To be honest, I've (ashamedly) always avoided reading any Melville because the idea of trawling through Moby Dick is enough to put me to sleep. A few weeks ago I reviewed Bartleby, the Scrivener (here) as part of my summer reading to get ahead for next year's course. This is pretty much why I read Benito Cereno. And I have to say, I enjoyed it about as much as I expected to; aka not at all. Thankfully it was only just over 100 pages long so I was able to get it over and done with in a day.
However, having said this, it was very interesting to read a book written by a white, free man during the period in which it was permissible to own slaves in America. Recently I've read a number of very good and very interesting slave narratives, so this offered a new perspective on the issue. The story of Benito Cereno follows the story of the eponymous man whose slave ship is overrun by the slaves it holds. It comes into port and a captain of another ship enters. The "ringleader" of the slaves, Babo, forces Benito to make it appear as though the remainder of the white crew have hold of the ship. Eventually, Benito escapes from his clutches. A battle ensues and the truth comes out.
This narrative closely follows a true story narrated in the memoirs of Captain Delano, whom the illusion of peace was created for. The feeling of uncanny throughout the novella is potentially its strongest point. I have never read a piece of literature which, for me, screamed out the "unheimlich" as much as this did, not even Poe's poetry. Delano knows something is amiss, but cannot grasp what. Even though the atmosphere was never given a great deal of attention by the author, it was easy to envision a humid scene, wrapped in fog. Or at least, that's how it appeared to me. As I mentioned before, it was interesting to see how Melville tackled the subject of slavery in his writing. Some critics have suggested it is pro-slavery, whilst others believe it is abolitionist. I can see why both interpretations arise. For this reason, I think the perspective of the reader has a lot more to do with the conclusions drawn than the writing does.
Have you read it? What did you think?