What was Melville’s View on Slavery?

Jean Fagan Yellin’s “Black Masks: Melville’s ” Benito Cereno”

Jean Fagan Yellin,  writer of Black Masks: Melville’s “Benito Cereno”  argues that Melville used his work to as an anti-slavery gesture. Yellin suggests that even Melville choice of publisher was a stand against slavery. Melville submitted his story to Putnam’s Monthly in the spring of 1855 (Yellin 676). Because of recently new management of this company they were known as the “first important national magazine to take a stand against slavery” (Yellin 676). Putnam’s Monthly announced their new views “The nigger is no joke, and no baboon; he is simply a blackman, and I say: Give him fair play and let us see what he will come to” (Yellin 679). Yellin argues that the purpose for Melville’s made changes to Delano’s original book to emphasis and recognize the slavery revolution that were happening around the world. Yillin argues that Melville’s purpose for setting back to the time table of the story was to connect the rebellion on-board the “San Dominic” to the revolts that had happened in Santo Domingo regarding the uprising of slaves and the civil war that resulted in the black republic of Haiti (Yellin 681). Yellin goes on to give several more example of salve revolts which put fear in white American minds.

Yellin also argues that Melville is making a comment on the unimaginative, blind white men. Though Melville portrays Capt. Delano as a well-kept, brave individual there are at least half a dozen “red flags” that should have gone off while he was aboard the San Dominic. Yellin argues that Delano depicts the average white American who is “incapable of imagining the Negro in any but a passive role-devoted servant, victimized savage” (685). Another commentary on white men Melville makes is their suspicions involve other white men, not slaves. Delano is continuously concerned and cautious of Don Benito throughout their encounter but he never questioned the doting salve Babo (685). Yellin suggest that it is racism that prevents an educated mind from realizing the obvious. At a point in Melville’s story Delano almost comes to a realization of a rebellion but pushes it away due to his racist beliefs. “Could then Don Benito be any way in complicity with the blacks? But they were too stupid” (Melville 60).

Howard Welsh’s The Politics of Race in “Benito Cereno”

Howard Welsh’s The Politics of Race in “Benito Cereno” examines Melville’s work in a variety of views, in terms of character beliefs, race relations, and the identity of evil. In the first section of his article, Howard argues that many readers misread Melville’s short story. Welsh argues that Melville did not intend for readers to view Babo and the salves as heroic figures. Though Welsh debates several ways of viewing Melville’s “Benito Cereno” he makes a compelling argument showing how Melville’s did not write his story as antislavery propaganda (556).  Welsh argues that Melville makes it clear that the Negros on the San Dominick are evil by the actions which are viewed by the visiting Capt. Delano.

Welsh also explores “Benito Cereno” in the abolitionist view.  He argues that this is typical of the character Delano. For example, Welsh uses Delano’s narration of the character Babo to show his ignorant nature. Phrases such as “great gift of humor,” and “as though God had set the whole negro to some pleasant tune,” show Delano’s light hearted nature in regard to Babo and the other slaves aboard the San Dominick. Welsh also argues that along with this relaxed way of viewing the slaves of the ship Delano believes the Negros “were too stupid ” to plan a take over and that “ the whites… by nature were the shrewder race” (60). With this form of thinking Welsh argues that one can only conclude that “evil” can only be white because blacks were not smart enough.

Another view that Welsh investigates is the view where readers see evil in the Negro, the race. Welsh uses the example from Melville’s text from right before Benito Cereno dies. Delano said, “you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?” Cereno answered “the negro” (Welsh 564).  By saying “the negro” Cereno was referring to the race where as if he had implicated just Babo alone, this story may not have even considered one race evil or not.

Rosalie Feltenstein’s Melville’s “Benito Cereno”

Feltenstein argues that Melville was not disagreeing or agreeing with the acts of slavery but merely making a comment on the events which slavery brings about. In her article Melville’s “Benito Cereno” She argues that Melville was not trying to portray blacks as evil or violent but to emphasis the violence and hardships that are attached to slavery. She focuses on a line in which Melville wrote for Capt. Delano’s character “slavery breeds ugly passions in men” (88). This article emphasizes that evil is not in the people but in the dynamic of slavery. As long as slavery remains there will be violence.

Feltenstein also analysis Melvill’e Character Babo as the image of evil. She investigates Melville’s uses of “blackness” and “darkness,” along with Babo, as symbols of evil. She emphasizes that Babo is not only black he is evil as well (253). She argues that Melville is playing with the common notion of Black or “darkness” is evil and that white or “light” is good.

Joseph Schiffman’s Critical Problems in Melcille’s “Benito Cereno”

Schiffman take a different approach when analyzing Melville’s short story. Schiffman disagrees with Feltenstein’s original argument about Melville’s use of black and white. In his article Critical Problems in Melville’s “Benito Cereno,he even goes as far to say that it is the opposite of what Melville was doing. He argues that white was evil in many of Melville’s works. Though Schiffman does mention several other works written by Melville in his essay, they primary analysis was on “Benito Cereno.” Schiffman explains that Melville portrayed white as evil or incompetent. He examines the intelligence of the character Babo and finds that though deceiving and manipulative his actions where not motiveless. Furthermore, Schiffman looks at Delano’s character as the average american at the time. He uses the term “mental block” when referring to Delano’s inability to realize what is actually happening on the San Dominick. Schiffman argues that Delano’s ignorance is a commentary of the average american at the time the story was written. He believes that Melville thought american had low standards of blacks intelligence and were overall incapable in believing black to plan any organized revolt.

Zotero Bibliography: https://www.zotero.org/michelle-fi/items/


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