The American in Charity: "Benito Cereno" and Gothic Anti-Sentimentality

By Coviello, Peter | Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

The American in Charity: "Benito Cereno" and Gothic Anti-Sentimentality


Coviello, Peter, Studies in American Fiction


In 1852, a year after the publication and rather tepid reception of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville released to the world a novel he had promised was "much more calculated for popularity." "A regular romance," he called it in a letter to his publisher, though the romance that followed--the novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities--is anything but regular. (1) It is a novel in which, among other things, an amplifying strain of gothicism, and of gothic opacity, comes gradually to consume the plot, the major characters, and finally the narrative voice itself, much to the predictable dismay of the author's contemporaries. (One newspaper, the New York Day Book, gave its notice the pithy title, "HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY." (2) Still, before the novel's incest and murder plots are fully ripened, Melville pauses to consider young Pierre Glendinning's fate as an author, and the more general fate of authorship in America. In a chapter called "Young America in Literature," he writes:

 
      Pierre himself had written many a fugitive thing, which had brought him, 
   not only vast credit and compliments from his more immediate acquaintances, 
   but the less partial applauses of the always intelligent, and extremely 
   discriminating public. In short, Pierre had done that, which many other 
   boys have done--published. (3) 

For Melville, this is irony so broad and unregulated it might as well be called sarcasm; and the clear bitterness he felt over the treatment of Moby-Dick, particularly at the hands of the "Young America" clan of authors and editors, is on uncomfortably naked display here. That nakedness is probably what motivated one critic to aver that "whether the satire has the serious political implications which have been attributed to it may be doubtful." (4) We might have reason to be a bit more credulous than this, since the anger here, uncontoured though it may be, is directed not just at what this critic calls a "literary clique" but at, precisely, "the public"--the very same "public" who, as Melville goes on to write, "had applauded [Pierre's] gemmed little sketches of thought and fancy." At issue, in other words, is more than any literary clique, more than that "high and mighty Campbell clan of editors" who so unabashedly overpraise Pierre, but a specifically civic body, a "public" whose capacity for literacy, and aptitude for literary responsiveness, Melville wishes to worry over. And this makes sense, since the question of literacy--of a person or group's fluency with a variety of communicative acts and interpretive tools--is, for Melville, ever a matter of dramatic and necessarily civic consequence. We need only think of all the scenes of failed reading, impotent silence, and interpretation gone awry on that floating allegory of national fate, the Pequod. The moral is difficult to miss: civic health, in Melville's fictional cosmos, requires able readership.

Pierre appears in 1852, and the years immediately following do nothing to allay Melville's anxieties about the readerly capacities of the American public. But the events of those years do, it seems, focus his misgivings. Melville's breath, we might say, had time to straighten, his brain to bubble cool, so that what would come from him by 1855 was no longer that sneering broadside vitriol, but the rigidly controlled, exactingly apportioned anger of a writer who has passed beyond wounded authorial pride into a vastly more embracing fatalism. In the essay that follows, I want to contend that the vehicle Melville fashions to carry this anger, this furious dismay before a direly inept and seemingly ineducable American readership, is the great novella of slave revolt "Benito Cereno"; that its method is, in a complicated way, gothic; and that what not indirectly inspires and crystallizes this anger--what transpires so momentously between Moby-Dick and "Benito Cereno"--is the publication and unprecedented reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe's sentimental epic, Uncle Tom's Cabin, in 1852. …

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