Benito Cereno and novelistic detail

Benito Cereno is, like so much of what I am reading now, an unbelievable-but-true maritime story. (As Margaret Cohen put it, “blue-water events are strange and therefore true”; this would have to be the most prevalent theme I have encountered so far.) The novel (novella? short novel? short story?) gives the story of Amasa Delano, captain of the Bachelor’s Delight, who comes to the aid of the Spanish vessel the San Dominick. He is received in a strange manner by Benito Cereno, the Spanish captain, and spends an unnerving day on board among a few Spaniards and many slaves. At leaving the ship Captain Delano discovers that it has been under the control of the slaves the whole time and has his crew take it back. This is followed by the deposition made by Benito Cereno upon landing in Chile.

In real life, Captain Amasa Delano was in command of the Perseverance, and came to the aid of the Spanish vessel the Tryal. Was received in a strange manner by Benito Cereno, the Spanish captain, and spent an unnerving day on board. &tc. In Amasa Delano’s Narrative of Voyages and Travels, this tale is followed by the depositions of three witnesses, Benito Cereno, Amasa Delano, and Nathaniel Luther, midshipman, as well as several letters.

So Benito Cereno was, like Moby-Dick and plenty of other things, inspired by a real sea yarn. A good one, at that. And the similarities are very extensive. That is not to say that there is nothing fictional in the story; the extremely important episode of the skeleton is Melville’s addition, among other things. And the novel is excellent—I like Yvor Winters’s description of it as “appalling in its completeness, in its subtle horror, and in its silky quiet.” (From In Defense of Reason, as quoted in the Norton Critical Edition of Melville’s Short Novels)

But. What’s weird is that certain particular details, which appear to be very good novelistic details, are real. That is to say, they seem to serve as something to yank the narrative toward reality, signs of what James Wood might call “thisness,” but turn out not to be literary touches at all. And their inclusion in Delano’s Narrative makes it seem poignantly literary itself. From Benito Cereno:

…that the boatswain, Juan Robles, who knew how to swim, kept the longest above water, making acts of contrition, and, in the last words he uttered, charged this deponent to cause mass to be said for his soul to our Lady of Succor…

That was really quite affecting. It almost felt like a betrayal to read in the Narrative:

…that the boatswain, Juan Robles, who knew how to swim, kept himself the longest above water, making acts of contrition, and in the last words he uttered, charged this deponent to cause mass to be said for his soul, to our Lady of Succour…

I don’t quite know what to make of it. Reading the novel, I thought that was Melville. And of course it was. But it’s something else too. And it’s not the only thing.

As an aside, Amasa Delano is even more likeable in his memoir than in Benito Cereno. But, poor fellow,

When I take a retrospective view of my life, I cannot find in my soul, that I ever have done any thing to deserve such misery and ingratitude as I have suffered at different periods, and in general, from the very persons to whom I have rendered the greatest services.

6 comments to Benito Cereno and novelistic detail

  • This is excellent stuff. Plagiarism-as-art. No question, it sounds like Melville.

    Maybe I need to look into those Moretti books.

  • The Novel, you mean? Yeah, they are huge and pretty awesome although I hardly ever think to open them when I should. I would like to actually read them but, you know, yeah right.

  • Kieran Johnston

    The veracious detail cited is indeed a horrifying one, as the whole story is. I’m reminded of an off the cuff remark in Moby Dick about a sailor sleeping while a few feet below his head there are tremendous monsters swimming unbeknown to him…
    What I find really fascinating about his novel is that, from the point of view of sheer suspense, it SHOULD have been an Alfred Hitchcock script. Every detail gives away the danger, and yet hides it at the same time.
    The story has great significance for me personally. When I was around 19 I did a six month homestay in Medellin, Colombia, probably one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Blithely naive, like Capt. Delano, I walked almost daily, a tall, thin, green-eyed gringo, through the worst areas of that town of cut-throats, without ever being touched. I must have been gliding with angels about me, saved, like Delano, by my very blindness and oblivion to the dangers all around me. It was blind ignorance and luck. I shudder now, as Captain Delano must have.

  • Hitchcock is right! It was really a tense and nerve-wracking read in that respect. And your trip is a scarily accurate analogy!

  • [...] Amasa Delano, the inspiration for Captain Amasa Delano, also shows up in my American Sea Writing anthology. It’s another excerpt from his Narrative [...]

  • [...] “Benito Cereno” and my first encounter with Captain Amasa Delano [...]

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