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Multicultural Melville

Echoes of Africa in the words of an American master.

Apr 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 28 • By FRANKLIN FREEMAN
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African Culture and Melville’s Art

Herman Melville

Bettmann / Corbis

The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby Dick

by Sterling Stuckey

Oxford, 168 pp., $18.95

One of the few things I remember from my graduate school days in English is the distinction to be made between internal and external evidence. Internal evidence is collected from the texts themselves, external from biographies and works of history. So I have been surprised, whenever I have picked up a volume of literary criticism in recent years, to see that this distinction is not as rigorously applied as in the past.

Sterling Stuckey, professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Riverside, gives only a passing nod to the distinction in the footnotes of this fascinating book, newly released in paperback. In the second chapter he writes that, in Benito Cereno, the story of a slave uprising on a Spanish ship and its discovery by a dunderheaded Captain Delano, “Melville created Atufal [a huge African of noble bearing] mainly from a nameless Ashantee found in Joseph Dupuis’s Journal of a Residence in Ashantee, long unknown to Melville critics, which appeared in 1824 and was probably first read by Melville as a teenager.” But in the footnote after this sentence we read, “Though we cannot prove conclusively that Melville as a teenager read Dupuis’s Journal .  .  . it is not unlikely, considering that Newton Arvin writes, ‘The names of the great travelers indeed—Krusenstern, Captain Cook, Vancouver, Ledyard, Mungo Park—had scintillated before him like constellations during his whole boyhood, as the names of great soldiers do before other boys.’ ” 

But then when the reader returns to the text, he learns that “Melville reimagined the slave after whom Atufal is modeled as king in the novella,” and there are many other places in the book wherein Stuckey proclaims, without qualification, exactly from what sentences, paragraphs, and phrases from various travel journals Melville took his material and transformed it into his art. The problem is not with the content of his argument but with the proclamation of it as indisputable truth.

Stuckey can even read Melville’s mind:

But [Melville] must have experienced lasting unhappiness in knowing that African cultural influences that join the two great works [Benito Cereno and Moby Dick] were not only invisible to critics but foreign to what they considered worthy of attention. It would hardly have been less disturbing to him that resonances between Benito Cereno and Moby Dick, noted in this chapter, would not be recognized for more than 150 years after their publication.

Personally, I think Melville was probably more concerned with the financial failure of his writing and his having to go to work in the Custom House of New York. Which is not to say that Melville was not deeply influenced by African culture in the writing of Benito Cereno and Moby Dick. Stuckey makes a strong case that Melville was intimately familiar with black music and dance in his childhood through the recurrent parades of black musicians in New York streets, and through the proximity of his family’s neighborhood in Albany with Pinkster Hill, where blacks and whites would gather for festivals featuring much black music and dancing. And the connections between images in Melville’s reading and art seem very probable and intriguing, and point the way to new interpretations of Melville’s writing, broadening them to include an indictment of racism and slavery. 

I was hoping, however, to learn more about Melville’s creative process; that is, how he wrote his fiction. But perhaps that is too much to ask of anybody. Merely to point out “intertextualities” does not say much except that Herman Melville read works of history and fused them with his imagination into works of art, which we already knew. Sterling Stuckey shows us that Melville’s art includes many facets of African culture that have been overlooked or ignored, but his assurance that Melville used specifically this or that word or sentence undercuts its effectiveness.

There is one interesting thing to note, however. Stuckey dedicates his last chapter, “Cheer and Gloom,” “to the Melvillean Viola Sachs, who asked me years ago if I didn’t hear the blues in Moby Dick.” Stuckey then goes on to contend that you can hear them, and I think convincingly so. This led me to dip into Blues Fell This Morning by Paul Oliver, for which Richard Wright wrote the foreword and says this: “All blues are a lusty lyrical realism charged with taut sensibility.” Has anyone ever written a finer description of Melville’s art than that?

Franklin Freeman is a writer in Maine.


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