Melville Reviews Douglass (as told to Patrick Galloway)

I have been asked, by a young man currently engaged in a career as a university student, to offer my opinion of an autobiographical narrative written, with no little amount of skill given the author's educational background, by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. I have overlooked the strangeness of the choice, both of myself as reviewer and Mr. Douglass's book as that to be reviewed respectively, seeing as how the student who has requested my views seems so genuinely enamored of both Mr. Douglass's narrative and my own rather perfunctory effort, Benito Cereno. The young man has issued further demands; he wishes that I limit my own opinions, or rather that I stick closer to the narrative voice used in the above-mentioned short story, thus providing a more focused comparison of the two pieces of writing, or, as my young friend calls them, "texts." In addition, I am to limit my ruminations to three subjects or "main points" as he says, and the enthusiastic, if somewhat officious fellow has even gone so far as to assign me three such points of his own choosing, asking that I insert my psyche into them like so much molten lead into a smelter's mold! (He has just informed me that I used the lead-in-smelter's mold imagery in describing the sea at the beginning of Benito Cereno-I had completely forgotten!) At any rate, and so as not to delay the actual review any longer, I should state that I shall be considering Mr. Douglass's writing style, his treatment of the subject of negroes, and the intention of design inherent in his writing, and all of these in contradistinction to my own style, substance, and intention, as put forth in Benito Cereno.

Regarding style, it must be made clear to the reader that by the time I wrote Benito Cereno I had been a professional writer for many years, and had ample opportunity to develop and experiment with various styles, all the while honing and contouring my technique. Mr. Douglass, however, and to his credit, wrote Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, his first book, while still in his twenties and it is, as I have expressed earlier in this monograph, quite an achievement in light of the fact that he had not the benefit of any kind of formal education [1]. His style is forthright and direct, honest and compelling; mine is more guarded and ambiguous, owing, I suppose, to the fact that what I mean to convey is something more inward and subtle, the workings of the mind, the play of emotions and mental calculations, the study of which I am told incidentally has become a branch of medicine known as psychology. While Mr. Douglass, in his book, is concerned with communicating the crushing physical and mental conditions of slavery, my mission in Benito Cereno is to place the reader within the mind of the affable but somewhat thick Captain Delano of the Bachelor's Delight. To walk the rippled ridgeways of the human mind, one must walk on cat's paws, gently, gingerly, with subtlety of forethought. Not to belittle Mr. Douglass's achievement, but it does not take quite so much technique to describe running blood _______________

[1] Norton Anthology of American Literature Vol. 1, p. 1873.

from the ravages of a cowhide as it does to portray the faltering steps of thought taken by a naive Captain caught unawares in a potentially dangerous situation amongst individuals the likes of which he knows not what: Pirates? Mutineers? Ah, but I am interjecting too much of my own opinion and have been admonished for it by my student, who has also commented that Mr. Douglass's book was more of a page-turner than my own short story. Very well, so be it; I can understand why. For the average reader, blood will always be more compelling than grey matter. But regarding style, I would say that Mr. Douglass's is every bit as suited to his purpose as mine to mine.

As to the question of subject matter, or more specifically the whole issue of the negroes, here I will obey my student's restrictions and limit myself to the narrative voice of Benito Cereno, that voice being one of laconic ambiguity, a voice which is the complete opposite of that of Mr. Douglass. The latter's feelings and opinions regarding slavery cannot be mistaken: they are completely antagonistic to the "peculiar institution" of the South. In my own story, I barely address the issue of slavery itself, American, Spanish, or otherwise, but rather I offer certain small, symbolic elements which might at first seem marginal, yet upon closer inspection come to point to larger racial considerations. For example, Captain Delano is a man who clearly regards blacks as something less than human, more akin, in fact to "black sheep," [2] "Newfoundland dogs," [3] or items to be bought _______________

[2] Ibid., p. 2235.

[3] Ibid., p. 2254.

for a mere "fifty doubloons." [4] Perhaps it is just this kind of benign racism that causes him to underestimate the blacks of the San Dominick and brings him so perilously close to certain death, only to be saved at the last minute by the actions of Don Benito. Captain Delano's tale could be considered a cautionary one, but it might just as well be a lesson in moral judgment: we are all humans here, black or white, and when our liberties are removed, violent rebellion is our only alternative. (My student has just uttered a bizarre ejaculation-"Oh, come on,"-which he has followed with his own personal objection that I spent not a word on describing the emotions, the thoughts, the inner turmoil of the rebellious slaves; this I owe to the fact that it simply was not to my purpose as a writer to do so; I leave such concerns to those more qualified than myself, such as Mr. Douglass, and move on now to the very subject just mentioned, namely that of literary purpose.)

Mr. Douglass's Narrative is by far the best piece of abolitionist writing I have come across as far as serving its purpose, that purpose being to communicate to the average Northerner the evils of American slavery in a clear, concise, and compelling fashion. The brutality of slavery, expressed by one who was a victim of it, and in such wonderfully clear, vivid language comes across with the sheer impact of a whiffling cowhide and is, in my opinion, far more effective than that awful Stowe woman's contribution. Even as Mr. Douglass downplays the violence of his own altercation with the slave-breaker Covey, he is still serving _______________

[4] Ibid., p.2243.

the purpose which he has set out to achieve, namely to make the abolitionist message palatable to a white audience. As regards my own writing, I only wish my purpose as a writer had been as clear to my audience; my first two books were popular enough, tropical travelogues and that, but when I began to expand, when I began to explore complex states of mind and the moral ambiguities they entailed, when I attempted to translate the ideas of the Medieval and Renaissance authors I was discovering into my own writing, my readers all but evaporated. Not until some thirty years after my death, I am told, did I enjoy any real literary appreciation, a fact which truly warms my heart.

My student has suggested that I "wrap this up," a colloquialism which I believe I understand, by mentioning that Mr. Douglass's Narrative and my own Benito Cereno go very well together, read consecutively that is, Mr. Douglass's first and mine second. My student seems to feel that Mr. Douglass's book offers the negro outlook regarding the feelings and anxieties of an enslaved group, and that it dovetails very neatly with my own short story, as it provides balance, filling in what might have been a measure of motivation for the slaves of the San Dominick which, as he has already stated in no uncertain terms, was woefully left out of my narrative. Clearly he is looking at my 1850s tale through his own 1990s perspective, but he is young, and allowances must be made for the volatility of youthful intellect.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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