154 It’s All About Who Writes It

Jordan Cady

Between Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave and Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,”  there are a great deal of differences in how they portray slaves and the rebellion. But what can not be focused on enough is the simple fact that one is written in the eyes of a white American and the other is written in the eyes of a slave. That right there is a big indication of how the authors chose to write about the slavery rebellion differently.

Melville writes about the rebellion with irony, and violence. His main tactic is to play with the audience’s minds. He does that by using the main character Captain Delano, by making him out to be a pushover who is easily manipulated by the slaves: “Besides that, those feelings I spoke of enabled me to get the better of momentary distrust, at times when acuteness might have cost me my life, without saving another’s. Only at the end did my suspicions get the better of me, and you know how wide of the mark they then proved” (Melville 75). He wrote this story to show how any master of a slave could be easily plotted against and that once the slaves revolt they become almost savage like. He creates an image of violence because of the slaves and makes them out to be “animals” rather than people.

Meanwhile, Douglass uses more themes and emotions behind his writing. He connects to audience by using more description and putting in the feelings of his character and what he is going through. Douglass makes the audience feel bad for the slaves as well as depicting how cruel slavery was at the time. An example of him using pathos to convey this message would be “I cannot say we talked; our feelings were too great for that; yet we came to an understanding that I should make the woods my home, for if I gave myself up, I should be whipped and sold away; and if I started North, I should leave a wife doubly dear to me” (Douglass 16). Douglass’s way of writing about the rebellion shows that the slaves were people rather than just property. He focuses on creating a bond between the audience and the main character rather than Melville’s tactic of making the audience question a characters every move.

Both texts show the different sides of slavery but by reading both of these pieces back to back it has become very clear that when referring back on slavery literature it is all about who is writing them and how they are written. Because if the author is proslavery or antislavery, it creates a certain tone for the text to fall into, which is why Douglass’s The Heroic Slave and Melville’s “Benito Cereno” have very different voices.


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

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