Benny the History Pin Map

Map of publication locations of Benito Cereno

I am in the maps group with Anthony, Kat, Lauren, Lisa, and Raven, but it’s possible that my project relates more closely to the reception history group. I became interested in Benito Cereno book covers (rather than focusing on some element of the second installment of BC, as originally published in Putnam’s Monthly, which is what I had planned to do) and decided to try mapping them using History Pin, which I learned about from my library’s Digital Scholarship Librarian, Madiha Zahra Choksi.

History Pin allows you to tag items in time, as well as in space. I used WorldCat to identify editions of BC. I searched by title and limited to works written by Melville and then sorted antichronologically. Since this is a proof of concept exercise, I aimed for pinning covers from the ten oldest editions. I wanted to write descriptions for the covers, so I eliminated editions for which I could not find a cover. The editions I pinned span 6 languages (English, French, German, Italian, Romanian, and Spanish) from 7 countries (England, Italy, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, the United States, and West Germany), and the years from 1855-1983. A weakness of this methodology is that libraries are members of OCLC, the Online Computer Library Center, are not included in WorldCat. Anglophone countries Western countries’ libraries dominate OCLC.

Even so, the range of countries, languages, and years allows for that many or more layers of analysis–in isolation and when examined as a group. Here is a sampling.

Series of book covers from historypin.org

You can view the rest at https://www.historypin.org/en/benito-cereno-book-covers-over-time.

The first three covers, from Putnam’s in 1955 (which maybe doesn’t count, since it’s a bound serial, rather than a monograph; Nonesuch Press in England from 1926, and 1942’s Giulio Einaudi edition from Italy, are benign looking. Putnam’s mid-19th century cover is brown with a decorative border. Nonesuch’s 1942 offering is features a long figure in light blue looking into a dark doorway, and the Italian version from 1945 is a static whiteish boat on grayish background, both seemingly unaffected by the world war. Switzerland, though ostensibly neutral in World War II produced a German-language edition, also in 1945, that conveys more emotion with it’s red print of a ship and a small boat. I think it’s telling that the next edition on my map is also from Switzerland, but in French this time, from 1950. Its cover, though, is neutral (as much as neutrality is possible, which it isn’t, really). The book is part of a series and has no markings distinct to its subject.

The next two covers are the most intense of the ten I posted. The 1965 cover from a Massachusetts publishing house features the figure of a torn looking man and a bizarrely illegible title. People identify the beginning of the activist 60s at different points. This cover, from a scholarly edition is informed by some kind of politics. Whether it’s beatnik or influenced the the beginning of the anti-Vietnam war movement, it has an Eastern European struggle aesthetic. In 1967, Romania came out with the first cover to depict a Black person on the cover. The depiction is gross, and I can’t tell whether it is a purposeful stereotype of a Black man with bulging eyes and large lips, or if the artist was drawing what they imagined a Black man to be. There is also a violent scene aboard the ship, with Black slaves wielding clubs and a white man looking away. Lots to unpack there!

A Spanish edition from 1970 is blah, just part of a series, with no distinct marking. The next is another Italian edition, this one from 1972, which is somewhat pulp-looking. It has an inset of a boat on choppy seas with a dark sky, so you know something isn’t right, but it doesn’t explicitly suggest race, slavery, or colonialism.  My final selection, from West Germany in 1983, a few years before West was no longer part of the country’s name, does not indicate racial content, but it shows a roiling sea and sky.

Examining book covers to explore meaning in publication history is a worthwhile pursuit that I am excited to explore further.

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