, in fact, doggedly. The problem is more that the order he gives them, or rather the genre in which he narrates the scene back to himself, continually misapprehends it.

The text before him, could he but read it, is in fact relentlessly gothic. Packed extraordinarily densely into the opening of the tale, for instance, are a series of characteristically gothic emblems of aristocratic decay and decadent or declined Catholicism. When first viewed, the Spanish ship "appeared like a white-washed monastery after a thunder-storm, seen perched upon some dun cliff among the Pyrenees. But it was no purely fanciful resemblance which now, for a moment, almost led Captain Delano to think that nothing less than a ship-load of monks was before him" (48). We are told, too, that the ship has the distinct aspect of "superannuated Italian palaces ... under a decline of masters" (48). In case we've missed the point, the narrator continues to paint the vessel as completely in the image of that central gothic set-piece, the mined castle, as strained verisimilitude will allow:
      Battered and mouldy, the castellated forecastle seemed some ancient
   turret, long ago taken by assault, and then left to decay. Toward the
   stern, two high-raised quarter galleries--the balustrades here and there
   covered with dry, tindery sea-moss--opening out from the unoccupied
   state-cabin, whose dead lights, for all the mild weather, were hermetically
   closed and calked--these tenantless balconies hung over the sea as if it
   were the grand Venetian canal. (48-49)

And while Eric Sundquist and H. Brace Franklin are correct to note the salience of Catholicism, and of the papacy, as culpable authorizing agents of the New World slavery that is the novella's subject, we ought not to forget that the Catholicism mantling the Spanish Captain Cereno and his ship--like the repeated references to Venice--functions as a steady harbinger of, if not the fact, the possibility of a specifically gothic style of intrigue, conspiracy, and violence. (13) "These Spaniards are all an odd set," Delano muses to himself; "the very word Spaniard has a curious, conspirator, Guy-Fawkish twang to it" (79). In setting as in cast, as Delano himself notices, the San Dominick is a thoroughly gothic mise en scene.

There is more than this, especially if we shift our interest in the gothic from what it is (the standard inventory of gothic conventions) to what it does. Beyond the text's other gothic topoi (encrypted texts, scenes of subjection and dominance, the unclearly violent or affectionate interdependency of two male leads, Babo and Cereno), it is invested throughout--again in a way Delano remarks--with a disquieting sense of the unspoken or unspeakable, somehow silently orchestrating the movements of all. As Eve Sedgwick remarks, "Of all the Gothic conventions dealing with the sudden, mysterious, seemingly arbitrary, but massive inaccessibility of those things that should normally be most accessible, the difficulty the story has in getting itself told is of the most obvious structural significance." (14) The gothic, she observes, is characteristically fascinated with the limits and aporias of communication, with the varied liabilities and often terrorizing difficulties of speech, writing, and reading. And it is of course exactly the difficulty Sedgwick specifies, the difficulty the story of the San Dominick and its peculiarities has in telling itself coherently to Delano, that most unsettles the good captain. Noticing a young Spaniard on board whose fine linen undershirt is masked by the garb of a common sailor, Delano senses, not for the first time, the presence of a narrative not fully accessible to him: "At this moment the young sailor's eye was again fixed on the whisperers, and Captain Delano thought he observed a lurking significance in it, as if silent signs of some Freemason sort had that instant been interchanged" (66). Delano experiences here, as he does with even greater intensity elsewhere, what Eugenia C. DeLamotte describes as "the vague premonition, the indefinable feeling of dread" that characterizes the traditional gothic heroine's response to her environment. (15) In a real sense, Delano himself becomes still another gothic figure. Trapped in an environment whose whole aspect is distinctively gothic, Delano responds exactly in kind: with the inarticulable, premonitory dread of the conventional gothic protagonist.

These generic codings, as strident as they often are, are not lost Amasa Delano. He actually comes to suspect as much, and it is in fact the very thought of himself as a gothic protagonist--or rather, the thought that he has been imagining himself at the center of a gothic tale--that often facilitates his return to ease and suspicionlessness. Indeed, he tends to arrive at a self-castigating distrust of his own suspiciousness precisely by opposing the gothic to an altogether different genre of imagining. After the incident with the old Spanish seaman and the knot Delano once again feels "a qualmish sort of emotion," but is again, in a peculiar fashion, put back at his ease by the sight of his own boat, Rover, coming back from the Bachelor's Delight:
      The sight of that household boat evoked a thousand trustful
   associations, which, contrasted with previous suspicions, filled him not
   only with lightsome confidence, but somehow with half-humorous
   self-reproaches at his former lack of it.

      "What, I, Amasa Delano--Jack of the Beach, as they called me when a lad
   ... I, little Jack of the Beach, that used to go berrying with cousin Nat
   and the rest; 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!"

What is nonsensical to Delano here is that he has, despite himself, credited gothic tale-telling--the sorts of stories associated with those seas--enough to be dispossessed of his good sense. And that good sense clearly resides for him in the "trustful associations" of the domestic and the familial: the "household boat," "cousin Nat," "berrying," all these domestic pleasures and securities draw him back from his gothic imaginings of conspiracy and secret murder, here made to seem patently burlesque in their contrast to the dreamy and trustful pleasantries of homelife.

This rhythm of suspicion and domestication reaches a crescendo late in the text as, finding himself entombed in the "subterranean vault" of the San Dominick's below-deck corridors, "his mind.., swarmed with superstitious suspicions":
      Hitherto, credulous good-nature had been too ready to furnish excuses
   for reasonable fears ... What imported all those day-long enigmas and
   contradictions, except they were intended to mystify, preliminary to some
   stealthy blow? Atufal, the pretended rebel, but punctual shadow, that
   moment lurked by the threshold without. He seemed a sentry, and more. Who,
   by his own confession, had stationed him there? Was the negro now lying in
   wait? (96)

But watch how Delano reorganizes these threateningly opaque and occluded narrative elements:
      As he saw his trim ship lying peacefully at anchor, and almost within
   ordinary call; as he saw his household boat, with familiar faces in it,
   patiently rising and falling on the short waves by the San Dominick's side
   ... and more than all, as he saw the benign aspect of nature, taking her
   innocent repose in the evening ... as charmed eye and ear took in all
   these, with the chained figure of the black, clenched jaw and hand relaxed.
   Once again he smiled at the phantoms which had mocked him, and felt
   something like a tinge of remorse, that, by harboring them even for a
   moment, he should by implication, have betrayed an atheist doubt of the
   ever-watchful Providence above.

      There was a few minutes' delay, while, in obedience to his orders, the
   boat was being hooked along to the gangway. During the interval, a sort of
   saddened satisfaction stole over Captain Delano, at thinking of the kindly
   offices he had that day discharged for a stranger. Ah, thought he, after
   good actions one's conscience is never ungrateful, however much so the
   benefited party may be. (96-97)

Part of the brutal and oft-remarked irony here, to be sure, is that for Delano "the chained figure of the black" in no way unsettles or makes less idyllic "the benign aspect of nature," black subjection for him being simply a part of nature's order. But Melville's satire has other targets as well: for Delano is also acutely aware of the reward, to his own self-regard, of interpreting the world in this way. Here, as several times previously in the story, we watch Delano "drowning criticism in compassion, after a fresh repetition of his sympathies" (58). The pleasure, the "saddened satisfaction" he takes in what he calls his acts of conscience and "sympathetic conjectures"--in knowing himself to be possessed, if not of acuity, than of a uniquely "benevolent heart"--is evident: for these "good actions" of his, Delano is grateful to himself. The very lexicon Melville persistently circulates around him (benevolent, sympathetic, generous, compassionate) serves to remind us further that this self-pleasing mode of reading has particular generic affiliations. (16) Indeed, the generic oppositions at play in Delano's imagination now come into sharper focus. For Delano continues to see on deck insinuations of a gothic tale--one of an encrypted and unspeakable terror and suffering--but the gothic, he repeatedly decides, is a genre too malign, too filled with phantoms and superstition and atheist doubt of watchful Providence, to be credited. Instead, he gathers in all the ship's gothic intimations, and there are many, and tirelessly insists on rearranging them into a manifestly sentimental textual order: suspicions gives way to "compassion," pirate ships turn into household boats, and the "ugly passions" slavery breeds become for Delano, in a twinkling, "but a sort of love-quarrel, after all" (88). (17)

The matter, then, is not just that Delano is a bad reader, and not just that Delano is a racist reader. This much, again, is by now clear enough. The underemphasized point, I think, is that for Melville Delano is first and foremost a sentimental reader, whose racism and incompetence in fact follow from his sentimentality. This sentimental reading practice ramifies in a number of telling ways in the tale. First, as we have already begun to see, it is a readerly disposition that sponsors in Delano what we might call a misapprehension of the nature of Nature, allowing him to ascribe to a benign and providentially-ordained Nature an alarmingly indiscriminate array of more properly human and social acts and practices, including those of racial terror and subjection. In local terms, by refusing to impute malign evil to any man or to watchful Providence--to do so would show him less than completely "generous" and "benevolent"--he cannot then think of human enslavement as an act of malignity; or, he cannot do so in any but the most saccharine, self-exculpatory terms ("Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man," he muses momentarily, and with condescending detachment [88]). Relatedly, that intractable "benevolence of heart" convinces him that human nature is all nurturance and compassion, which makes it difficult in turn for him to imagine that it might also have much to do with a fervent, unrelenting drive to be free and self-determining. This is the category confusion at play in Delano's encounter with the "slumbering negress," a child at her breast:
      His attention had been drawn to a slumbering negress, partly disclosed
   through the lace-work of some rigging, lying, with youthful limbs
   carelessly disposed, under the lee of the bulwarks, like a doe in the shade
   of a woodland rock. Sprawling at her lapped breasts was her wide-awake
   fawn, stark naked, its black little body half lifted from the deck,
   crosswise with its dam's; its hands, like two paws, clambering upon her;
   its mouth and nose ineffectually rooting to get at the mark; and meantime
   giving a vexatious half-grunt, blending with the composed snore of the

      The uncommon vigor of the child at length roused the mother. She started
   up, at distance facing Captain Delano. But as if not at all concerned at
   the attitude in which she had been caught, delightedly she caught the child
   up, with maternal transports, covering it with kisses.

      There's naked nature, now; pure tenderness and love, thought Captain
   Delano, well pleased. (73)

Delano cannot but read this scene as a kind of sentimental apotheosis, an image of human benignity at its most naked and pure, and carded, appropriately, by the transports of the "maternal." That there is more than a hint of defiance in the mother's regard for Delano--she knows it is not she who has been "caught" (18)--is a point obscured for him not least by the keen pleasure he takes in his own capacity to find and appreciate a scene of such sentimental confirmation, even on a strange ship half-way around the world.

Delano's preferred mode of reading provides him simultaneously with a misguided sense of his own capacity to know, thoroughly and accurately, the quality of another's suffering. Such misunderstanding is of course writ large across the whole of his engagement with the slaves, and with Babo in particular, but it has more local expressions as well. After Cereno haltingly tells him the falsified tale of his friend Aranda's death on board, Delano interjects:
      "Pardon me ... but I think that, by a sympathetic experience, I
   conjecture, Don Benito, what it is that gives the keener edge to your
   grief. It was once my hard fortune to lose at sea a dear friend, my own
   brother, then supercargo. Assured of the welfare of his spirit, its
   departure I could have borne like a man; but that honest eye, that honest
   hand--both of which had so often met mine--and that warm heart; all,
   all--like scraps to the dogs--to throw all to the sharks !" (61).

What Delano expresses here, along with his less than sterling tact, is his unshaken belief in a sentimental logic of equivalence: his intuition, in other words, that an experience of suffering and loss, of any kind, puts one in unlimited identification with any and all others who have suffered, in any way. This is of course part of sentimentality's utopian democratic appeal, what Glenn Hendler calls its "fantasy of experiential equivalence": because we all suffer and feel grief, the argument goes, we can therefore feel for each other, and in so doing know ourselves bound together by a common humanity greater than any division of wealth or race or sex, our common vulnerability to pain and bereavement. (19) Delano's ill-thought sympathetic conjectures mark, at the least, Melville's rather withering regard for such a vision of harmonious mutual legibility. The text's alternate model of sympathy is of course Cereno himself, who in the end cannot face Babo at his trial, not because he sympathizes with or can conjecture about the state of slavery, but because he now knows, existentially, what it is to be enslaved. (Delano's observation is more suggestive than he knows when he thinks of Cereno, "He is like one flayed alive" [93].) And the knowledge of having been enslaved, which he knows he shares with "the Negro," is precisely what casts such a deathly shadow upon Cereno at the end. When he tells Delano that the sun and sky and winds are all untroubled, "because they have no memory ... because they are not human" (116), he is insisting both that the memory of having been enslaved cannot be eradicated in him, and that, correlatively, one would finally have to believe "the Negro" not human--incapable even of memory--to imagine slaves might live unprotestingly with their enslavement, or let it pass unrevenged. At the same time, he is reminding Delano, with a pointedness the American seems not to notice, of the limitedness of his own sympathetic conjectures: "So far may even the best man err," Cereno says, "in judging the conduct of one with the recesses of whose condition he is not acquainted" (115). (20) The sentimental logic of suffering's equivalences, he obliquely but firmly recalls to the uncomprehending Delano, is a lie.

Finally, though, what most conspicuously--and, for Melville, most damningly--marks Delano as an emblem of a misbegotten sentimentality is his unhesitating use of the suffering of others. In this text, a generous contemplation of the suffering of others forever occasions a confirmation of the observer's own capacity for sympathetic self-extension--for exactly those sympathetic conjectures and acts of conscience which Delano finds so deeply rewarding. We have seen how Delano finds himself "well pleased" before the naked hungry slave child and its mother, before Babo's dutiful attentiveness, and most of all before his own generosity of disposition toward Cereno, whom Delano repeatedly exonerates for his minor affronts to his American benefactor on the grounds that the poor Spaniard has suffered so greatly. What becomes increasingly unmistakable over the course of the tale, though, is that Delano's interpretive disposition allows him to translate, repeatedly and seamlessly, the suffering of others into a mode of self-regard that is exclusively self-amplifying. The tale's conclusion turns on exactly this point: "The temper of my mind that morning," he explains to Cereno afterwards, "was more than commonly pleasant, while the sight of so much suffering, more apparent than real, added to my good-nature, compassion, and charity, happily interweaving the three" (115). The moment is striking, and clear: suffering adds to Delano's good nature, amplifies it, and contributes "happily" to his already more than commonly pleasant temper of mind. Such are the ethics of his reading, and this after all its misperceptions, hollow securities, and nearly catastrophic failures have been revealed. In "Benito Cereno"--a text introduced to a literary marketplace utterly convulsed by the massive success, three years earlier, of Uncle Tom's Cabin (21)--this is what sentimental reading looks like.

Herman Melville Hates You

We miss a great deal, however, if we presume too hastily that Melville's anger in the tale is simply with Delano and the self-congratulatory sympathy for which he stands. On this point, Robert S. Levine is right to observe that readings which rush to take Melville's side against Delano are apt to forget that, for most of the story, Melville places us--his audience, past, present, and future--in a queasy, unstable, but nevertheless unyielding identification with Delano. (22) If the narrative does indeed have such brutally satirical designs on its anti-hero--if it hates Delano and his hollow sympathies as much as I, and many others, have suggested--it has designs no less hostile and accusatory on each and every one of its readers. To miss this is to miss much of the tale's drama, as well as its acute anxiety about, precisely, readership and the state of American civic life.

Melville's strategy of oblique readerly solicitation begins early on. Recall that at the outset the narrative voice takes pains to note for us Delano's dimwittedness. I have called that opening passage provoking, because it establishes from the first a hierarchy of knowingness and, with it, an economy of readerly positions. Here again is the narrative voice characterizing for us the man who will be, but is not here, the narrative's center of consciousness:
      Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of
   stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano's surprise
   might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of
   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. (47)

As readers, we are in this moment given to understand ourselves as smarter than the narrated Delano, but only inasmuch as we identify with and stick close by the omniscient narrative voice itself, which has promised to collude with us, to share with us its worldly, knowing perspective, and in effect to whisper to us behind Delano's back. Inasmuch as we are with the narrative voice, that is, we are safe from its accusations of ignorance and unworldliness. That omniscient voice is never more our friend and our confidant than at this moment, and the effect of this is complex.

If the narrative in this way solicitously assures us, at the start, that it will distinguish itself and its vantage from that of Delano, the better to allow us the enjoyment of feeling confidently more knowing than he is, it gradually turns that promise into a trap--what Carolyn Karcher aptly calls "a literary mantrap." (23) It does so, in essence, by allowing the narrative perspective and Delano's perspective to mingle more and more indeterminately, and in passages that are increasingly crucial to the reader's understanding of the events and characters of the narrative. When, with deadpan and unblinking cunning, Melville offers us these progressively more lengthy passages which may be indirect discourse, but with virtually no textual indication that they are anything other than omniscient narration, he is essentially confronting us with a kind of dare: where do you identify? How badly, how cravenly do you wish to be solaced by knowing yourself in tune with a narrative authority? And how much will you swallow in order to be so soothed? Note in these narratologically ambiguous passages, which bristle with self-assurance and worldly-wise certainties, exactly what we are being asked to swallow:
   the hatchet-polishers ... sat intent upon their task, except at intervals,
   when, with the peculiar love in negroes of uniting industry with pastime,
   two and two they sideways clashed their hatches together, like cymbals,
   with a barbarous din. All six, unlike the generality, had the raw aspect of
   unsophisticated Africans. (50)

      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. (52)

      "Master wouldn't part with Babo for a thousand doubloons," murmured the
   black, overheating the offer, and taking it in earnest, and, with the
   strange vanity of a faithful slave appreciated by his master, scorning to
   hear so paltry a valuation put upon him by a stranger. (71)

These moments are brief enough that we might pass them over without worrying too much over whose thoughts they are, those of the ironized Delano or the authorized narrative voice. (They are more or less of a piece with the narrative's references to "sight-loving Africans" [80] and "the African love of bright colors and fine shows" [84].) But how do we approach the rather different movements of this passage, which needs to be quoted at length:
      Here the servant, napkin on arm, made a motion as if waiting his
   master's good pleasure. Don Benito signified his readiness, when, seating
   him in the malacca arm-chair, and for the guest's convenience drawing
   opposite it one of the settees, the servant commenced operations by
   throwing back his master's collar and loosening his cravat.

      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
   hair-dressers, taking to the comb and brush congenially as to the
   castinets, and flourishing them apparently with almost equal satisfaction.
   There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment, with a
   marvelous, noiseless, gliding briskness, not ungraceful in its way,
   singularly pleasing to behold, and still more so to be the manipulated
   subject of. And above all is the great gift of good-humor. Not the mere
   grin or laugh is here meant. Those were unsuitable. But a certain easy
   cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture; as though God had set
   the whole negro to some pleasant tune.

      When to all this is added the docility arising from the unaspiring
   contentment of a limited mind, and that susceptibility of bland
   attachment sometimes inhering in indisputable inferiors, one readily
   perceives why those hypochondriacs, Johnson and Byron--it may be something
   like the hypochondriac, Benito Cereno--took to their hearts, almost to the
   exclusion of the entire white race, their serving men, the negroes, Barber
   and Fletcher. But if there be that in the negro which exempts him from the
   inflicted sourness of the morbid and cynical mind, how, in his most
   prepossessing aspect, must he appear to a benevolent one? When at ease with
   respect to exterior things, Captain Delano's nature was not only benign,
   but familiarly and humorously so. (83-84)

Spoken to us in the very omniscient voice with which we have been encouraged to align ourselves--for it knows better than the hapless Delano--the passage invites us to weigh the eagerness of our identification with this worldly, confidently knowing voice against whatever suspicion we might (or might not) be able to muster with regard to its offhand and easily assured racial pronouncements. (The tone of assurance throughout these passages rests in the diction, particularly in the nominating locutions: "the peculiar love in negroes," "that affectionate zeal," "that susceptibility," all usages that deliberately draw on a knowledge assumed to be shared.) What's more, in this latter passage the narrative voice not only refuses to identify itself explicitly with Delano's vantage, it actually seems to announce a shift back to Delano and from omniscience ("But if there be that in the negro which exempts him from the inflicted sourness of the morbid and cynical mind, how, in his most prepossessing aspect, must he appear to a benevolent one?")--a movement that only heightens the quality of omniscience announced in a phrase like, "Not the mere grin or laugh is here meant," which has every mark of a piece of narratorial instruction. Given the readerly economy established so decisively at the outset, in which we are encouraged to hunger for the security and wisdom of the omniscient perspective, we might well wonder if it is so much as possible to divine immediately that this is, narratively speaking, a bit of perspectival foolery, a burlesque of Delano's racism later to be exposed. (24) But of course to the degree that any of us fails from the first moment to distance ourselves from this ambiguously unmarked perspective and recognize it as satirical indirect discourse, then to exactly that degree are our condemnations of Delano painfully hypocritical, since he too has allowed his own incuriousness about racial presumption to prevent him from suspecting irony where he had not expected to find it. If we haven't pegged these passages immediately as indirect discourse, then we, like Delano, have been the not sufficiently perceptive victims of a narrative ruse. That the deck is, narratologically speaking, stacked against us, is part of Melville's point. Such, I would say, is Melville's venomous regard for his readers, and their piteous credulity, in 1855. (25)

Just as crucially, Melville also seems in these passages to be marking the specific kinds of pronouncements his readers will, with only a little provocation, let pass all too incuriously. That offhand racial knowingness is not a tone he invents. Another writer, much more widely read than himself, had only recently written passages such as these:
      There were others, which made incessant mention of "Jordan's Banks" and
   "Canaan's fields," and the "New Jerusalem;" for the negro mind, impassioned
   and imaginative, always attaches itself to hymns and expressions of a vivid
   and pictorial nature. (26)

      Tom got down from the carriage, and looked about with an air of calm,
   still enjoyment. The negro, it must be remembered, is an exotic of the most
   gorgeous and superb countries of the world, and he has, deep in his heart,
   a passion for all that is splendid, rich, and fanciful; a passion which,
   rudely indulged by an untrained taste, draws on them the ridicule of the
   colder and more correct white race. (253)

      It is impossible to describe the scene, as, with tears and sobs, they
   gathered round the little creature, and took from her hands what seemed to
   them a last mark of her love. They fell on their knees; they sobbed, and
   prayed, and kissed the hem of her garment; and the elder ones poured forth
   words of endearment, mingled in prayers and blessings, after the manner of
   their susceptible race. (419)

What these verbal gestures are all about--as, by incorporating them, Melville's text tries to show--is mutuality and assurance, collusion, the quiet insistence upon a knowledge that is presented as so effortlessly shared that any desire to substantiate it can only read as a mark of one's ineptness, one's exclusion from the deftly formed circle of those who know. They trade upon a kind of untroubled transparency, both of character to omniscient observation and judgment, and of that judgment to readers. (27)

This rhetorical tactic is so prevalent in Harriet Beecher Stowe's strongest work it might be called her stylistic signature, and is surely part of what lends to her narrative voice its oft-described authoritativeness. (28) Here is Uncle Tom's Cabin's opening page, second paragraph:
      For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen. One of the
   parties, however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly
   speaking, to come under the species. He was a short, thickset man, with
   coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which
   marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. (41)

With the flourish of a phrase like "that swaggering air ... which marks a low man," Stowe here establishes for us not only the whole of Haley's character, but also the absolute command and fluency of her mastery over all the taxonomies of evaluation and all the avenues of moral judgment. As readers, we are both alerted to the fact of categorical judgment, and tacitly advised to protect ourselves from such judgment by practicing a conscientious openness to the narrator's assurance, and to the narrative's corresponding moral transparency. We are wise, then, to be at once alert and docile: to read attentively, and await instruction.

"Benito Cereno," which cannibalizes exactly Stowe's signature locutions of knowingness, attacks both the ideal of transparency and the acquiescent readerly credulity that accompanies it--and attacks them as civic maladies, prone to exacerbating rather than ameliorating the increasingly dire racial crisis in which the nation finds itself. Delano's unflustered racial certainties, even in the midst of his gravest suspicions, prevent him from recognizing that there is a crisis afoot, but the crime Melville wishes to expose in the tale is not simply Delano's, or Cereno's, or the departed Aranda's. As against sentimental transparency, Melville offers instead an extended form of gothic occlusion and opacity, prosecuted not only diegetically but meta-textually. That is, the strength--or rather, the spite and the malice--of Melville's attack on the reader who is too credulous and wishes only to await transparent instruction comes less in his withering portrayal of Delano the incompetent reader than in his deliberate disorientation (Douglass would say "dispossession") of us, the readers who cannot read his story. (29) (Perhaps critics rush to take Melville's side against Delano in part to erase the stain of having been, at least once, locked into exactly the state of readerly uncertainty that afflicts the hapless Captain.) Melville opens the text with an oblique promise of at least one kind of narrative transparency--the narrator offers to side with us against the dim Delano--and is betting that our acquiescence to that beguiling promise will be such that even the grossest forms of racist burlesque will not disabuse us of our desire to be instructed, as promised, by the voice of knowing omniscience. We await the authority of omniscience, and when it comes, as in those passages of unclearly indirect discourse, it is counterfeit, as false as a gentleman pretending to be a sailor, or a master playing the slave.

The problem with sentimental readers of Stowe, then, is not merely that they aggrandize themselves in fulsome contemplation of the suffering of others. The wild approbation for Uncle Tom's Cabin suggests to Melville that they have also nursed in themselves a tolerance, and perhaps even an appetite, for the very racial knowingness that prevents Delano, so guilelessly assured, from reading the actual text before him; and so it is exactly that tolerance that he sets out to test. It is as if Melville draws upon all the narrative tools he has at his disposal solely to ensnare and to castigate his readers, purposefully enticing them narratologically to suspend their disbelief in these gestures of racial knowingness--for he suspects, from Stowe, that his readers are in fact more than willing to suspend that disbelief, if they have any to begin with--only so that he may then expose the blindnesses and human cruelty that follow in their wake. Sentimental reading, Melville suggests, has trained American readers in exactly the kinds of self-pleasing acquiescent credulity, racial credulity, that make Delano so hapless and ethically bankrupt. "Benito Cereno," with its gothic opacities and instigations to misreading, is the punishment he feels those American readers have earned for themselves. As Michael Rogin frames the matter, "The dreamlike reveries of the antebellum sentimental novel have been seen as escapes from the ineradicable horror of slavery." In "Benito Cereno," "Melville turned the dreams ... against the dreamers." (30)

This is, of course, a less than generous reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe's narrative authority may indeed rest in her ability to persuade her readers, with a variety of narrative incentives, of the moral transparency, to her, of the world she describes. This does not mean, however, that the text she produces is as perfectly transparent, or as morally legible, as an instruction manual. If Uncle Tom's Cabin is abidingly compelling, it is not least because its vast range of moral propositions and clear-cut authorial judgments of taste and character and policy cannot be made to square with one another. The pious condescension that seems at the outset to be the narrator's is later lampooned in Miss Ophelia (272-74); the aristocratic contempt for the "vulgar" (like Haley and his circle) is troubled deeply by St. Clare's neo-Marxian prophecy of a grand revolution in which the low shall be raised up (390-96); and even the racial assurances the narrative offers come to be, at the very least, unsettled by the self-possessed and revolutionary aspect of George, whose homespun American heroism (he offers what the narrative calls his own "Declaration of Independence" [298-99]) is itself unraveled in its turn by his eventual removal far from the shores of America, to the African colony of Liberia (a solution itself made the object of satire earlier by St. Clare). In all, one of the most remarkable things about the book, which draws so much narrative force from its authorial promises of transparency, is its final inability actually to sustain a coherent moral vision of the nation and of the nation's future, despite laboring so strenuously to do so. Antebellum America and its contradictions expand beyond the perimeter of any one position of judgment Stowe can offer, and this terrifying, uncontainable excess--this tangle of human needs and possibilities with no clear path through it--is what Stowe's novel most succeeds in representing. The matters of race and slavery may not be opaque to the organizing consciousness of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Melville may rightly object to this, but the matter of the fate of America itself most certainly is.

Still, the opacities of "Benito Cereno" are of an appreciably different order. The thematics of silence which pervade the text are one prominent expression of this difference. As Maurice Lee has persuasively shown, even after the plot has been revealed, even after the voice of authority (in the form of a legal deposition) has spoken, the text resolves into a series of ominous, death-like silences. There is of course Babo, who--very like Iago, another famed conspirator in a Venetian setting--refuses to divulge himself to his captors, and whose "voiceless end" (116) reminds us of the profound absences, the unrecuperated elisions, in the official archives of national and New World history. (31) So too is Cereno's end virtually voiceless:

"You are saved," cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; "you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?"

"The negro."

There was silence, while the moody man sat, slowly and unconsciously gathering his mantle about him, as if it were a pall.

There was no more conversation that day.

But if the Spaniard's melancholy sometimes ended in muteness upon topics like the above, there were others upon which he never spoke at all; on which, indeed, all his old reserves were piled. (116)

By the end of the tale the gothic motif of the unspeakable is literalized into a kind of contagion of muteness, a progressive abandonment of speech itself. Lee reads this as clear evidence that "the failings of political discourse pervade all human speech, be it antebellum or antediluvian, be it between leaders, followers, or friends. Such is Melville's cynical estimation of our ability to talk truthfully with anyone." This is not the accretively contradictory, though still quite undeterred moral exposition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but the voice of "a despairing, skeptical Melville" whose "mistrust of representation" is so thorough and exacting that he finds no refuge whatever from the bloody calamities he predicts within the range of the communicable. (32)

And yet the disastrous failings Melville's gothicism points to may not be those of "political speech" per se, and to describe what I have called the tale's anger in terms of Melville's thoroughgoing "distrust of representation" may be to misperceive it. The communicable, after all, seems for him substantially more variegated than the term "representation" allows--it exists, for instance, in particular assemblages, which can be recognized as genres, and all genres, to Melville, are not created equal. Melville's anger, in other words, may be less with "representation" than with the particular kinds of representation that were flourishing around him, and which in his view reflected pronounced and worrying debilities in the American public's aptitude for reading and, by extension, for good citizenship. To suggest that for Melville the grave problem is with language itself--that the text is finally a "discourse about discourse" (33)--is tacitly to exonerate all the acts of readerly incompetence he so meticulously enumerates. That language itself is the true saboteur of civic harmony seems, in all, an odd conclusion to draw from a text in which so much energy is expended anatomizing the methods and motives of misreading.

Such a qualification does not make the tale any less dire in its outlook or, in its procedures, any less vengeful. I have said already that the text aims to punish, but this puts the matter perhaps too diffusely. Lee writes that "subversive politics," to proceed, "must imagine a friendly and sensitive listener in a hostile political world," but this seems off the mark, especially in the case of "Benito Cereno." (34) For after the middling and then vitriolic receptions of Moby-Dick and Pierre, respectively--alongside the runaway popularity of Stowe--Melville offers in "Benito Cereno" one of the few texts that might be said, in conception and execution, actually to hate its readers, and to unfold according to the workings of that hostility. I am not the first to point out that you cannot read "Benito Cereno," the best you can do is reread it. Readership in the text (our own, as well as Delano's) can only fail, or rather, can never sufficiently succeed, and this is what makes the text finally and unassailably gothic: this sustained refusal to divulge itself, to offer any but distorted and crazed surfaces (no matter how neatly its surfaces might be made to cohere in subsequent readings). But whatever Melville's pleasure in exposing to his audience the ease with which they, too, might be duped by the assured tones of racial sentimentalism, the tale offers only the bleakest form of social prophecy.

Of course, the coming of the Civil War, and more particularly the declension of national contestation over slavery into an impossibly deadlocked Manichaean feud between unbending absolutes, indelibly mark Melville's text as, precisely, prophetic.35 For as Melville had only recently spent over six hundred pages of whaling lore, Shakespearean rhetoric, and cribbed philosophy attempting to demonstrate, a wise and healthy republic demands good readers, who can make truthful sense of the omens and portents, the mysterious characters and charismatic leaders which come before it. On the Pequod, misreading--Ishmael's of many portents, Ahab's of prophecy, the crew's of him--means disaster. But as "Benito Cereno" powerfully suggests, the knotted, devious, unresolvingly gothic text of race in the American New World only begins to come clear upon re-reading, and scarcely then. Unhappily, as Melville knew, out here in the current of history, where past, present, and future perpetually seem one, our only option is to make what we can of the text that unfolds before us, moment by vanishing moment.


(1) Herman Melville, "Letter to Richard Bentley," April 16, 1852, in Correspondence, ed. Lynn Horth, Vol. 14 of The Writings of Herman Melville (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press and The Newberry Library, 1993), 226. Pertinent as well is Melville's letter to Sophia Peaboy Hawthorne of January 8, 1852, in which he promises her an antidote to the unappetizing "bowl of salt water" that was Moby-Dick. Thinking of Pierre, he writes, "The next chalice I shall commend, will be a rural bowl of milk" (Correspondence, 219).

(2) Quoted in Hershell Parker's "Historical Note (II)," in Herman Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1995), 380.

(3) Pierre, or the Ambiguities, 245.

(4) See Leon Howard, "Historical Note (I)," in Pierre, or the Ambiguities, 376.

(5) This argument, which obviously underscores the literary history of the 1850s, does not seem to me to countervail the claim that in "Benito Cereno" Melville offers his response to the Fugitive Slave crisis, the northern vacillation on the matter of slavery (especially as exemplified by then-president Franklin Pierce), or the increasingly imperialist rhetoric of the 1850s. On these points see especially Michael Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (New York: Knopf, 1983), 208-20, and Eric Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993), 136-64. Rather, my sense has been that, as an author, Melville responds to these very matters as crises of literacy: momentous national dilemmas requiring at once a literary engagement adequate to their complexity and urgency, and a citizenry equipped with sufficient readerly dexterity to apprehend the true nature of their civic peril. (For Melville, the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin bodes ill, on both counts.) In this way, Melville's fears for the fate of the republic, so resonant throughout Moby-Dick, begin to dovetail in the early 1850s with the increasing dismay he felt over his inability to reach a wide and responsive American audience. "Benito Cereno," of 1855, marks the full convergence of these twin obsessions: it is a text in which the concerns of history and of literacy interlock with stunning seamlessness, and where, as Frederick Busch observes, "fiction is a matter of life and death." Introduction, Billy Budd and Other Stories (New York: Penguin, 1986), xviii.

(6) See Julia Stern, "Excavating Genre in Our Nig," American Literature 67 (1995), 439-66. On gothic aspects of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, see Eva Cherniavsky, That Pale Mother Rising: Sentimental Discourses and the Imitation of Motherhood in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1995), 41-60; on collisions of the gothic and the sentimental, see Jonathan Elmer, "Terminate or Liquidate? Poe, Sentimentalism, and the Sentimental Tradition," The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Shawn Rosenhem and Stephen Rachman (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), 108-18; and Marianne Noble, The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2000), 71-73.

(7) Both Douglas and Brown offer immensely persuasive accounts of Melville's career, and of the tenor of his anti-sentimentality. But to the degree that we accept it as one of Melville's principal major works, "Benito Cereno" does significantly inflect, and alter, their theses. Though part of Melville's animus in the mid- 1850s may involve the decline of Calvinism and the intellectual rigor for which it stood; and though an even larger part may involve his horror before the evacuations and displacements of the authorial self required by the antebellum literary marketplace which, as a marketplace at all, he codes as feminine--still, these matters are clearly not the most pressing concerns of a work like "Benito Cereno," a text which quite graphically takes up "the crimes of sentimentality" (in Douglass' phrase) but chiefly in the context of its catastrophically misbegotten visions of race, enslavement, and the state of the racially-divided American ship of state. See Douglass, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977), 294, 289-329; and Brown, Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1990), 135-69. John Carlos Rowe and Stephen Railton offer additional compelling accounts of Melville's growing dislocation from his American readership, though I think both underplay the degree to which that readership is defined for Melville, both aesthetically and politically, by the voraciousness of its appetite for sentimental fare. See Rowe, At Emerson's Tomb: The Politics of Classic American Literature (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1997), 63-95; and Railton, Authorship and Audience: Literary Performance in the American Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), 178-201. A keener approach to the effortful production of sentiment in Pierre, and of its relation to the matter of writing and audience, appears in Samuel Otter's Melville's Anatomies (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1999), 211,208-54.

(8) The critical proposition that race in America partakes of an elementally gothic textuality originates with Leslie Fiedler, who wrote, "The gothic provides a way into ... certain areas of our social life where nightmare violence and guilt actually exist. To discuss, for instance, the Negro problem in the United States is to falsify its essential mystery and unreality; it is a gothic horror of our daily lives." Love and Death in the American Novel (1960; New York: Stein and Day, 1966), 493. Teresa A. Goddu offers a strong updating of Fiedler's suggestion in Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1997), especially 52-96.

(9) Herman Melville, "Benito Cereno," in The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1869, ed. Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, G. Thomas Tanselle, et al., Vol. 9 of The Writings of Herman Melville (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press and the Newberry Library, 1987), 47. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

(10) In a way that sheds some light on Melville's devious use of qualifying phrases and successive dependent clauses that reframe but do not erase his sentences' initial, usually more fearful and damning speculations, Carolyn Karcher writes of how the narrative "cyclically lulls the reader, then alarms him, then at length reassures him, yet hardly allows his trepidations to subside before arousing them anew." See Karcher's Shadow over the Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville's America (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1980), 131.

(11) Eric Sundquist argues compellingly that by setting the tale in 1799--as opposed to 1805, when the real-life Amasa Delano came upon the imperiled Benito Cereno--Melville underlines the revolutionary character of Babo's revolt. "In altering the date of Amasa Delano's encounter with Benito Cereno from 1805 to 1799," Sundquist writes, "Melville accentuated the fact that his tale belonged to the Age of Revolution, in particular the period of violent struggle leading to Haitian independence presided over by the heroic black general Toussaint L'Ouverture, which prompted Jefferson to remark in 1797 that `the revolutionary storm, now sweeping the globe,' shall, if nothing prevents it, make us `the murderers of our children'" (Sundquist, 140).

(12) Jean Fagan Yellin, "Black Masks: Melville's `Benito Cereno,' "American Quarterly 22 (Fall 1970), 685. For related accounts of Delano see James Kavanaugh, "That Hive of Subtlety: `Benito Cereno' and the Liberal Hero," in Ideology and Classic American Literature, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), 352-83; and Karcher, 127-59.

(13) Sundquist, 136-39, 148; H. Bruce Franklin, "Slavery and Empire: Melville's `Benito Cereno,'" Melville's Evermoving Dawn: Centennial Essays, ed. John Bryant and Robert Milder (Kent: Kent State Univ. Press, 1997), 147-49.

(14) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York: Arno Press, 1980), 14.

(15) Eugenia C. DeLamotte, Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), 16. That the role Delano inhabits in the submerged tale of "Benito Cereno" is that of a gothic heroine accords well with the emblematic position Melville will have him occupy when he wishes to convince himself he is in fact not ensnared in gothic conspiracies--that of a sentimental reader. In both cases, Delano appears as a man whom Melville codes as neither effeminate nor even unmanly, but whose textual roles are decisively feminine. In this attenuated sense, Ann Douglas is right to suggest that Melville despairs over a "feminization" of the American reading public.

(16) For more on the "astonishing frequency" with which Americans in the years before the Civil War "used the terms benevolence and benevolent," and the relation of this discourse of "benevolent citizenship" to Stowe's sentimental politics, see Susan M. Ryan, "Charity Begins at Home: Stowe's Antislavery Novels and the Forms of Benevolent Citizenship," American Literature 72 (2000), 751-82.

(17) Kavanagh describes the rhythm of Delano's self-perception nicely, and in terms that are, I would argue, generically salient: "Delano's ruminations shift in a near schizophrenic pattern from a belief that everyone is conspiring to kill him to a satisfied certainty that everyone loves him too much to do him any harm" (363).

(18) According to H. Bruce Franklin, Delano "has no inkling that the woman's snore may be `composed' in a more sophisticated sense" (157).

(19) Glenn Hendler, Public Sentiments: Structures of Feeling in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2001), 7. The logic of equivalence and equivalent legibility in suffering is, for Melville, the underside of sentimentality's utopian project. Lauren Berlant cogently argues that it is one of the utopian aims of antebellum American sentimentality to fashion a viable form of national belonging--a mode of national citizenship--which might sidestep the brutal exclusions and inequities of the prevailing models of American citizenship and nationality, built as they were around whiteness, the privileges of masculinity, and the privileges of property. Sentimentality offers a different vision of the nation's coherence, one in which, as Berlant writes, "the sentimental subject is connected to others who share the same feeling." Here, the universal susceptibility to suffering, bereavement, and pain makes a kind of kin of all, and promises an absolutely inclusive form of belonging: we can belong together, all of us, in the fact that we all may suffer. But for Melville, this vision of mutuality presumes too easily the legibility, to all, of any kind of suffering. We may all suffer our private pains, Melville suggests through Delano's ignorances, but this does not mean we comprehend one another's suffering, or that one soul's suffering communicates itself in any way to another consciousness. Mutuality, for Melville, requires a kind of reading between selves, and in "Benito Cereno" reading is never a matter of untroubled legibility. See Berlant, "Poor Eliza," American Literature 70 (1998), 646, 635-68.

(20) So too is there an oblique pointedness in the deposition's dirge-like refrain of the phrase "the generous Captain Amasa Delano." There are, in all, six full reiterations of the exact phrase "the generous Captain Amasa Delano," punctuated by a final and not-so-faintly damning reference to "the generosity and piety of Amasa Delano incapable of sounding such wickedness" (108-12). By the end it resonates as accusingly as "and Brutus is an honorable man."

(21) Stephen Railton reminds us that in 1852 "Uncle Tom's Cabin sold five thousand copies in two days, fifty thousand in six weeks, well over three hundred thousand by the end of the year, and more than half a million before the panic of 1857 depressed the book market" (Railton, 74).

(22) "Reading Benito Cereno," Levine argued in 1989, "has become an exercise in certainty, in literary mastery, an occasion to offer pious denunciations of Delano and Cereno and fraternal embraces to Babo and his fellow conspirators. As a result, a dynamic and threatening text has been almost entirely stripped of any felt anxiety [and] implicating presence." Melville's attack on Delano's haplessness and self-satisfaction, his egaltarianism as Carolyn Karcher calls it, may be the major point we take with us from subsequent readings of the narrative; but to rest upon this point, Levine rightly suggests, is to forget our own confusion and disorientation in the first reading. Such deliberate acts of readerly disorientation, as both Ann Douglas and Gillian Brown have shown with regard to texts like Pierre and The Confidence Man, are very much a part of Melville's point in the later work. See Robert S. Levine, Conspiracy and Romance: Studies in Brockden Brown, Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), 166, 199-210. On Melville's egalitarianism, see Carolyn Karcher, Shadow Over the Promised Land, 158; Gloria Horsley-Meacham, "Bull of the Nile: Symbol, History, and Racial Myth in `Benito Cereno,'" The New England Quarterly 64 (1991), 225-42, 226; and Franklin, 154-65.

(23) Karcher, 131.

(24) On the workings of this exposure, see also Karcher; Levine, Conspiracy and Romance, 211-15; Kavanagh, 366-88; and Franklin, 154-56.

(25) Levine frames the matter nicely: "Melville enacts a double plot--one against Delano, another against the reader--that means to ambush both unawares" (199).

(26) Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, ed. Ann Douglas (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 77-78. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

(27) This racial assurance--at once earnestly heroicizing and ruthlessly belittling-reaches a kind of peak in the peroration of Chapter XVI, in which Stowe adumbrates when and how "Africa shall show an elevated and cultivated race": "Certainly they will, in their gentleness, their lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness. In all these they will exhibit the highest form of the peculiarly Christian life" (Uncle Tom's Cabin, 275).

(28) For a vivid example, see Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), 122-46.

(29) Of Pierre, Douglass writes, "Melville has dispossessed his readers without totally destroying his own rationale for writing: indeed, the dispossession itself becomes his motivation" (314). This elegant formulation is more accurately applied, I would argue, to "Benito Cereno."

(30) Rogin, 220.

(31) Maurice S. Lee, "Melville's Subversive Political Philosophy: `Benito Cereno' and the Fate of Speech," American Literature 72 (2000): 496-99. On silence, slavery, and the historical archive see also Yellin, 687-88; and Gavin Jones, "Dusky Comments of Silence: Language, Race, and Herman Melville's `Benito Cereno,'" Studies in Short Fiction 32 (1995), 39-50.

(32) Lee, 511.

(33) Kavanagh, 357.

(34) Lee, 496.

(35) Robert A. Ferguson observes that, as sectional conflict intensified through the 1850s, "eloquence itself appeared a source of disruption." Law and Letters in American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984), 229. On the melodramatic, Manichaean nature of civic discourse around slavery in the 1850s, see also Julia Stern, "Double Talk: The Rhetoric of the Whisper in Poe's `William Wilson,'" ESQ 40 (1994), 18587, 211-12.
Peter Coviello
Bowdoin College
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Title Annotation:Herman Melville's 'Benito Cereno'
Author:Coviello, Peter
Publication:Studies in American Fiction
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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