Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

HERMAN BEAVERS


The Blind Leading the Blind: The Racial Gaze as Plot Dilemma in "Benito Cereno" and "The Heroic Slave"

By virtue of "The Heroic Slave" and "Benito Cereno," Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville share an affinity that has often been alluded to but never explored in depth. It is undeniable that the two texts demonstrate numerous points of contact: their historical proximity, their mutual acts of transforming factual events into fiction, their use of slave rebellions as source material, and, finally, their depictions of democracy in a state of contradiction, straining against itself. Having acknowledged these aspects I want to move swiftly past them to a more compelling feature these texts share in common. Both novellas dramatize the "racial gaze," a mode of voyeurism that takes on aoristic significance in the context of nineteenth-century American racial relations. Under the auspices of the racial gaze, difference and hierarchy come together within a procedural nexus.1 This is not to suggest that Douglass's and Melville's purposes were the same. Nor is it to suggest their sources led them to identical points of emphasis. However, we need to pay close attention to the manner in which "The Heroic Slave" and "Benito Cereno" utilize the racial gaze as a way of organizing the plots of their fictions. By pairing Douglass and Melville we can come to understand how these fictions have the complementary aim of positing arguments which subvert the visual sphere as the zenith of representational modes.

To understand the significance of the racial gaze, one needs to understand the emergence of an irrefutable correlation between visualization and persuasion during the nineteenth century. As Peter Brooks suggests, the dominant nineteenth- century tradition of realism

insistently makes the visual the master relation of the world, for the very premise of realism is that one cannot understand human beings outside the context of the things that surround them, and knowing those things is a matter of viewing them, detailing them, and describing the concrete milieu in which men and women enact their destinies. To know, in realism, is to see, and to represent is to describe.2

One finds further evidence for Brooks's claim by noting that by the middle of the nineteenth century the visual sphere had come to play an important role in foregrounding difference, and racial difference in particular. As Elizabeth Johns has demonstrated so ably in her excellent study of American genre painting, the "politics of everyday life" were such that African Americans were an ambiguous presence, on the margins to be sure, but necessary to concretize the visual

-205-

Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this book

This book has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this book

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this page

Cited page

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies
Table of contents
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen
/ 300

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.