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February 4, 2007

american classic by accident?

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

"In seeking the "meaning" of Benito Cereno, Sidney Kaplan agrees with Hirsch, Watson, and other traditional literary historians that we need to place the work in its original setting and to reconstruct the author's probably intentions" (58).

Okay, I'll agree with this statement only because it seems that the story was dealing with current issues during the time Melville wrote this story. "'Benito Cereno' was written at the mid-point of the hottest decade of the anti-slavery struggle prior to the Civil War, when to many the conflict seemed both irrepressible and impending" (59).

It seems that what Kaplan explained throughout this reading was very basic and observable to the normal reader. However, I didn't realize one thing that the author did mention. On page 62, Kaplan explains that "Melville chose Babo- the baboon, ring-leader of the Negroes who are primitives, beasts. The imagery connected with Babo and the other Negroes throughout the tale is strictly from the bestiary."
A bestiary is a collection of moralized fables. So from this information I can figure out why Melville named the servant's character Babo.

Posted by Denamarie at February 4, 2007 9:43 PM

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I thought it was a rather basic reading of the text, as well. I mean, what did he tell us that we didn't already know- slavery, white vs black, foreshadowing...I know I wasn't shocked. Isn't there anything more to it? Usually, with the literature we study, there is.

Posted by: Nessa at February 4, 2007 10:34 PM


You are echoing a very common sentiment (from what I have read on other blogs.) There just was nothing real innovative about Kaplan's criticism, and certainly nothing deeply personal about Melville that would indicate that Kaplan unlocked some deep dark secret about Melville that would support any claims he makes about the meaning of the text.

Posted by: Dave Moio at February 5, 2007 9:34 PM

I think you are misinterpreting the angle of a historical critic in terms of "author as context." What these critics are focusing on is author INTENT...meaning the reason they are looking at the background info is to try and determine what Melville meant when he wrote Benito Cereno. It doesn't mean that there is some personal biographical incident that had to have led him to write this particular story in order for us to want to use this tupe of approach to shed light on the story. And yes, it may seem basic to us, and that is perhaps because we already agree with what Kaplan was saying. But, the reason Kaplan addressed was because there was a critical debate about it: is Melville trying to shed light on the right of the slaves to rebel, or is he trying to emphasize their evilness. Kaplan says evilness, and then he uses what he researched to prove it.

Posted by: Lorin at February 6, 2007 12:45 AM

I agree with Lorin. By showing the feelings behind what people felt of the piracy of ships and the slave revolts as an historical background, Kaplan was trying to show where Melville was able to gather such a reading base. He was able to provide the people of that time period with something to read about this situation that was being put in front of them on a daily basis in the papers. "Benito Cereno" was just one more way for the people of the time to be told that the slaves were evil.

Posted by: Tiffany at February 7, 2007 11:25 PM

I stated on my blog on Benito Cereno that it is sometimes impossible for a writer to write in a vacuum. People in those days thought that slaves were less than human...so Melville giving him the name Babo would set off antenneas. However, Babo is the ringmaster of a slave revolt that Cereno and Delano has either no control (Cereno) or no knowledge of. I disagree with Kaplan to some extent. This is only one way to critique this work, but there are other ways to come to that conclusion.

Posted by: Kevin "Kelo The Great" Hinton at February 8, 2007 3:51 PM

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