Narrative Self-Justification: Melville and Amasa Delano

Article excerpt

In 1965, E. F. Carlisle's description of the fictional Amasa Delano as "Melville's American Fool" established the character as a superficial ugly American, unable to comprehend the situation aboard the San Dominick.(1) By converting an historical figure into an archetype of "ineptness" and "misunderstanding," Carlisle subverted middle-class white self-justifications based upon "apparent virtues - innocence, benevolence, and optimism" which mask "defects [that] the tale emphasizes [as] the ignorance, foolishness, and blindness of the Captain."(2) Almost without exception, those sharing this view begin with the slyly sarcastic early description of Delano's character:

[His] surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.(3)

This questioning of Delano's intelligence marks one of Melville's first swipes at Delano's Narrative self-representation.(4) Unlike most scholars, however, Melville did not underestimate Delano's intelligence or narrative skills; he distrusted the validity of and the motives behind the captain's vindictive and self-vindicatory narrative. Benito Cereno parodies the complex methods through which the American captain's Narrative disguises and legitimates his willful greed as exploited innocence. This inquiry demonstrates that Melville read out of Delano's Narrative far more than the simple, straightforward chronicle of the Tryal incident tacitly assumed in most work on Benito Cereno since Harold Scudder presented Chapter 18 as Melville's "ready made" source.(5) Delano's Narrative offered Melville far more than story-fodder; he covertly satirizes Delano's evasive, contradictory, and greedily hypocritical narrative. For Melville, Delano's inconsistent representation of the Tryal incident in Chapters 16-18 and 25 foreshadows later attempts to justify United States economic and cultural imperialism.

Chapters 16 and 17 of Delano's Narrative, allegedly dealing with events occurring in 1800 and 1801, combine scenic and climatic descriptions of his 1800 visit with inserted descriptions of mutual Spanish and English barbarities along South America's Pacific Coast in 1805. Seven chapters separate the bulk of Delano's "account of the capture of the Spanish ship Tryal" from the rest of the account of his 1805 visit to Lima in Chapter 25.(6) The engagement necessitated the voyage, a fact only indirectly acknowledged in Chapter 25. Read in this chronologically confused context, Delano prefigures his use of the incident as exemplifying his moral and economic strength by stating early in Chapter 18 that "I had in the course of the day the satisfaction of seeing the great utility of good discipline" (p. 321). He implies a pejorative comparison between his charitable and business-like actions and what will be represented as Cereno's passivity in his account of surmounting the worst "situation to effect any important enterprize than I had been in during the voyage" (p. 320). This attempt to establish a worthy ethos becomes his primary means of legitimating his monetary claims. Delano's characterization of the Tryal affair as an "important enterprize," however, indicates that, claims and perhaps conscious belief notwithstanding, he valued the incident as one of the more important business opportunities of any of his voyages.

Delano's haphazard attempts to disguise or mask the contradictions between his righteous ethical stance and mercenary motivations produce the textual gaps within which Melville discovers his own narrative strategy in Benito Cereno. In satirizing Delano's self-justification, Melville almost totally repressed in his text the economic conflicts that rend Delano's text. …