Benito Cereno

Background: Source, Magazine, Collection.

After the middling and then aggressively negative receptions of Moby-Dick and Pierre, respectively, Melville turned to magazine writing, for Putnam’s and Harper’s monthlies. Bookending this four-year period of intense productivity (some sixteen tales, and the serialized novel Israel Potter) are two masterpieces of the short story form: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) and “Benito Cereno” (1855), both closer in length to novellas. Melville slightly revised five of his Putnam’s stories, plus a new introductory tale “The Piazza,” for his story collection The Piazza Tales (1856). Eventually, MEL will edit all of Melville’s shorter works, including both the magazine and book versions of his Piazza Tales. We begin with the challenge of “Benito Cereno” because, like other works (in particular Israel Potter), it was published serially and draws directly from a source work. In this latter respect, MEL’s editing of “Benito Cereno” will complement our work on adaptive revision in Typee.

Anticipating modern, more sophisticated narrative techniques, Melville’s third-person narrator in “Benito Cereno” shifts point of view throughout the novella. At first, readers are restricted to the perspective of American merchant captain Amasa Delano, who boards a seemingly becalmed slave ship, off the coast of Chile, in order to help its Spanish captain Benito Cereno. Unbeknownst to Delano—and the reader—the enslaved Africans have seized the ship and their ringleader Babo is now orchestrating a cover-up. They act out their former slave status, forcing Cereno to pretend that he is still their master. The idea (we later learn) is that Delano will find nothing amiss and leave the slave ship. Delano’s benign stereotyping of the disguised revolters prevents him from seeing through Babo’s subterfuge, and Melville’s third-person, central consciousness narrator, reporting only what Delano thinks he sees, is cagily complicit in the deception. (This narrative voice is the first of Melville’s unreliable, “con man” narrators.) But when the cover-up is undone and the slaves recaptured, the narrative shifts to Babo’s trial and execution in Lima.

In this legal section, the reader learns the truth of the affair through the trial’s depositions by Spanish and African characters, delivered in legalistic prose that emulates Melville’s Delano source. In the trial’s aftermath and the tale’s conclusion, Delano, unlike the haunted Cereno, is unmoved by the revelation of his having been duped by Babo and by the startling disclosure in the depositions that Cereno’s friend Aranda, the owner of the ship’s slaves, had been killed and, it is hinted, ritually cannibalized, with his skeletal remains, hanging concealed in sails from the foremast, to terrorize the Spanish crew. As a representative of white indifference to African slavery, Delano allows his stereotypes of Black people to blind him to the disguised revolt played out under his very nose. The tale’s final image is the piked head of Babo, subtle architect of revolt, staring down at passersby in Lima’s plaza, and readers are left dangling amid the appalling realities of slavery and Delano’s stunning disinterest in the condition of Black people.

Challenges in Editing “Benito Cereno.”

As a fluid text, “Benito Cereno” seems to present only minor challenges. No working draft manuscript has been found, and differences in wording between the novella’s three installments in the October to December 1855 issues of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine and the print version appearing in the 1856 Piazza Tales are few. That said, “Benito Cereno” poses problems regarding the positioning of the installments in Putnam’s and of the tale within Piazza Tales. Also at issue is the narrative’s relation to Melville’s source. (For a visualization of the range of versions, click here).

Narratives serialized in monthly magazine installments are common, as is the altering of magazine texts later collected in book format, and these textual conditions are problematic. On the one hand, the three installments of “Benito Cereno” raise questions regarding the novella’s meaning in relation to other articles in the corresponding issues of Putnam’s Monthly. On the other, the book version raises questions regarding the narrative’s relation to the other tales in The Piazza Tales, especially regarding forms of dispossession other than slavery. Originally, Melville had planned to title his collection “Benito Cereno & Other Sketches.” Instead, he composed an introductory piece titled “The Piazza,” featuring an alienated woman living alone in the woods, and he renamed the book accordingly, but with “Bartleby” (featuring an alienated urban office worker) as the next tale. “Benito Cereno” and its deceptive treatment of a harrowing slave revolt was moved from first to third position in the collection. In editing “Benito Cereno,” MEL will provide textual and revision annotations regarding differences between the magazine and book versions, as well as a set of contextual notes regarding biography, South American politics, slavery, and the slave trade. In addition, we will develop storyboards for an interactive display enabling readers to explore the critical consequences of Melville’s Piazza Tales re-positionings.

Equally important is how to edit “Benito Cereno” in relation to its principal source. Melville based his narrative on events befalling the slave ship Tryal in 1800 as related in Chapter 18 of Amasa Delano’s 1817 Narrative of Voyages and Travels. Editors and scholars since the 1960s recorded Melville’s appropriations from this source, which include not just events and characters but wordings, especially in the tale’s “deposition” section. But no digitally interactive editing of the Delano source and Melville’s narrative exists. In editing Melville’s transformations of the source language into his own wording, we give readers access to a different notion of revision: source appropriation. MEL’s fluid-text approach considers appropriation as a version of adaptive revision. It is one writer’s rewriting of another writer’s work, altering the source to achieve (for better or worse) the adaptive writer’s personal goals. Thus, “Benito Cereno” may be taken as Melville’s “version of Delano.”

Melville was an inveterate researcher, and decades of Melville source studies give us concrete evidence of the role of adaptive revision in his private creative process and public interactions with his culture. MEL will edit Melville’s revisions of Delano’s narrative in two directions: external and internal to the work itself. First, we will link Melville passages in the third installment of the Putnam’s Magazine version of “Benito Cereno” externally to digitized page images and transcriptions of originating passages in the Delano version. (For a visualization of one source appropriation, click here). Second, within Melville’s narrative, we will link passages in the third installment’s “depositions” internally to the corresponding fictionalized episodes of the first two installments. By integrating external and internal editing, we enable readers a closer reading of Melville’s deceptive narrative technique, in the context of his concealed source appropriations. In designing these annotations, we treat appropriation without judgment. As with Typee, our goal is to edit into visibility otherwise invisible revisions in “Benito Cereno,” involving source, narrative, and collection, to make them available to readers for their independent interpretation.

For decades, Typee and “Benito Cereno” have been taught in schools and universities for their exposures of imperialism, slavery, resistance, cultural difference, dispossession, and stereotyping. Neither has been reliably edited in a digital platform. By focusing on the editing of Melville’s works as fluid texts, we broaden the scope of interpretation giving readers unprecedented access to new kinds of textual evidence of Melville’s evolving consciousness for use in scholarly studies and classroom projects. In this regard, MEL Associate Director Wyn Kelley, in coordination with her home institution MIT’s DH Lab, is developing courses on digital editing that will use MEL editions (and “Benito Cereno” in particular).

Work in Progress.

In December 2020, MEL downloaded from the Hathi Trust catalogue page images and their corresponding OCR texts for the Putnam’s and Piazza Tales versions of “Benito Cereno” and for Chapter 18 of Amasa Delano’s Narrative. In 2021, MEL editors will correct any dirty OCR and proof the texts against the page images (retaining, of course, any typos and irregularities of the original. Editors will work with the University of Chicago’s CEDAR and OCHRE staffs to curate these base versions into the MEL database.