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.