A Kaplan Interpretation

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Herman Melville and the American National Sin: The Meaning of 'Benito Cereno, Kaplan

Literary Criticism-- EL312

The events of a story by themselves do not always clearly reveal the writer’s judgment on those events; bare plot does not mechanically provide its interpretation.

I see a little bit of Hirsch in Sidney Kaplan. He uses the “Genetic Criticism” method to strengthen his argument about the meaning of Benito Cereno. To Kaplan, Melville had to know his surroundings, the political and social climate of the time to create this short story. So if he had to know his surroundings , it would make sense for us to know it as well. Not to use a lot of quotes in this blog but I have to add this one… Keesey stated before the Kaplan article that “it is the task of the literary historian, however, to discover not what the reader may want the story to mean, but what its author meant.” It is not up to us to know…it is up to Melville. To Kaplan and Hirsch, a historical background will get us closer to Melville, therefore to his meaning. I stated in my last blog that I do not believe that this is the only way to critique a literary work. But a historical viewpoint is a nice background to start off with the author’s intention. To end with what Melville wrote “a skeleton of actual reality to build about with fullness & veins & beauty.

3 Comments

Kevin, I agree with you that a historical viewpoint is a nice background to start off with the author’s intention. I also agree with Kaplan's statement that "Melville had to know his surroundings, the political and social climate of the time to create this short story. So if he had to know his surroundings, it would make sense for us to know it as well."

The events within this story do not help us with understanding Melville's judgement because with plot and many different scenes within this short story you can not pinpoint just one scene and declare an interpretation about Melville and his story.

Kevin, good observation man. I was talking to Dr. Jerz about how we can assess authorial intent, including looking at the society, as well as a possible background. I believe it was either Kaplan or Hirsch that wrote that although we don't know what schooling William Shakespeare had, we still know what types of schools there were and what they consisted of. I am glad that someone is actually attempting to look at the authorial and historical background, instead of using an excuse to use a formalism criticism. There is a lot of good behind authorial intent; I just think that people might be afraid that their own interpretation might not be what the author had intended. SO WHAT!!! Interpretation is important, but I think the meaning behind the literature is just as important as the words themselves.

Jay, the problem with "the meaning behind the literature" is figuring out exactly what it is. I don't think that you can find that meaning without finding it in the actual text. I don't object to looking at historical perspective to find where the author is coming from - but it doesn't have any say in what the text says. Only the text has a say in what the text says.