• 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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