- African Culture and Melville’s Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick by Sterling Stuckey
African Culture and Melville’s Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick
New York : Oxford University Press , 2008 . ix + 154 pp.
If you have ever chased the great white whale, you know of Herman Melville’s worldly aesthetic vision. Melville scholarship resembles the imaginative array of the Pequod’s motley crew from around the world, with different critics indicative of the varied archives and disciplines that inspire a range of interpretations. When it comes to understanding the relationship of Melville’s works to African culture, the historian Sterling Stuckey stands alone. From his landmark text Slave Culture (1987) to his writings in Going through the Storm (1994) to his recently published African Culture and Melville’s Art, Stuckey analyzes black culture and performance across the Atlantic. Stuckey’s passion for Moby-Dick (1851) and “Benito Cereno” (1855) reveals itself in his commitment to an anthropological and historical vision of Melville’s major fiction: a vision defined by Stuckey’s interests in black music, the thematic play of blackness, and material culture.
Stuckey’s African Culture sheds light on how Melville scholars can access racial difference and Black Atlantic culture through Melville’s creative genius. Stuckey shows us how knowledge about African culture can illuminate Pip’s connection to African American street festivals in Albany (Moby-Dick), the origins of Atufal’s dress in Ashantee decoration (“Benito Cereno”), and Frederick Douglass’s depictions of slave song (Narrative of the Life). While Stuckey may not always draw one-to-one connections when establishing links between discourses on Africans and Melville’s black characters, this book demonstrates the significance of African culture for black performance in the United States and New World slaves’ reinvention of that culture.
In assembling the chapters for African Culture, Stuckey draws upon essays he has published on Melville since the 1980s and adds some new material. His revisions illuminate his thinking about how different topics, texts, and sites of evidence relate to one another, and the introduction helps the reader sync the essays’ investment in African culture. Yet in recasting the essays, Stuckey limits the implications of his work by not explaining how his arguments relate to recent developments in Melville studies and in scholarship on [End Page 75] black performance. While one does not want Stuckey to rehearse his debt to scholars he undoubtedly influenced, the book would have benefited from a fuller engagement with scholars working on race and black culture.
Stuckey’s depictions of African culture are not limited to insights about the politics of being enslaved. He focuses on music and spirituality and on blacks as innovators in song, dress, and myth. Stuckey’s essays demonstrate that the African cultural presence in Melville’s life served as the basis for characters such as Atufal in “Benito Cereno” and Daggoo in Moby-Dick. Across the volume, Stuckey encourages us to be better students of the African traces Melville left in his writings and invites us to consider anew how Europeans and Americans experienced West African spirituality, mysticism, rituals, dances, song, and other cultural practices.
Stuckey’s greatest accomplishment in African Culture is attaining his stated goal: “my purpose is to show how he [Melville] used sources never before read by critics to fashion strikingly intricate and subtle techniques of craft, heretofore unexplored, in creating two of his greatest works, Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick” (3). Stuckey persuasively shows that while slavery is widely discussed by critics, African culture has been shortchanged in Melville studies. Stuckey also uses the writings of Melville’s contemporaries, including Frederick Douglass, Charles Dickens, Mungo Park, Frederick Augustus Ramsayer, and Johannes Kuhne, to study the relationship between Melville’s aesthetics and African culture. Stuckey claims that Melville “appropriated and transformed material from writers who were well known in his time but not previously thought to have influenced him artistically” (5), such as Dickens in American Notes (1842) and Douglass in his Narrative of the Life (1845). African influences, Stuckey argues, were central to Melville’s creative method. Stuckey’s distinctive contribution here is to...