Last Thursday in class, a peer made the argument that Melville was being satirical in his portrayal of the “negroes” through the eyes of Capt. Delano. The indirection and irony that editors Robert S. Levine, John Stauffer, and John R. McKivigan speak of can be seen page after page in “Benito Cereno” while, The Heroic Slave is much more straightforward in articulating it’s themes.
Its quite clear the confusion that Benito Cereno creates for its audience. Its folly is that it can just as easily stand as an anti-slavery text as it can a pro-slavery text. I’ll use a quote which we used in our debate on Thursday to highlight the “irony” of Benito Cereno, “Most negroes are natural valets and hair-dressers. . .God had set the whole negro to some pleasant tune. . . Capitan Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.” This portrayal seems ridiculous to a majority of 21st-century readers, but in the mid-19th-century, it was read widely as a fact.
Polarizing issues, even today, are often tackled by satire. Watch South Park much? But the problem with satire is that, unless it ultimately/explicitly claims a true allegiance, it fuels both fires. To the abolitionist audience, “Benito Cereno”’s sarcasm and over-simplified view of the slaves seem like an obvious jab toward the pro-slavery audience. But, to the pro-slavery audience of 1855, it’s rife with confirmation statements. In that light, “Benito Cereno” is toothless. Perhaps Melville didn’t want to cause any problems, so he found a nice cushy spot on the fence so he could receive praise from both sides.
The Heroic Slave lacks the ambiguity of Benito Cereno, but makes up for it in backbone. It doesn’t tip-toe around with satire or irony. Douglass, through the voice of Madison, declares war against slavery; a war on a principal no different than that of the Revolutionary War: freedom. Douglass writes, “You call me a black murderer. I am not a murderer. God is my witness that LIBERTY, not malice, is the motive for this nights work… We have done that which you applaud your fathers for doing, and if we are murderers, so were they.” This passage sealed the deal for The Heroic Slave. It’s more than a story, its a declaration of war.
Both “Benito Cereno” and The Heroic Slave tell tales of slave ship mutinies. That is where their similarities end. Babo, the hero (or villian, depending on how you look at it) in “Benito Cereno” is hanged for leading the mutiny. Washington, the hero in The Heroic Slave is revered and celebrated as a true hero should. “Benito Cereno” is totally fictional, while The Heroic Slave is based off a true event. “Benito Cereno” was written by a white guy who had to appeal to as many people as he could to avoid another commercial failure (Moby-Dick), so he could make some money. Frederick Douglass was a black man with nothing greater to lose except the fight for liberty of his people. “Benito Cereno” confirms its readers bias, whatever that may be. The Heroic Slave says “If the mutineers were black murderers, so were your white fathers.”
Maybe Douglass is making a jab at Melville’s “Benito Cereno” when he opens part 3 of “The Heroic Slave” with a line from a Byron poem: “His head was with his heart, and that was far away!”. Perhaps he was directly alluding to Melville’s head, which was focused on writing a successful story and appealing to a wide audience, while his heart was. . . who knows?