Melville Stories

by: Herman Melville

Important Quotations Explained

Quotes Important Quotations Explained

There is something in the Negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one's person…There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment, with a marvellous, noiseless, gliding briskness, not ungraceful in its way, singularly pleasing to behold, and still more so to be the manipulated subject of. And above all is the great gift of good humour…When at ease with respect to exterior things, Captain Delano's nature was not only benign, but familiarly and humorously so. At home, he had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of colour at his work or play. If on a voyage he chanced to have a black sailor, invariably he was on chatty, and half-gamesome terms with him. In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to Negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.

Race is one of the most significant issues of the twentieth century, and dealing with older texts is always a tricky issue. Some schools ban Huckleberry Finn for its use of the word "nigger." That word is not in "Benito Cereno," but the above passage is arguably just as offensive, if not more so. The passage is easily read as being patronizing toward the black, claiming that they as a race are particularly fit to be servants and have a "good humor" that makes them pleasant to be near. Delano's equating blacks with "Newfoundland dogs" seems to be intended to show Delano's exceptionally good opinion of blacks, but the patronizing nature of the comment is offensive to modern readers. There may be an ironic comment in the use of such an obviously degrading metaphor as "Newfoundland dogs": Melville may be making fun of those who think of blacks that way. But the passage is frustratingly ambiguous, like much of Melville's writing, and without any real understanding of Melville's opinion of blacks at this time, Melville's intentions with such a metaphor cannot be determined with any real surety.

The reader should be wary of associating the views of Captain Delano, the narrator, with those of Melville the author. But both men do have similar backgrounds: both are men from Massachusetts who have spent time on whaling ships. Much of the tone of the story is taken from the autobiography of the real-life Amasa Delano. However, Delano makes no comments like the passage above; Melville has added enormous amounts of detail to Delano's bare-bones account. Some critics have claimed that while Delano is the voice for most of the story, the last section, after the court deposition, is entirely Melville's, and it is there that the story gives its most interesting impressions of race.