Melville Revisited

Yesterday I shared my favorite piece of literature.  Today, I wanted to share the piece of literature that left me feeling the most unsettled.  Interestingly enough, it is also by Herman Melville.  The story is “Benito Cereno.”

If you haven’t read this story, I highly recommend that you do.  For those that don’t, Captain Amasa Delano sees a ship come into an isolated area.  Thinking it might be in distress, he boards his whale-boat and goes to the other ship, which turns out to be a Spanish ship carrying assorted merchandise and slaves.

“Benito Cereno” was originally published in 1856.  To put that into context, slavery wasn’t banned in the US until the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted in 1865.  The first thing that bothered me was the way Melville offhandedly tells us through Don Benito that the slaves originally numbered over 300, but due to a scurvy outbreak, there were closer to 150 slaves left.  There’s almost this feeling of, “Eh, what can you do?  These things happen.”  These attitudes have been the subject of academic research, of which this is but an example.  Whether Melville, himself, embraced or opposed these feelings is irrelevant.  The sad truth is that too many people across the globe felt this way, and I think it is a valuable exercise to experience the range of emotions from uneasiness to horror.  The most disturbing part of this story is the way I kept finding myself feeling sorry for the Spaniards during the slave revolt.  The prose is written in such a way that it evokes that sympathy from the reader, and it’s a shock to the system when you realize you’re sympathizing with the peddlers of human flesh.  Every time I realized where my sympathies were, I was horrified.  I can honestly say that I have never reacted to any piece of literature the way I reacted to “Benito Cereno.”

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