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DANA LUCIANO Melville's Untimely History: "Benito Cereño" as Counter-Monumental Narrative The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are 'still' possible ... is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable. —Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History" At the cornerstone ceremony for the Revolutionary War memorial atop Boston's Bunker Hill, Daniel Webster predicted in 1825 that the planned monument would "proclaim the magnitude and importance of [the American Revolution] to every class and every age" (Webster 6). Herman Melville, characteristically, decided to talk back. Melville dedicated Israel Potter (1855) to that monument, offering his fictional revision of the life of a forgotten Revolutionary War veteran, which he equates to a "dilapidated old tombstone retouched," (1349) as a birthday gift to the obelisk. He deferentially addresses the war monument as the "Great Biographer" of Bunker Hill's soldiers, but the sustained attention to Potter's tribulations in his own novel suggests the insufficiency of the one-note marble biography. The dedication's parodie tribute situates a small, individual monument at the foot of a large, impersonal one, making clear what the taller structure is built upon: the under-remarked lives and deaths of many men like Potter, each of whom has a story that the official monument effaces in its drive to legitimate the Revolution. By "restoring" one of these erased individual stories, Israel Potter cuts the abstract obelisk down to size. Arizona Quarterly Volume 60, Number 3, Autumn 2004 Copyright © 2004 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 6 10 34 Dana Luciano During the final months of Israel Potter's serial run in Putnam's Monthly, Melville experimented a second time with "retouching" a text from the post-Revolutionary archive.1 Reworking, in "Benito Cereño," the story ofa slave rebellion aboard a Spanish ship, which he had come across in Amasa Delano's 1817 Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, Melville again highlighted the elisions brought about by the hardening of historical narratives into official , monumental forms. However, while Israel Potter challenges the substance of official/monumental history, the later narrative shifts modes to question its structure as well. Interrogating not only what but also how historical memory signifies, "Benito Cereño" poses challenges that can best be understood in light of the cultural work performed by the contemporary counter-monument, which Melville's narrative anticipates and elucidates. The unstable, often transient allegorical structures of the counter-monument challenge the traditional monument's claim to embody "timeless truth" by revealing their own commemorative narratives as narratives, as attempts to put together meaning in time. "Benito Cereño" performs similar work, insisting on the reparative possibilities of an understanding ofhistory that sees time as discontinuous and fragmented. This vision of reparation, as distinct from the teleology ofredemption, is not a utopie attempt to "cure" the injuries of the past through the activation of an audience's sympathy within the unifying framework of memorial.2 Rather, in order to address the melancholic gaps created by monumental history, it deploys melancholic narrative form, which understands the past as suspended within the present but not reconciled to it. This temporal consciousness enables "Benito Cereño" to appear, as H. Bruce Franklin has written of another ofMelville's historical novellas, as "an epiphany of the interlocked history of the late eighteenth century, the . . . nineteenth century, and the late twentieth [and early twenty-first] centur[ies]" (209). Yet while the condensation of time offered by the traditional monument extends the confident assumption that the work ofrecollection will lead to redemption , the type of epiphany framed in the counter-monument can offer no such guarantee. It can only attempt, as does "Benito Cereño," to restructure its readers' investments in the past, in the hope that critical history will have a regenerative effect on our damaged times. Melvilk's Untimely History 35 I. HOW THE COUNTER-MONUMENT TELLS TIME The antebellum inclination to monumentalism developed, as Russ Castronovo has demonstrated, as a way to address the need for histori' cal memory in the search...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 33-60
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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