Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass both craft stories dealing with national and transnational slavery, and how it was challenged by those it oppressed. However, as we’ve all come to see, both handle the ways in which it was challenged very differently. In Douglass’s The Heroic Slave, the “heroic” nature of the titular character gives this story a classic American legend feel, or something that intended to be an exciting and hopeful read. Melville’s Benito Cereno, however, takes a different approach to turn its rebellious enslaved character into that of a twist villain, giving this story a more classic Gothic/horror vibe. This distinction shows how America as a whole viewed abolitionist ideals, even though America was becoming less and less of a “whole.”
Douglass spends a lot of time making a clear-cut story about a man who wants his freedom back, as well as the freedom of his peers. The “direction,” as the editors of the critical edition would put it, is a fairly simple one that is often through the lens of other characters of varying backgrounds (xxx). This “secondary resource” mode of storytelling adds to the legendary aspect of Madison Washington. One very important thing Douglass does is separate the people who recite about Washington, primarily in what ideals they stemmed from. The main character of this story, Mr. Listwell, comes from a much more sympathetic understanding right from the get-go, swearing to advocate for the “speedy emancipation of every slave in the land” right after seeing him in the woods (9). However, another character we see talk about Madison, Tom Grant, is definitely not an abolitionist based on his role on the Creole. But what changes his views happens later when he takes over the ship and does not kill him: “I felt little disposition to reply to this impudent speech. By heaven, it disarmed me. The fellow loomed up before me. I forgot his blackness in the dignity of his manner, and the eloquence of his speech” (49). In one the of the critical essays about this text, Ivy G. Wilson points out this separation:
“Douglass depicts Tom Grant in such a manner as to recall the earlier conversion of Listwell. Whereas Listwell was captivated by Washington’s rhetorical eloquence, Grant is captivated by Washington’s display of physical restraint. Whereas Listwell pledged to remain true to the abolitionist crusade, Grant promises to abandon the business of slavery. Through Listwell, Douglass is able to envisage an idealized, converted white American who acts on his moral beliefs irrespective of legal codes. Douglass does not imbue Grant with a similar sense of moral indignation concerning slavery; instead, Grant is persuaded by Washington’s overwhelming presence.”
Both characters give hope for those who already believe in the liberty of slaves, as well as for those who are still not sure.
On the other hand, Melville doesn’t seem as keen to inspire hope. The “indirection” that is directly referred to from earlier adds makes the readers feel more uneasy about what they are about to read, which I feel is by design. The “irony” comes from Babo’s seemingly squalid and informal form, which is used to make the twist that he was the instigator of the climax of the story. The indirection and irony used here are both classic elements in Gothic literature. In fact, this story reminds me of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde because it too has similar elements, with the winding murder mystery causing the indirection, the irony of the noble scientist actually being the killer, and another element that sums all this up. In the end of both stories, the “villain” is given a backstory which explains their reasoning for being the killer, then explains their demise to make us “feel safer”:
“…But his intent, though undiscovered, being suspected, he was, on a pretense, made to retire out of sight, and at last into the hold, and there was made away with.”
“Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites; and across the Plaza looked towards St. Bartholomew’s church, in whose vaults slept then, as now, the recovered bones of Aranda: and across the Rimac bridge looked towards the monastery, on Mount Agonia without; where, three months after being dismissed by the court, Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader.”
Since these stories were published at similar times as well as in the same country, it’s very interesting to read how differently both stories depict abolitionism. One is arguably very positive, while the other is very much not. But this all makes sense due to the brewing conflicts between the Northerners and the Southerners of America that would eventually explode in the Civil War. I think it’s actually possible to understand many visions of what abolitionism is to Americans at the time just by reading these two stories. One vision, arguably the Northern vision, is that of heroes and freedom, much akin to our upbringing in the American Revolution. Another vision, arguably the Southern vision, is that horror and chaos, much akin to the stories of the past that retell the fears of yesteryear. Luckily, most of us learned not to fear anymore.
Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition. Edited by John R. Kaufman-McKivigan et al., Yale University Press, 2015.
Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project, Public Commons Publishing, 13 Oct. 2015, https://openeal.pressbooks.com/chapter/benito-cereno/.