138 America Isn’t All That Great: As Told by Herman Melville

Paige Schoppmann

In order to interpret how “Benito Cereno” represents Literature Beyond the Nation, we first have to understand what Literature Beyond the Nation means. I believe that to be Literature Beyond the Nation, there has to be other characters that are not American. There should be some form of immigration/emigration, or at least one character that is American, in order to continue the theme of being able to still identify with American Literature.

Going by that definition, it will be easier to surmise throughout this piece of literature that it is, in fact, Literature Beyond the Nation. The two main themes that I picked out from reading to represent this were American motifs leading to questioning America, and satirical responses to other cultures.

Amasa Delano, through living on this ship with Spaniards and African Americans, learns many things about their lifestyles. He learns that “while long-continued suffering seemed to have brought out the less good-natured qualities of the negroes, besides, at the same time, impairing the Spaniard’s authority over them” (Melville). Delano learns that throughout the suffering that the slaves have gone through, they have other qualities that are more positive than negative qualities. After he learns this, he goes through an entire questioning process of what he thought he’s known about the slaves his whole life. He then slowly begins to question America within his palpable shock of how the slaves are actually caring human beings.

This shock is also obvious in how Delano notices when Benito thanks his slaves, specifically Babo. “Captain Delano could not but bethink him of the beauty of that relationship which could present such a spectacle of fidelity on the one hand and confidence on the other” (Melville). Delano comes from America, where they treat slaves horribly, and in turn, do not get to form a relationship with these people like Cereno did with Babo. Delano’s shock is not questionable, but it shows how attached he is to American ideals, and how he begins to understand that maybe they aren’t the best ideals.

Delano clearly feels patriotism for America, because throughout the first half that we read, he continually compares the Spaniards and slaves to America and Americans. His comparisons usually end in his surprise that these people are better than he expected, and he is noticeably swayed to understanding that the Spaniards are apart of us, saying, “I dare say, Spaniards in the main are as good folks as any in Duxbury” (Melville).

Melville’s interpretation of the Literature Beyond the Nations is that of understanding that other nations are equal to your own, with at least one character representing America. So far, Delano has represented understanding that he is equal to the Spaniards, – if not, he is lesser – and that his noticing that has began his questioning of if America is actually as superior as he had imagined previously.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Paige Schoppmann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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