some helpful context for reading BENITO CERENO

In light of our discussion of Melville last night, I wanted to provide a bit of context for those interested in Melville’s politics and the way his work (especially Benito Cereno) has been read in cultural political terms in recent years. I recognize that it’s a heavy lift to read this text for the first (or the third) time, especially in a course that has an interdisciplinary DH focus rather than the kind of robust historical/cultural infrastructure of a course on Melville or on nineteen-century US literature, for example. So no obligation to plow through this stuff, but I wanted to provide a fuller sense of how this text has been situated and read, for those who are interested.

Here’s Toni Morrison’s pathbreaking 1988 lecture on Melville and whiteness. It’s worth a read in its entirety, as is the book that grew out of it, Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, one of a small handful of books that gave birth to “whiteness studies” in the early 1990s. I won’t summarize it, but she wrestles, strenuously and critically, with Melville’s work (here, Moby Dick ) as an attempt to deconstruct the whiteness that subtends the imperialist and racist and patriarchal structures that dominated Melville’s time (and have never left the stage, and, in unsettling ways, have come roaring back to the forefront in recent years).

And here’s a pithy post from Carolyn Karcher, an editor of the Melville section of the invaluable Heath Anthology of American Literature, which is responsible for greatly diversifying the range of what constitutes “US Literature” in college classrooms in the past 30 years. Karcher is speaking to faculty, as they think about planning courses, but the post gives us a clear window onto how scholars have linked Benito to a wide range of texts giving narrative form to the traumas experienced, individually and collectively, by enslaved Africans in the period.

Finally, for those interested in my investment in the text (and the embarrassing/humorous story of how I first encountered it), here’s the epilogue to my book on Depression-era documentary work in the US, in which Benito guest-stars.

See you next week.


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