105 O Captain! My Captain!

Carmen Maura

Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1856) is an early representation of American interactions outside the geographical bounds of the nation. Despite being titled after the Spanish captain; the story is written from the limited third-person point of view (POV) of the American Captain Delano. In other words, everything that we know about his situation is limited to his perception of reality. This POV puts readers in an “American” mindset, representing how Americans perceive their encounters with the rest of the world.

Upon boarding the San Dominick, Captain Delano finds Don Cereno’s behavior bizarre. The narrator writes that “[t]he Spaniard’s manner, too, conveyed a sort of sour and gloomy disdain, which he seemed at no pains to disguise. But this the American in charity ascribed to the harassing effects of sickness” (9). Brushing off the strange demeanor of Don Cereno, the “charitable” American does as charitable Americans do by offering to provide aid to the ship and safely get it to shore. Later—after likening Don Cereno to the Spanish Roman Emperor, Charles V., who stepped down after the empire grew too big for him to control—Captain Delano offers him advice on how to manage his ship.

This sense of authority and knowledge that Captain Delano exerts, as well as the POV of the novella, shows how American literature doesn’t necessarily need to be set in America. “America,” in this sense, is an ideology. In the first half of “Benito Cereno,” we see this ideology described as one that is charitable, all-knowing, and perhaps a little too fearless. Furthermore, the beginning half of this story portrays an American mindset that remains “neutral” in the presence of evil. Captain Delano, amused by the relationships between Spanish crew members and African slaves neither supports or rejects slavery. Instead, he makes jokes about buying Babo, offers second-hand advice on how to keep the slaves in order on the ship (oh, the irony once the story is over), and reflects upon his pet-like fondness of Africans. Captain Delano, like so many figures in American literature, is just another well-intentioned white guy.

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O Captain! My Captain! by Carmen Maura is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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