restricted access 3. Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” as Critique of Hispanicist Exceptionalism: Cosmopolitanism and Ironizing Identity
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3 Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” as Critique of Hispanicist Exceptionalism Cosmopolitanism and Ironizing Identity Readers of Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” who are sensitive to questions of identity and race have tended to focus on Amasa Delano’s view—funneled through free-­ indirect discourse—of black slaves (e.g., Karcher 1980, 109– 59; Tawil 2006, 191–208; Yellin 1970). Such studies are now supplemented by the acknowledgment that Delano’s response to Benito Cereno reflects Anglo-­American prejudices against Catholic Spain and its New World colonies (Emery 1984; DeGuzmán 2005, 47–67; Nelson 1993, esp. 112–14; Sundquist 1993, esp. 143, 148). This chapter makes two points regarding these issues. First of all, as Allan Moore Emery and Eric Sundquist indicate, the stereotypes upon which­ Delano relies do not simply construe Spaniards as the Black Legend’s violent despots. For ­ Delano, Spaniards and Spanish Ameri­ can creoles are also languorous and inefficient (Emery 1984, 50–53; Sundquist 1993, 148). These characteristics were not as pronounced in the colonial typologies. I contend that ­ Delano’s perspective thus reflects the nineteenth-­ century, US Hispanicist evolution of Anglophone attitudes toward Hispanophone ­ peoples. Through Hispanicism ­ Delano self-­ reflexively imagines himself against Cereno as a US Ameri­ can who is well fitted for a managerial role in a capitalist, liberal-­ democratic world. ­ Delano, thus, voices antebellum imperialist beliefs that Hispanophone ­ peoples—whether “off-­ white” Spaniards or creoles (DeGuzmán 2005, esp. xxiv, xxvii) or Spanish Ameri­ cans of mixed racial ancestry—­ were racially incapacitated for sovereignty’s duties.­ Delano’s attitudes toward Spaniards and Af­ ri­ cans are distinct but interrelated . Both views are self-­ reflexive. Contemplating Spanish and Af­ ri­ can difference, ­ Delano imagines himself to be racially superior as an Anglo-­ American. ­ Delano’s under­ stand­ ing of blacks as subhuman, though, bolsters his sense of himself as possessing basic human capacities of free will, reason, and aesthetic sensibility. Such views, refracted through romantic-­ Melville’s “Benito Cereno” / 95 racialist tropes regarding blacks, reflect what Morrison terms “Af­ ri­ canism,” the pervasive US discourse through which US Ameri­cans imagine cherished self-­ perceptions against a mysterious, demonized black presence (Morrison 1993, esp. 5, 17). In perceiving Spaniards and their New World brethren as despotic and inefficient, ­ Delano views himself as a member of a benevolent racial and national community that is exceptionally endowed to forge liberal-­ democratic social, economic, and po­ liti­ cal institutions. He thus believes himself entitled to usurp management of Cereno’s ship and slaves.1 My sec­ ond point regards how Melville interrogates such discourses by using a sophisticated form of storytelling. Some have described Melville’s approach , although good-­intentioned, as overdetermined by the racialism pervading his white US Ameri­can culture. Dana D. Nelson claims that whereas “Benito Cereno” subverts how ­ Delano views blacks and Spaniards according to static types, the tale fails to imagine alternatives to these typologies (Nelson 1993, 109–30). More intent on examining the tale’s depiction of the Spanish, María DeGuzmán, too, contends that although Melville denaturalizes how ­ Delano confirms his whiteness through reflection on the “off-­ white” creole Cereno, this critique is undermined by what DeGuzmán reads as the tale’s damnation of Cereno and Babo (DeGuzmán 2005, 47–67). These claims inform my view that by ventriloquizing Hispanicism through ­Delano, Melville emphasizes how it informs US exceptionalism. In doing so, Melville ironizes ­Delano’s sense of himself as the benevolent representative of an exceptional nation. Melville reveals how ­ Delano’s perspective occludes the in fact rapacious ­ Delano’s ability to realize that he and Cereno share much in common. I also part ways with Nelson and DeGuzmán; inspired by neo-­ formalist arguments for literature’s socio-­ civic power, I champion Melville’s efficacy in thinking beyond exceptionalism. More so than Cooper, Melville challenges Hispanicist exceptionalism per se, rather than merely arguing for restraint against the discourse’s most excited versions. Proposing grounded alternatives to racist and imperialist policies was not Melville’s aim, but his tale suggests formal alternatives to racialist exceptionalism by calling attention to the qualitative differences between manners of telling stories about relationships and identity. These opposed manners can be described as forms of cosmopolitanism. In contrast to the self-­ absorbed Spaniard Cereno, ­ Delano self-­ reflexively identifies as a gregarious cosmopolitan who good-­ naturedly navigates the differences between cultures. ­ Delano’s cosmopolitanism, thus, reflects his Hispanicism, much as Barlow understood cosmopolitanism in contrast to Spanish-­ ness. However, Melville implies another...


Subject Headings

  • American literature -- 18th century -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • National characteristics, American, in literature.
  • American literature -- Spanish influences.
  • American literature -- Latin American influences.
  • Latin America -- In literature.
  • Spain -- In literature.
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