MonthApril 2016

Great American?: An Essay on “Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville

Herman Melville is often praised as the greatest American novelist, although reading “Benito Cereno” the reader can discern a considerable critique of the society that embraces him. It is interesting to see such a critique come in a sometimes very subtle form. Captain Amasa Delano, who comes from Massachusetts, is our only American character in the novella and is portrayed in a stereotypical and often negative manner. It is through Captain Delano that the reader is given Melville’s negative interpretation of who or what an American is. Delano is gullible, devoutly Protestant, trusting, rash and most importantly, proud. Melville critiques the widely held idea by Americans that the American culture is superior to those of the antiquated Old World.
One of the many things that all American children learn in school is that the United States, as colonies, were formed so that the religiously persecuted English could find freedom to practice their religions. Most of these sects were of the Christian variety and the most prominent is the Protestant religion, a form of Christianity that was not highly accepted in England. Many English readers at the time of publication in 1855-1856, and now, would be able to pick up on the many references to the Christian foundation of the American culture. One very clear example of this Christian background is when Delano is talking to Cereno about the events that passed and he admits, “Yes, all is owing to Providence” (224). This view that all Americans are Christians is not necessarily a negative statement, but in the context of the other critiques Melville gives in his novella, it is a negative critique. It is quite stereotypical, even in the days of the publication when other religions such as Catholicism and Judaism were practiced and many sects of Christianity, all with different emphasized values and beliefs, existed. And, the Protestant values of America were thought by most Americans to be superior to the Catholicism of the Old World, here represented by the Spaniard Cereno, because of its charity and other qualities.

Delano is incredibly naïve and gullible, and this is repeatedly shown throughout the story. When he first sees the ship, he thinks it strange that it “showed no colors” (144), a peaceful and common tradition of all seamen-however, he still goes to the ship to see if help is needed in a vulnerable little whaling boat. This not only shows his trust in unknown and possibly dangerous people but also his charitable nature which is a good Christian trait. Melville would want to display to the reader that Americans trust other countries too often because they overestimate their safety in the situation. This helps show how overly proud the Americans are and how this may eventually be detrimental to the safety of the country.

And if pride is a sin, don’t tell the Americans. Though the overall book is not heavy with the stench of American pride, Delano does let loose his occasionally. When Cereno is questioning Delano about his cargo and ship, trusting Delano tells all and does so “with satisfaction” (166). He is so proud of his men and his control over them that he is certain they are all on board and accounted for. And he delays not at all in letting Cereno know of his prowess in contrast to the ineptness of Cereno to control his ship. Again, this relates Melville’s point about the fallacy of being too proud. This pride invites danger because America will not be cautious with information and might reveal too much like Delano does.

The Americans are also rash, according to Melville. Not only does Delano decide quickly to go and mount a strange ship in order to help, but he is also quick to want to go after the ship of rebels. Only after the Spaniard captain is able to restrain him, does Delano allow the crew to go without him as he is needed to head his ship. This quick action without contemplative thought is often a mistake of naïve and proud peoples, and Melville is cautioning America that it is better to think before reacting. He seems to prefer that America seek other countries (Spain, for example, with the representation by Cereno) to deliberate and discuss possible solutions instead of being too proud and short-sighted by thinking America can handle the problem alone.

This leads us to the interference of Americans described in the book. Delano sees the ship and crew of Cereno are in desperate need of aid and being the charitable Christian, he gives them what they need and more. But once he is there, he can’t help but criticize the way things are run in comparison to his own tidy fleet. Also when the wind finally picks up, he sees that Cereno is in no shape to take charge and decides to take action himself and bring the ship into the safe harbor. He yells orders to men of whom he is not the boss and is pleased to see those orders so readily obeyed. This displays the readiness of Americans to interfere and strive for leadership in the situation. They are too proud to be inferiors to anyone else, so when they do interfere the Americans must be either the leader, here the captain, or be equals in partnership. And of course, instead of discussing the change of power with the supposed Captain Cereno, the proud American Delano just assumes his superiority to the others around him, even the Spaniard sailors.

Americans are also portrayed as preoccupied with courtesy systems that include reciprocity for deeds done. There are several mentions of Cereno not being very courteous when Delano has been polite or, at the least, expects courtesy. The most glaring example is towards the end of Delano’s stay on Cereno’s ship and the two ships are finally side by side. Delano approaches Cereno to invite him upon his ship in return for having hosted him all day. Cereno declines in an unceremonious manner and this is the last straw for Delano. He has been nice and polite all day while Cereno has been distant, awkward and sometimes even rude and Cereno furthers his “heedless[ness] of common propriety” (200) by not making the final attempt to thank Delano for his friendliness and charity. Finally, this is when Delano wants no longer to be of any further assistance and can’t wait to be back on his own ship, amongst his own men. Melville’s American then is seen as having his pride hurt. So, Americans are sensitive, not only proud, and as they are already portrayed as rash and interfering, this hurt pride could possibly lead to dangerous political situations.

Melville presents his American, Captain Amasa Delano, as rash, gullible and very proud. These are generally seen as very negative characteristics and if most Americans were asked to describe themselves, these would not be the adjectives of choice. He may have been trying to show the Americans as a new culture with budding powers and that’s why they are so gullible and naïve. However, I think that this short story, “Benito Cereno,” is Melville’s critique of the proud American culture that thinks itself superior. The society of the United States is represented in this book as a very naïve, rash, proud and Christian culture, which Melville critiques heavily. It is interesting to note this while reading the book because it makes the reader question what Melville really thought of the culture that so thoroughly embraced him.