• Gail Wilson Kenna

Benito Cerrano, Melville's third brilliant work beginning with B, is for both superficial skimmers and eagle-eyed readers. The story was first published in Putnam's, a magazine committed to the anti-slavery cause. Melville took a historical incident, an 1817 narrative by Captain Amasa Delano of Duxbury (MA), whose ship had helped a floundering Spanish ship, a slaver, off the coast of Chile.

I will not spoil this story by revealing its mystery. And do read Melville's prophetic tale from beginning to end, without stopping. At one point during my first read, I shouted aloud, as if the American ship captain could hear me: "You dolt, you idiot, open your blinkered eyes!"

A caveat.

The author of Benito Cerrano is not the Melville of Moby-Dick, in which Herman stops the narrative to impart information about everything from the head of whales to the hemp that binds them. Benito Cerrano has an omniscient, close third person POV (point of view). And Melville masterfully creates tension, then release, teasing the reader with cruel scenes and comic ones, in which Delano remains clueless. Nothing cuts through this American ship captain's haze, his staggering stupidity, his amazing obtuseness. Which is why I hollered at him. The scream, I admit, also reflects my own self-delusions throughout life.

In this story, set onboard a strange ship, Melville created a memorable portrait of a kindly gentleman, an innocent American colossus, a ship captain who approaches the black race in a mood of condescending human fellowship. Only at the end does the reader leave ships at sea for land, with the story concluding in Lima, Peru, for depositions and a trial.

What do some noted persons have to say about Herman Melville's Benito Cerrano?

Edward J. O'Brien (Forum, 1928) called it the noblest short story in American literature…one of epic significance.

The famous African-American writer, Ralph Ellison, found in Benito Cerrano, a sympathetic portrayal of brutalized people driven to violence in order to regain their freedom.

Writer Russell Banks says that Melville's story is one of the few works of American literature to confront unflinchingly the African Diaspora and the violent history of race in America.

Andrew Delbanco in his outstanding book, Melville: His World and Work, wrote: "Benito Cerrano has emerged as the most salient of Melville's works: a tale of desperate men in the grip of vengeful fury that those whom they hate cannot begin to understand."

And American writer, Elizabeth Hardwick, had this to say in her book, Herman Melville: "He (HM) has taken a historical incident and, with a cool, remote imagination, uncovered the secrets of racism."

Next week: My May course will have begun; and I'll have more to share about Melville.

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Herman Melville wrote three fictional works of genius that begin with B; and this has made me

remember three musical B's.

Early in 2003, while living in Lima, Peru, a telephone call from daughter Michelle told me to get to North Carolina, ASAP. She and Patrick, two army officers, were being sent to the Middle East in the Second Gulf War. And two-year old Lauryn needed a surrogate parent. By the time I reached Sanford, near Fort Bragg, Michelle had left for Jordan. Two days later, son-in-law Patrick departed for Iraq.

From four months of age, Lauryn had been kindly cared for on post at Fort Bragg. And this continuity, plus being with other children, needed to be maintained. Not to mention Nana's sanity. So, each weekday I drove to the childcare facility and left Lauryn there by 9:30. Then I hit tennis balls on a backboard and took a long walk until the post library opened at 11:00. At 3:00-3:30 I picked Lauryn up for the drive home. That winter I kept no wine in the house, read books to Lauryn until my eyes semi-glazed over, then sunk with her into videos of Paddington Bear, over which we both laughed. (P-bear having originated in darkest Peru before his transport to London.) I even insisted that Michelle order a large Paddington bear and have it sent to Sanford. Which she did.

Lauryn and I spent countless hours in Michelle's red Pathfinder, driving to and from Fort Bragg, listening to NPR. Our big night out each week was a music class for two and three-year old children. Three had been adopted from China and seemed already to possess musical ears. Parents had to participate in the class, and among young mothers I felt old but grateful to be there. Besides poems that Lauryn memorized ("buffalo bill's defunct" by ee cummings, a favorite), and books she could "read" from memory, I augmented her musical education with NPR's classical programs. This is Bach. That's Beethoven. Now Brahms. The three B's, Lauryn. Soon she could pronounce the composer's names, and to the delight of her music teacher, recite the three B's.

But one March morning on NPR, no music as we drove to post, just pleas for new subscribers. Given I had Michelle's credit card, I decided to call in a pledge. That afternoon, when I got through to the station, I was asked questions. Mine not being the usual story, I was passed to the producer. He wanted to know all about me. You live in Peru. You are in Sanford with a two-year-old. The parents are army officers, away at war. Your granddaughter knows the three B's and takes a music class at night. He asked to know when I would be listening to NPR the following day while driving to Fort Bragg.

And sure enough, an announcement was made during the pledge break that morning. The NPR station wanted listeners to know about a pledge from Sanford, and the speaker ended with a wish for the safe return of Lauryn's parents. This touched my lonely heart. But later in a phone call, Michelle wondered about the odd charge on her credit card!

Now, Miss Lauryn is twenty and a junior at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Recently for a class, she read one of Herman Melville's three brilliant B's: " Bartleby the Scrivener." I so love these mysterious conjunctions in life. And if Lauryn (and anyone reading this) is not aware of the other two B's: They are Billy Budd and Benito Cerrano.

Next week: The Timely, Lasting, and Brilliant Third B, first serialized in Putnam's Monthly Magazine in 1855.

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Herman Melville was.

Here are two quotes from a laudable study of Melville by Andrew Delbanco. In Melville (2005), Delbanco discusses Herman's first novel, Typee.

"Warriors of the Typee (or Taipi) tribe were rumored to practice cannibalism on their enemies and known for their ferocity…They decorated themselves with tattoos so dense

and intricate that untinted flesh was hardly visible…. (p. 41).

On page 82, Delbano writes:

"More than anything… more even, than his sporadic dread of being cannibalized, he (Melville) feared that his hosts would mark him as a convert to their tribe by tattooing his face and forearms, those public parts of his body that, if decorated Marquesan- style, would forever define him at home as a freak."

Early in Moby-Dick, the reader meets Queequeg, a South Sea Islander with the same tattoos that Melville feared. Queequeg becomes Ishmael's good friend on the Pequod.

How do I feel about tattoos? Ambivalent. An experience in an Iowa City restaurant years ago, however, made me write this poem the following morning in a writing class.

The Oasis in Iowa City on a Rainy Night

He brings the food

his arm stretching before me,

setting down my three-portioned plate

like a child’s,

to keep the hummus from the tabbouleh and couscous.

My eyes on his arms,

eyes without glasses,

so the actual design of

dark swirls eludes me

from his wrists to the seams

of his T-shirt and quite possibly beyond.

Below his orange hat

a smile, and teeth

like mine, irregular.

He holds my eyes…

How is it to be so old?

I hold his…

Did your long-armed tattoos hurt?

Or am I merely ignorant of needles and dyes?

This psychedelic wandering on skin

I do not understand,

but in his eyes a kindness.

The self-same look

I wish she had seen in mine,

my daughter,

when she pulled down her jeans

and turned, asking:

“Is the dragon on my back to your allure?”

A simple thing to say,

which I did not say.

This I do not understand.

Next week: More on the genius of Herman Melville…

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