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American Literary History 12.4 (2000) 685-712

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Melville, Race, and the Ambiguities of Benevolence

Susan M. Ryan

Pence I will give thee, though political economy reprove the deed. They can but appease the hunger of the body; they cannot soothe the hunger of thy heart; that I obey the kindly impulse may make the world none the better--perchance some iota the worse; yet I must needs follow it--I cannot otherwise.

Lydia Maria Child, Letters from New-York

There's a sucker born every minute.

P. T. Barnum 1

In pairing these citations, I wish to highlight a crucial tension in mid-nineteenth-century US culture between social responsibility and suspicion. Lydia Maria Child's statement reflects both a fervent desire to help the suffering and an awareness of the myriad cultural authorities who warned that to act on such impulses might do more harm than good. At the same time, the "sucker" epigram points to the pervasiveness--and the appeal--of trickery despite all efforts to circumvent or expose it. In the kinds of public amusements that P. T. Barnum and his competitors presented, the suspicion of duplicity could be a source of fun--that is, if we take as proof the popularity of their enterprises despite widespread knowledge of the many attendant deceptions. Americans, however, tended to see the intrusion of artifice into their acts of benevolence as troubling, even malignant. The possibility that one might be tricked into aiding the unworthy often occasioned an anxious interrogation of charitable practices. [End Page 685]

This essay explores how antebellum white Americans represented duplicity's threat to benevolence. I argue that the era's voluminous writings on charity functioned most often as an anatomy of suspicion, promoting elaborate rituals of authentication and constructing the ideal donor as a rational, well-trained investigator. In their attempts at regulating benevolence, these commentators both relied on and mistrusted the body as a legible index of need, returning to it endlessly in their descriptions of worthy and unworthy supplicants, but also warning of its many deceptions. Disability, after all, could be faked, as could illness, hunger pains, and other sympathy-eliciting elements. To judge from a range of antebellum publications on charity, this tension was most vividly imagined in the context of urban begging. Contrary to the cherished myth that beggars only rarely populated/polluted American cities, antebellum observers documented their abundance. This crisis of national identity, insofar as US economic opportunity had long been opposed to European destitution, was also a crisis of credibility, as anonymous beggars on city streets laid claim to worthy poverty.

Herman Melville, among others, assiduously pursued such themes in fiction, staging dramas of benevolence gone awry in various contexts: within the protagonist's disordered familial relationships in Pierre: or, the Ambiguities (1852), within the urban workplace in "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853), and on a distressed slave ship in "Benito Cereno" (1855). The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), however, was his most sustained meditation on charity and deception. In one of the novel's early chapters, Melville inscribes such concerns onto the apparently black body of a beggar, thus intertwining the epistemology of doing good with the question of "knowing" blackness; the beggar's racial identity is called into question along with the genuineness of his poverty, hyperbolizing the crisis of urban begging that so obsessed charity writers. But instead of a single benevolent doubter, Melville's readers encounter a crowd whose members, in deciding whether to give or withhold alms, must consider several axes of possible deception (including the beggar's apparent physical disability).

Melville's twinned representations of black need and threat in this episode disclose his contemporaries' concerns about the seemingly inescapable presence of the "dangerous classes," but they also speak to the specifics of black and white racial formation in the antebellum US and to the role of benevolent rhetoric in that vexed process. The portrayal of this "black" beggar raises questions that most conventional charity texts approached only obliquely: how were benevolent hierarchies and racial hierarchies [End Page...


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