118 The Sneaky African (Babo) Versus the Herculean African (Madison Washington)

Nathan Theriault

I think the initial differences we see between Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” and Frederick Douglass’s, The Heroic Slave are the visibility of their themes, and the approach the reader must take to discover them. Even after reading Melville’s work the theme is still not something I would call set in stone, at least in terms of my own understanding. The appearance of the slaves is just too harshly imagined for this text to be entirely positive, “They accompanied the task with a continuous, low, monotonous chant; droning and drooling away like so many grey-headed bag pipers playing a funeral march” (Melville 6). From this passage, we begin to understand that this is not exactly a story about slavery in the way that Douglass’s work is, and that Melville is more interested in the ingrained opinions of the American Captain Delano, and how he sees slavery and its interaction with the world. Melville’s direction is unclear, and his continues back and forth between how the slaves are depicted. This is often very confusing, even though it perhaps represents the struggle of many people during those times who were becoming unsure of their position regarding slavery.

Frederick Douglass’s story contains a few nuggets of similarity with Melville’s, but the overall intent seems very different. Douglass not only wishes to portray the African slave in a strong, and positive manner but also wishes to not offend the white audience by depicting anything overly graphic. Multiple times Douglass directly addresses the reader, “It would not be proper here to give the reader any idea of the vulgarity and dark profanity which rolled, as ‘a sweet morsel,’ under these corrupt tongues” (Douglass 52). We know right away that Douglass wishes to maintain the dignity of his people as well as that of the white man, and create a false sense of ease that was not true for the typical slave’s life.

Slave rebellions were always a very terrible, and tragic event; at least that is what it seems Melville is saying, and Douglass’s work does not exactly disagree or contradict this idea, it simply erases the actual moments of rebellion and focuses more on the positive influence of one man. It appears that both authors were against the slave trade for different reasons, and although they had similar storylines, their main focuses were vastly different, and their techniques were at either end of the spectrum. Melville depicted all sorts of gruesome acts, and Douglass ‘white-washed’ these in order to appease a more delicately stomached audience of the hardships of slavery.

Share This Book

Feedback/Errata

Comments are closed.