I realized two things as I began researching “reception history” of Benito Cereno: the first, that there is more critical reception of Herman Melville than a given person could ever attempt to consume; the second, that Melville was well-enough known that the reception of his work stretched beyond the typical discourse-based response to it. In the first vein, I initially attempted to read the text by thinking about how East-to-West migration of ex-slaves would have affects interpretations of the text, into criticism regarding homosociality and race, but I found a lot of this either predictable or as not quite connecting to the text in a way that I thought would be stimulating for the purpose of the project. This however led me to the second area of my research, which I used for my annotations, which was trying to examine how advertising, visual, and print culture “received” Benito Cereno.
I originally began combing through old newspapers in search of local reviews (in particular, a review I saw quoted in a different paper which compared Melville to Hawthorne.) My searches for “Melville” and “Benito Cereno,” did not yield results regarding my intended search, but they did pull a bunch of hits for advertisements for Putnam’s Magazine, and for The Piazza Tales. This led me to start considering how advertising and print culture was linked to the capitalist and imperialist critique’s held within the writing itself, and considering how the way the story was advertised—the visuals, rhetoric, and locations of these ads—laid the grounds for a more subtle effect on its reception. From there, I began to focus on interpreting more tangible aspects of the text itself. For example, finding where each of the 3 sections of the original text started and ended as they were printed in Putnam’s, and imagining how that would have affected a reader or critic’s reading of the text. I also considered how the other texts published around it in Putnam’s would have contextualized, and thus shaped the text. As we have been discussing the relationships of a given text to different mediums of reading/writing and the discourse around and upon it, this seemed like an important thread of reception that would, to an extent, form the basis for any other reception of it.
Ultimately, this alerted me to an advertising and print culture which Melville was writing directly into; it served partially as a reminder that one of the ironies of Benito Cereno is that it is both a political questioning of American capitalist preservation through slavery, as well as a reminder that his writing itself participates in the capital endeavor to fund his arts and free speech. Advertising also called into question whether or not the scholarly or critical reception I was searching for was mutually exclusive to these advertisements and listings. As part of the broader printing context in which Benito Cereno would have been greeted by the public—majority of whom I assume were not reading it critically—through these advertisements, which rarely include anything but a list of titles and a brief and vague comment. The advertisement below, which was published in tons of newspapers reads at the bottom, “A book of our author’s happiest style; it has been admired by all who read it as it passed through the press and we believe that it will be a favorite book.”
Such commentary does nothing to draw attention from the reader to the book’s content, but it does create a framework of excitement with which to approach the book. The self-creation of reception in this case still exists with literature, but with the lack of other contemporary criticism I wonder if the effect is felt more severely on the reader.
Working in a group and working on Manifold worked well for the purpose of this project. As a platform, Manifold was pretty flexible and leant itself as an excellent surface to annotate the text. I will say that a frustration I faced was in the separation of resources from annotations. While the resources could be given a long caption or analysis in itself, they existed very separately from the text, (it comes up as the icon of a box and when clicked opens a pop up of that resource, but when you re finished looking at the resource, it brings you to the very top of the story.) This was frustrating for me as I wanted to insert clippings from newspapers that I was finding within the text to bridge narrative and rhetorical analysis to issues subsisting in the visual print culture in which the text would have initially been read by the public. I also sometimes put my annotation as a caption for the resource, which made me unsure that my contribution would be understood as an annotation by a casual reader. The annotation side of Manifold is much more natural if a bit bare-bones; it does not allow for hyperlinks, images, italic or bold font, etc. which give scholarly annotations some life. I also couldn’t figure out how to see annotations by all authors besides scrolling through and manually selecting annotated passages. I felt like this made it harder for me to collaborate with my group members, because I had to work really hard just to see what and where they were annotating. Visually, the platform is beautiful, and easy to work with—especially in that everyone in the group could be admins and do work independently and with equal control on the text. I noticed that this project was collaborative on larger decision-making moments, but less collaborative on the actual getting-down-to-work part. Our email chain and google doc were really useful in re-affirming directions individuals were heading in, and creating an intertextual collage on the back-end of our final product, although at the end I felt like the annotations I created (as well as the annotations other group members created) were unique to their own lens of research and analysis. The synthesis of these things on a shared platform with collaborative background communication is definitely exciting to see come together on the Manifold Platform.
In terms of self-reflection, I feel like it took me a little while before jumping into the project as I spent most of my time exploring and learning the platform and then navigating how I wanted to approach researching and writing my annotations. My group took the approach of diving in and finding lots of different resources and compiling them into a word document, but I personally tend to work better when I have a specific lens or goal in mind. My initial approach in looking up traditional criticism of his work wasn’t very satisfying, and I wasn’t finding it very exciting to read criticism and then insert it into the text. This lead me into looking into the boundaries and repercussions of critical reception through the more everyday medium of visual print and advertising culture of newspapers. Taking the time and embracing the process of finding my way down this route over a week of research probably led me to have fewer annotations than I should have, because the time spent writing was spent instead working through archives and oftentimes hitting dead-ends. Regardless, it was a fun exercise in opening up a new area of inquiry not only for my reading of the text (and hopefully other people’s through my annotations!), but also into what I can considered “reception,” and why.