Friday, August 12, 2011

#14: Benito Cereno, Herman Melville

Benito Cereno
by Herman Melville
-born in America, 1819
-80 Pages
-more about Melville (via Goodreads)

Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Herman Melville was born to "double revolutionary descent": a paternal grandfather involved in the Boston Tea Party and a maternal grandfather who fought at Saratoga.
- At 18 he set sail on a whaler, and later based many of his works on his travels.
- Starting with Moby-Dick in 1851, his increasingly complex and challenging work drew increasingly negative criticism.  He stopped publishing fiction after 1857.
- He eventually turned to poetry, convincing relatives to fund the publication of several volumes that did not fare well.
- Drifting into obscurity, he ended up working for the customs house on the docks of lower Manhattan and died in 1891.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
With its intense mix of mystery, adventure, and a surprise ending, Benito Cereno at first seems merely a provocative example from the genre Herman Melville created with his early best-selling novels of the sea. However, most Melville scholars consider it his most sophisticated work, and many, such as novelist Ralph Ellison, have hailed it as the most piercing look at slavery in all of American literature.

Based on a real life incident—the character names remain unchanged—Benito Cereno tells what happens when an American merchant ship comes upon a mysterious Spanish ship where the nearly all-black crew and their white captain are starving and yet hostile to offers of help. Melville's most focused political work, it is rife with allusions (a ship named after Santo Domingo, site of the slave revolt led by Toussaint L'Ouverture), analogies (does the good-hearted yet obtuse American captain refer to the American character itself?), and mirroring images that deepen our reflections on human oppression and its resultant depravities.

It is, in short, a multi-layered masterpiece that rewards repeated readings, and deepens our appreciation of Melville's genius.

My Impressions:
Yeah, you know what?  I have a self-proclaimed dislike for the ocean, and this book only helped solidify that. It also helped solidify my resolved to not ready Moby-Dick.  It also relieved me of any lingering guilt I may have felt about not giving The Old Man and the Sea a fair chance.

I'm sure Benito Cereno is brilliant, but it takes place completely on a boat in the ocean, you see?  Melville's writing is rather complex, but I felt like I was only reading words like starboard and forecastle and bulwarks and phrases like "pacing the poop".  Oh weariness and woe is me.
But the foul mood was now at its depth, as the fair wind at its height.
And that, my friends, is about as close as I'll be getting to Moby-Dick.


  1. And you know what? Who needs Moby Dick anyway? There's way too much to read as it is.

  2. I didn't really like Benito Cereno, but I LOVED Moby Dick... There's not really much I can say to recommend it to you if you don't like books on boats because, I'm not going to lie to you, there is a lot of boat and ocean in it! I did a whole unit on Islands and Oceans at uni, so yeah, I kind of like that stuff!

  3. Thanks Belle & Heidi! :D

    Laura, it really does boil down to not enjoying boats & the ocean. In 5th grade I was supposed to write a paper on why I would like to be an oceanographer, and I couldn't bring myself do it. I braved the possibility of getting a failing grade and wrote about why I would NOT want to be an oceanographer (luckily I had a teacher with a sense of humor). Interesting that Moby Dick was different than Benito Cereno, I think I assume that 2 ocean books by the same author would be pretty much same/same. I did really enjoy Bartleby the Scrivener though.


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