Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville

Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville

Today we are nearly unanimous in the belief that all forms of slavery constitute an unpardonable crime against humanity because murder, rape, torture and the forced separation of families are its inevitable consequences. It is therefore difficult for contemporary readers to imagine a time when apologists for slaveholders were not limited to the Southern states and widespread assumptions regarding the innate inferiority of blacks made slavery morally and theologically justifiable to many Americans. Because black slaves were usually depicted by white southerners as helpless, childlike creatures who would prove utterly incapable of subsistence on their own, it followed logically that slavery was the most beneficial arrangement for both the simpleminded slave and his paternalistic master.

Viewed in its historical context , Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno, published less than a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, is a bold and ironic exploration of the role race has played (and continues to play) in our national psyche. It is unsurprising that this tale about a successful slave rebellion was not celebrated by supporters of slavery in the years between the Nat Turner Rebellion and the Civil War.

Like many contemporary reviewers, Arnold Rampersad is excited by the deliberate militance of Babo’s rebellion. For Rampersad, Babo is not only the central protagonist of Benito Cereno, but a literary creation worthy of the accolade, “the most heroic character in Melville’s fiction” (164). This is a legitimate reading of the story which Rampersad cogently asserts by delineating Babo’s place in the pantheon of black protagonists, from Uncle Tom to Bigger Thomas. However, at the risk of disagreeing with one of our most distinguished critics, I would assert that there is an alternative reading of Benito Cereno. The perspective of Melville’s narrative suggests that Babo—although an outstanding a specimen of black manhood— is not the central focus of the story. According to this reading, Benito Cereno is not essentially about black people; it is about how white people choose to view black people.

American myths and fantasies regarding the true nature of black folks are brilliantly depicted by Melville in the person of the story’s narrator, Amasa Delano. Rampersad quotes C.L.R. James’s observation that Delano “itemized every single belief cherished by advanced civilization…about a backward people” (165). Indeed, Delano “cherishes” the notion that black people are inherently childlike creatures designed by his Creator to serve whites because it is a reassuring conviction: “There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person” (Melville 1356). For a Massachusetts seaman who had previously profited from slavery without having to confront it directly, a great deal of potential psychic pain is avoided by the way Delano would deny African their basic humanity. For Delano, slavery is simply another form of animal husbandry: “In fact, like most men of good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to a Newfoundland dog” Melville 1357).

Delano, like many antebellum Northerners, refused to accept black people as fully human because doing so would have required him to confront the horrors of slavery. His “undistrustful good nature” represents the naïve willingness of prewar Notherners to accept Southern propaganda which defined slavery as a benign institution (Melville 1327). Rampersad neatly sums up Delano as “the embodiment of fantastic white liberal values (notably the famed American virtue called innocence)” (171). Delano’s innocence vis-à-vis slaves in Benito Cereno is so extreme that it beseeches readers to ask why Melville chose to tell this particular story from such a peculiar vantage point.

By presenting diabolical and treacherous black revolutionaries through the parallax view of a man incapable of detecting their humanity, Melville creates irony which approaches satire. The possibility that the slaves have indeed taken over the ship is so inimical to his world view that Delano invents fantastic explanations for the bizarre sequence of events he encounters on the San Dominick. Ironically, Delano’s initial response to the rebellion is to question the Benito Cereno’s breeding: “The man was an imposter. Some low-born adventurer, masquerading as an oceanic grandee.” Delano continues his internal debate concerning Benito Cereno’s authenticity right up until the inevitable slave uprising, virtually ignoring a plethora of evidence that it was the slaves who were running the ship. Despite several not-so-subtle clues, Delano is constitutionally incapable of entertaining the possibility that the slaves had taken over the San Dominick. Even when Benito Cereno and three white sailors leapt into the ocean, Delano still could not fathom that black men might ever be anything more than servants of white men. The final irony of Delano’s brief tenure on the San Dominick is his ridiculous assessment of the mutiny, where attempted murder is seen as evidence of the black man’s inborn domestication: “a servant, a dagger in his hand, was seen on the rail overhead, poised, in the act of leaping, as if with a desperate fidelity to befriend his master to the last” (Melville 1368).

Captain Delano’s outlandish naiveté when confronted by rebellious slaves in Benito Cereno is a metaphor for the manner in which many antebellum Northerners preferred to view African Americans. When Delano is unable to fathom the distress Benito Cereno feels with Babo holding a razor to his throat, Melville is suggesting that it is easier to accept the doctrine of white supremacy at a distance. Northerners who rarely had dealings with blacks were probably more susceptible to the comforting myths of innate black inferiority than the Southerners who interacted with slaves on a daily basis. By making the true nature of the rebellious slaves invisible to Delano, Melville demonstrates how persistent denial can be in the face of evil.

by Richard W. Bray

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2 Responses to “Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville”

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    […] Greene on innocence which, as Arnold Rampersad noted, is a famed American virtue Innocence always calls mutely for protection when it would be so much wiser to gaurd ourselves […]

  2. Famed American Virtue « Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

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