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February 6, 2007

EL312: A Paint-by-Number by Herman Melville

To be honest, I didn't know that there was an actual event behind the story of Benito Cereno. Kaplan gets at how Melville "manipulated his source" (59).

While I see Kaplan's point in addressing the story from a historical perspective (which, by the way, I do not loathe as I do the author's-POV "genetic criticism"), I have to wonder how much of this story is just Melville's creative telling of a historical truth.

At first, when I read about the actual "slave insurrection panic of the middle [eighteen] fifties" (60) I was interested since sometimes it makes sense for authors to write about things that are in-the-moment so their contemporaries can follow along. This is a good way of keeping a finger on the pulse of society's needs and trends (much like Law & Order tends to rip stories from the headlines). I began to feel that Melville was being hip and just writing what the people would read.

Then again, the fact that there was a document for Melville to use as a possible guide, though, makes me skeptical. It reminds me of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and how Chaucer used Il Filostrato, an Italian piece, as a source from which he derived his greatest (and longest) dramatic poem (please don't faint, oh last semester classmates of mine). I don't mind using things as a guide, but it seems to some critics that Melville broke from the original in a severe pattern:

...Lewis Mumford justly declares, in the original narrative, Cereno is "far more cruel, barbarous, and unprincipled than the forces he contends against" (Kaplan 61).

So Cereno's mane is toned down in Melville's take... what else?

Charles Neider... [says], "Melville glosses over extenuating circumstances in his effort to blacken the blacks and whiten the whites, to create poetic images of pure evil and pure virtue..." (64).

Oh, wow. It seems Melville did a little more than retell the story with a new perspective (Delano)--he played paint-by-number with tar and chalk.

At the beginning of Kaplan's essay, he mentions a critic whose point he does not believe is fully developed (by my estimation--please correct me if I'm wrong, though).

Kaplan says that a critic (named Schiffman) has not hit the point of Melville's story when "he contends that the anti-slavery intention of Benito Cereno is shown by Melville's mere choice of the subject of slave-revolr, even at a time when pro-slavery novelists, in order to rebutt Mrs. [Harriet Beecher] Stowe [author of Uncle Tom's Cabin], were busy turning out caricatures of contented slaves" (59).

Kaplan doesn't seem to put any stock in this argument... So why did Melville tear at his source the way he did? What point did he prove by writing Benito Cereno the way that he did? (And do I have to look at the author's life to really find out?)

Kaplan, ''Herman Melville and the American National Sin: The Meaning of 'Benito Cereno''' -- Jerz EL312 (Literary Criticism)

Posted by KarissaKilgore at February 6, 2007 10:43 PM


Painting by numbers is fun! (Though it is a little annoying covering those black numbers when the color is white.)

Anyway! You make a good point; authors do need to have "a good way of keeping a finger on the pulse of society's needs and trends." It makes it fresh (or horribly old fashioned and dated for the future generations).
I think that a lot of the frustration with the seemingly over-told, or rather retold, plot goes along with the idea that "there are no new stories." I don't really support this theory, because the new perspective and author's take does make the story new. At the same time however - that is where clichés come from . . .

Posted by: Diana Geleskie at February 8, 2007 2:31 PM

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