Scene from Robert Lowell's adaptation of Melville's Benito Cereno
Sunday, April 15, 2012

Benito Cereno

Robert Lowell, in addition to writing poetry, adapted Melville’s novella Benito Cereno to a theatrical piece. The photo above is from a recent production in New York.

The story centers involves an American sailor, Captain Amasa Delano, who encounters a ship, the San Dominic, that is in need of supplies. Captain Delano goes aboard, and finds a number of blacks and whites on board the ship. He finds that the captain, Don Benito Cereno, seems somewhat shy. He spends the better of part of a day on board the ship, and as he is leaving Benito Cereno leaps into the boat pursued by Babo. The figurehead of Cereno’s ship, previously covered by a tarp, is exposed, and reveals the skeleton of the ship’s owner. Delano realizes that there has been a seizure of the ship by the blacks, and he and his crew retake it. The story concludes with the trial and execution of Babo.

There is evidently some controversy as to whether the story is racist and pro-slavery or anti-racist and abolitionist. I’m not sure that I want to get into that discussion. What I think is more interesting is the portrait of Delano. He helps suppress the slave revolt while at the same time congratulating himself on his morality at not being involved in the slave trade. Yet he manifests an attitude that is all to recognizable in many “charitable” endeavors. In one incidence he contemplates some black women:

“This incident prompted him to remark the other negresses more particularly than before. He was gratified with their manners: like most uncivilized women, they seemed at once tender of heart and tough of constitution; equally ready to die for their infants or fight for them. Unsophisticated as leopardesses; loving as doves. Ah! thought Captain Delano, these, perhaps, are some of the very women whom Ledyard saw in Africa, and gave such a noble account of.”¹

¹ Melville, Herman (2009-10-04). The Piazza Tales (Kindle Locations 1313-1316). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition. In another he reflects upon their natural talents:

“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.”²

² Melville (Kindle Locations 1499-1504).

Here you recognize the smug benevolent paternalism that would be mocked so memorably and so comically when one of the Duke brothers remarks “They’re a very musical people,” in Trading Places. These and other remarks reflect Delano’s inner conviction that the slaves need someone to free them, and that they are incapable of serious work.

Is what I’ve just said truly the case? There are other incidences throughout the story where Delano shows this condescending attitude, but I don’t know if it’s the whole story. There may well be some deliberate ambiguity as to whether the story is pro or anti-slavery, or it may be a bit of everything. That I’ll leave for the reader, be he or she ever so gentle, or not, to decide.

My wife gave me the fourth volume of Sartre’s Roads to Freedom series for Christmas. I bought the first three of what was then called a trilogy back in high school, probably 1962. I think I read the first one then, and never got into the next two. The fourth volume, which was never finished, was published recently, so I’m going to go back and try to read all four.