Every text, no matter what it appears to be about or what message it’s trying to convey, deserves a reading that is new and fresh. No one taking this course has done a reading like this one. Most are too concerned about linking the text to transnational literature to see much else, but that’s where we come in, with a twist on typical readings of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. Aside from being, yes, transnational literature, Benito Cereno also disparages neurodivergant, nonheteronormative, non-white people, suppressing their innate human desire for the personal freedom to pursue happiness. Why the phrase “personal freedom to pursue happiness”? It’s possibly one of the most American sentiments expressible in words alone, being part of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Once you suppress this desire, or the ability to pursue it, for anyone, their citizenship as an American is, at its essence, stripped away. By making the statement that certain people are undeserving of citizenship in America within Early American Literature, which helped to form the identity of the nation, it shows how this bigotry truly permeated American existence from the birth of the nation.
This disparagement for difference can be seen throughout the text, mainly in subtle ways, and greatly concerning the African characters. The disparagement marginalizes all people of color, and specifically shows how Delano views people; this is often shown in his comparisons of the Africans on board the San Dominick to animals.
“His attention had been drawn to a slumbering Negress, partly disclosed through the lace-work of some rigging, lying, with youthful limbs carelessly disposed, under the lee of the bulwarks, like a doe in the shade of a woodland rock. Sprawling at her lapped breasts was her wide-awake fawn, stark naked, its black little body half lifted from the deck, crosswise with its dam’s; its hands, like two paws, clambering upon her; its mouth and nose ineffectually rooting to get at the mark; and meantime giving a vexatious half-grunt, blending with the composed snore of the Negress. The uncommon vigour of the child at length roused the mother. She started up, at distance facing Captain Delano. But, as if not at all concerned at the atti-tude in which she had been caught, delightedly she caught the child up, with maternal transports, covering it with kisses. There’s naked nature, now; pure tenderness and love, thought Captain Delano, well pleased” (29-30).
This passage clearly describes an African woman and her child as a pair of deer, Delano’s tone being that of a bird-watcher observing some rare interaction between natural forces. As he observes what he calls a “doe in the shade of a woodland rock” and her “wide-awake fawn,” he compares their interactions to a force of natural love, that which a domesticated mammal mother (“dam”) has for its child – “There’s naked nature, now”, Delano thinks, “pleased” at the sight of the supposed “domesticated” African people interacting. This is the overarching theme of the paragraph, which both dehumanizes Africans and “naturalizes” the “domestication” of human beings, and the phrases used throughout support this idea. Melville continually dehumanizes the child depicted in the scene, using phrases and words better associated with pigs or dogs than humans. He describes the child’s “paws”, stating that they “clamber” and “root” around, making “vexatious half-grunt”s and other noises associated with non-human entities. This continues through his next observation of women in the text.
“This incident prompted him to remark the other Negresses more particularly than before. He was gratified with their manners; like most uncivilized women, they seemed at once tender of heart and tough of constitution; equally ready to die for their infants or fight for them. Unsophisticated as leopardesses; loving as doves. Ah! thought Captain Delano, these perhaps are some of the very women whom Mungo Park saw in Africa, and gave such a noble account of” (30).
A continuation of the themes from the last example, this paragraph goes into detail with Delano’s perspective about Africans. Comparing them to two separate animals in one fell swoop with the phrase, “Unsophisticated as leopardesses; loving as doves”, Delano again serves to speak about supposed slaves as “part of the majesty of nature”. He also calls them “uncivilized”, and, in the same breath, “noble”, which evokes imagery of imperialist colonizers looking down on tribes of people they encounter – something he even references when mentioning the explorer, Park.
Though thorough examples, Melville also takes his time describing Delano’s thoughts on those aboard the San Dominick, with such comparisons as how “Captain Delano took to Negroes as other men to Newfoundland dogs,” and how Babo’s face, to Delano, was “like a shepherd’s dog” (41, 7). He even describes the crew as “wolf-like” “creatures,” which should be example enough to prove that Melville thinks of other races as sub-human entities (61, 54). These examples are only part of the Othering that Melville induces throughout the text, the rest being about those who do not conform to his rigid ideal human being, who is the only kind of person worthy of equal treatment.
“No wonder that, as in this state [Cereno] tottered about, his private servant apprehensively followed him. Sometimes [Babo] gave his master his arm, or took his handkerchief out of his pocket for him; performing these and similar offices with that affectionate zeal…and which has gained for [Babo] the repute of making the most pleasing body-servant in the world; one, too, whom a master need be on no stiffly superior terms with, but may treat with familiar trust; less a servant than a devoted companion…it was not without…satisfaction that Captain Delano witnessed the steady good conduct of Babo” (8).
This description of the relationship between Cereno and Babo perfectly emphasizes the way Melville frames the pair; unusual to Delano, inordinately close, and affectionate to a degree beyond Delano’s comprehension. It shows Babo completing intimate tasks for Cereno, such as “[taking] his handkerchief out of his pocket for him,” and other close tasks “with that affectionate zeal,” that, to Delano, permeates the pair’s relationship, whatever that may entail. Detailing Babo’s queer-coded traits using this intimating language (“pleasing body-servant,” “devoted companion,” “affectionate” towards Cereno), Melville serves to associate the rebellious leader with another quality he finds undesireable in a human being: queerness.
“Setting down his basin, [Babo] searched among the razors, as for the sharpest, and having found it, gave it an additional edge by expertly stropping it on the firm, smooth, oily skin of his open palm; he then made a gesture as if to begin, but midway stood suspended for an instant, one hand elevating the razor, the other professionally dabbling among the bubbling suds on the Spaniard’s lank neck. Not unaffected by the close sight of the gleaming steel, Don [Benito’]s usual ghastliness was heightened by the lather, which lather, again, was intensified in its hue by the sootiness of [Babo]’s body. Altogether the scene was somewhat peculiar, at least to Captain Delano.” (42).
The symbolism in this passage pertains not only to the plot but also the actions taken within, suggesting that there is something different about Babo and Benito’s relationship. The act of grooming – something personal and close – being performed on one by someone other than oneself is often a sign of intimacy. This example is no exception. With the parallels between this encounter and a sexual encounter being blatantly obvious (think about what the knife and the lather could represent, especially in this intimate of a scenario), the characters are being coded as queer in a time when blatant queerness was persecuted was no small undertaking on an author’s part.
Whether Melville intended to do so or not, Babo and Cereno are the only pair in the story even remotely queer-coded, and most of this leans heavily on the way Babo interacts with Cereno. Their interactions imply that their relationship is a forced construct of Babo, in which Benito is a victim of a Stockholm-syndrome-adjacent affliction where Babo holds a sadistic higher power over Cereno. This places Babo (the villain, mind you) into the position of being a queer-coded black man who Melville dehumanizes, in an attempt to lump together and daemonize all black people and queers. In associating these queer-coded traits with the traitor Babo, Melville serves to lessen the position of others who present these or similar traits. By compounding this queerness, this “peculiarity,” with the othering words of his other sections discussing Africans, as well as the premise of the Africans “being served justice” for the rebellion and depicting them as “bloodthirsty animals” in the main character’s eyes, Benito Cereno serves to daemonize these born, unchangeable traits as though those that have them are inherently terrible, villainous murderers. This reading shows how, as a foundational structure of Early American Literature, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno promotes homophobia, racism, and the daemonization and othering of those who are not straight, white, neurotypical, upper-class men. This is important when the text is seen as a structurally integral part of the genre, as it shows where other American Literature pulls influences from and how simple it was to spread misinformation in fictional texts.