Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Below is a complete guide to the novella Benito Cereno by Herman Melville, including a reading of the text. The audio is also available wherever you listen to podcasts.
1) Introduction and background to the story
In part one of this series I argue why it is of critical importance for all Americans to read this novella by Herman Melville before it is too late. In it are critical observations about the American spirit, and an underlying philosophy that is currently tearing us apart.
Melville's story, published in 1855, is a thriller/mystery based on a true story. In 1799 an American Whaling Captain, Amasa Deleno, espies a ship in distress off the coast of Chile. As a good American, he goes to the rescue, bringing food and water. Upon boarding the ship, however, he begins to perceive odd behavior that he cannot explain.
In this introduction, I describe the core epistemological quandary of this character, and of our own lives in America today.
Stories should be experienced and enjoyed as stories, but nonetheless, with some guidance, I will help to show you how this classic tale can breath insight into your own daily life.
In this episode I discuss how Nihilism is an important idea to understand when reading Melville's work. Here is Professor Onkar Ghate discussing Nihilism:
2) Chapter 1: Ship in Distress
*Please note these chapters are my own inventions and not Melville's. He has written this story in one non-stop narrative. I am breaking it up to help make it a little more easy too digest.
This is the first reading of the novella by Herman Melville. In part 1 I argued why this remains a classic story we should all read.
Beneath the terminology section below, I have included the text of Chapter 1 from Benito Cereno.
In the next episode I will give you a summary of this section of the story, and then an exploration of some key themes in the text so far.
Herman Melville was a sailor. He understood nautical terms as a musician understands musical compositions. Thus, Melville's texts are heavy on the nautical terms. I highly recommend viewing some schematics of sailing ships of the 1800s in order to gain a visual of terms. Below are a few to help you out.
First, there is a very unfamiliar activity going on aboard the San Dominick.
The Oakum Pickers - There is a description of several black men "picking oakum." What is Oakum and what is oakum picking?
Picking oakum was one of the most common forms of hard labor in Victorian prisons. Prisoners were given quantities of old rope, which they had to untwist into many corkscrew strands. They then had to take these individual strands and unroll them, usually by rolling them on their knee using their hands until the mesh became loose.
Here is a depiction of a prison scene: