Texas in literature - Pre Civil War

Mapping the Imaginative Landscape of Texas After the Mexican-American War

Part of the consequences of the Mexican-American War was the appropriation of over 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory by the United States in 1848. Places such as Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona, which were originally considered part of Mexico, were now considered part of the United States–which posed an immense problem for Mexicans living in these areas because they were now considered a social and cultural minority within the spectrum of a predominately white and Protestant America. Texas’s close proximity with the Mexican borderline made it a prominent nexus for the early stages of the Chicano movement (literature written by Mexican-Americans in the United States); after all, many battles during the Mexican-American war took place in Texan cities such as Brownsville, which were heavily populated by people of Mexican origins.

Since I personally have an interest in young adult Chicano/a literature, I became intrigued with the prominence of Texan locations (particularly those areas close to the Mexican/U.S. borders) in American literature published shortly after 1848–that is, when various parts of Mexico were annexed into the United States of America. Thus, this post depicts my efforts to map and trace the prominence of these locations in American literature, although not necessarily centered on texts written by Chicano/a authors. My data will therefore be centered on the presence of Texan locations in prose literatures written by American authors during the incorporation of Mexican territories into the U.S. (which marks the beginnings of the Chicano/a movement, generally speaking).

In order to achieve this, I generated maps using ArcGIS, an online application and content management system that allows users to create interactive maps capable of displaying quantitative data provided by databases. The data I used to generate the maps below was provided by a literary database developed by Dr. Matt Wilkens (which is based upon texts such as Lyle Wright’s American Fiction, 1851-1875), which includes a hefty percentage of the long prose titles published by American adults between 1851 and 1875, along with the geospatial information depicted in these titles using Google’s Geocoding API.

The database also included texts and geospatial information from other countries and dates, so I used MySQL Workbench 5.2 CE in order to create a table that only displayed the count of texts within the U.S., specifically within the region of Texas between the dates of 1851 and 1872. In order to avoid ambiguities within the data, I only included texts that mentioned specific cities or locations within Texas, meaning that all texts that simply mentioned the state of Texas were eliminated from the data set. The result of this search query listed over 31 Texas cities mentioned over a series of 972 texts. This data was used to generate the following map in ArcGIS:

(You can access the interactive version of this map by clicking here)

There are few major surprises within this generated map, seeing as the major cities in Texas seem to be the most prominent locations mentioned in American texts published between 1851 and 1872. The San Antonio and the Rio Grande regions are by far the most popular locations mentioned within the text sampling of this period, and the Rio Grande region, conveniently located near Brownsville, is by far the most prominent “borderline” region, with a total of 111 texts mentioning this location.

Although it is extremely interesting to see how prominent the Rio Grande region was in American texts written after the incorporation of Texas to the U.S. 1848, keep in mind that this data includes texts written during and after the American Civil War. Cities found within the U.S./Mexican border, particularly Brownsville, were notorious for being smuggling points of goods during the Civil War, which might have influenced the prominence of borderline locations within American literature. Seeing as my interests lie within the prominence of Texan locations in American literature influenced by the aftermath of the Mexican-American war, some adjustments had to me made. Thus, I accessed the aforementioned database once again, this time making sure to create a count of text locations mentioned between 1851 and 1860, right before the Civil War began. The results were as follows:

(You can access the interactive version of this map by clicking here)

A couple of interesting things occurred when eliminating the years marking the beginnings of the American Civil War. Notice how Austin and Houston decrease dramatically in terms of how many times they are mentioned within the literary corpus. The Rio Grande region, however, still caries the second-place medal in terms of location mentions of Texas after the Mexican-American war. Now we can rightfully assume that the prominence of this location is directly intertwined with the effects of the Mexican American War. Rio Grande, after all, was populated in 1846 as a transfer point for goods and soldiers during the invasion of Mexico during the Mexican-American war. San Antonio is perhaps the obvious and most salient contender for location mentions within American literature published after the Mexican-American war due to the Battle at the Alamo, the event that “inspired” many Texan citizens to join the army during the Texas Revolutions while in turn dramatically increasing U.S. hostility towards the Mexican population.

In due course, it’s quite interesting to see how American literature, especially in terms of location, is closely tied to historical events and shifts. But even more so, it’s quite amazing to be able to visualize and develop a more concrete notion of the presence of locations across hundreds of texts that shape the imaginative landscape of American literature during particular periods of time. Although this data is indeed tantalizing, note that the database used to create these maps contained authors deemed American, and I am personally not sure of how many Chicano authors were included within this data set.

My gut feeling, based on the prominence of places such as Rio Grande and San Antonio, is that few, if no Chicano authors are included–seeing as places such as Brownsville, Laredo, and other border regions contain few or no location counts. It would be extremely interesting to create or obtain a database that exclusively lists locations mentioned in texts written by authors of Mexican or Chicano/a descent, in order to generate maps that can be compared and contrasted to the ones shown above. Then, it will be possible to have an even more encompassing view of the imaginative landscape of Texas from an American perspective and a Mexican/Chicano perspective. After all, literature does not follow the strict boundaries that are imposed in terms of location and space.

Disclaimer: The discussion above was an attempt to experiment with the possibilities of the ArcGIS content management system, and share these possibilities with those interested in digital humanities, American literature, or history. None of the data interpretations above are definite nor conclusive.

This is a poster titled "Wm. H. West's Big Minstrel Jubilee," originally published in 1900. The poster illustrates a white man "transforming" into a black man, colloquially known as donning "black face." Some characters within "The Confidence Man" question whether Guinea was a white man disguised as a black man simply because of the unrealistic and cartoonish (and downright racist) demeanor of white people who typically disguised themselves as African Americans.

Revealing the Man beneath the “Negro”

In a previous post, I discussed issues of race in Melville’s Benito Cereno, and this week, I couldn’t help but return to the depiction of race in Melville’s works. Now, Melville’s The Confidence-Man was indeed as challenging and perplexing as I thought it would be; after all, most of Melville’s works are characterized for being “devious,” ambiguous, and downright difficult. One of the most complex characters within this narrative was the “Black Guinea,” a crippled African American beggar who ostensibly was a free slave. The narrative strongly suggests that Guinea was one of the personas donned by the Confidence-Man, seeing as it was he who listed some of the other personalities that the Confidence-Man embodied, and seeing as Guinea was accused of being an impostor—a white man pretending to be a crippled beggar of African lineage.

What caught my interest in the scenes where Guinea appears is that they say much about the perception of black people during Melville’s era. However, the perception of the African American race becomes an even more prominent and complex issue if we were to approach Guinea as a white impostor, for then, we are witnessing a white man performing and interpreting what he deems to be an accurate portrayal of blackness. Thus, within these scenes, we have blackness as distilled through three perspectives: Melville’s perspective as an author, the perspective of the white audience that surrounds the beggar (particularly the drover), and the perspective of the white man performing blackness.

What first caught my attention in terms of Guinea’s depiction and representation in The Confidence-Man was the fact that animal qualities and traits are used to describe his actions and his appearance. Guinea describes himself as “der dog widout a massa” [the dog without a master] (Melville 10). The drover states that Guinea’s appearance “seemed a dog, so now, in a merry way, like a dog he began to be treated” (Melville 11), and he even goes as far as to compare Guinea’s physical traits to that of a “Newfoundland-dog” (Melville 13). Guinea’s animalistic depiction, however, is not limited to descriptions of a canine persuasion. When Guinea shivers as he recalls the harshness of the winter cold, he moves himself into the crowd, resembling “a half-frozen black sheep nudging itself a cosy berth in the heart of the white flock” (Melville 11). Even as Guinea tries to entertain the crowd in order to “earn” cash from the surrounding crowd, the drover points out that the beggar opens “his mouth like an elephant for tossed apples at a menagerie” (Melville 11-12).

What is clear is that these animalistic qualities are alluding to the fact that the beggar perceives himself as non-human or sub-human, for he belongs to a social hierarchy that is clearly different from the white folks that surround him. Although it may be argued that this notion of Guinea as an animal may be attributed to the fact that he is crippled, and not to the color of his skin, this assumption becomes moot with the presence of a wooden-legged man. Despite the fellow limper’s physical condition, he did not draw the attention that Guinea drew from the crowd, but rather, the Guinea’s position is so inferior that the wooden-legged man stumbles against him in a threatening position, demonstrating his superiority. Thus, although his crippled state attributes to his inferior position in society, it can be argued that Guinea’s animal depiction is attributed mostly to his skin color.

Melville’s choice to depict Guinea using animal qualities is indeed an interesting literary and semantic choice. After all, animals in literature, contrary to human characters, require little to no description in order to be “understood.” Whereas we expect human characters to be described in terms of personality, dress, conduct, and intellect, animals are stereotyped or pigeon-holed into particular molds and expectations: people know what to expect when elephants, sheep, or dogs are mentioned, and not a lot of effort must go into describing how they look like or how they act. Could it be that in the case of Melville’s novel, slaves and “negroes” were no different to animals in this aspect?

At first, Guinea does seem to live up to the 19th Century stereotype of the African slave, especially when concerned with his cheerful demeanor. Despite not having a home, a master, food, or currency, Guinea happily plays music with his tambourine and entertains the crowd—alluding to the perception of slaves being extremely happy people who constantly laughed and sang in spite of their horrible living conditions. However, the drover notes that Guinea was perhaps quite adept at acting and at hiding his emotions: “whatever his secret emotions, he swallowed them, while still retaining each copper this side of the [e]sophagus” (Melville 12). Guinea’s cheerful demeanor dissipates with the presence of the wooden-legged man, and he then begins to wail in defense of who he is, and why he deserves the crowd’s charity. Notice that Guinea also seems to possess a great deal of power, seeing as he is not afraid to challenge the people that surround him. When the crowd asks him to present documentation to prove his status, and when they question Guinea’s trustworthiness, the beggar repeatedly wails “have you no confidence in dis poor ole darkie?” (Melville 18), which serves to directly challenge the crowd’s perceptions and sense of charity to the less fortunate.

This is a poster titled “Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee,” originally published in 1900. The poster illustrates a white man “transforming” into a black man, colloquially known as donning “black face.” Some characters within “The Confidence Man” question whether Guinea was a white man disguised as a black man simply because of the unrealistic and cartoonish (and downright racist) demeanor of white people who typically disguised themselves as African Americans.

Guinea thus engages in a slight appropriation of social power by alluding to the moral sympathies of the crowd, and he also disengages from the cheery and optimistic demeanor that slaves were deemed to don during the 19th century. This may be slightly problematized if we were to believe in the statement that Guinea is truly a white man in disguise, or even the Confidence-Man himself. If this notion of Guinea as an imposter were true, this supposed disruption of racial stereotypes and appropriation of social power loses its currency, for when it comes down to it, it is a white man who is undergoing the social negotiations performed by Guinea. Even more so, given the fact the Guinea is quite believable as a “negro” according to the perception of other characters, Melville could have been further perpetuating the stereotypes of blackness that existed during his time.

True, at first it may seem that Melville’s approach towards Guinea seems somewhat stereotypical, racist, and inhumane; but in turn, he highlights the hypocrisy that exists within 19th century perspectives of race. It is convenient to view Guinea as an animal until he requests the human virtue of charity—it is then that he is required to offer human proof that justifies his requests. Although Melville’s perspectives of race are perhaps as ambiguous in The Confidence-Man as they were in Benito Cereno, we must admit that the portrayal of Guinea in The Confidence-Man certainly opens up room for debate, racial emancipation, and the hypocrisies of racial stereotypes.

On a side note, I must confess that The Confidence-Man has been my least favorite Melville text up to now. I found it disjointed and nonsensical, and overall less enjoyable than his short stories. Some argue that Melville intended for the novel to be disjointed and full of gaps–an early example of a postmodern text. Postmodern or not, the book was too difficult and inaccessible for my own personal tastes.

Source:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0192837621/

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In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this post is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

This image titled “Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee” is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

the-perks-of-being-a-wallflower

Growth and Development in Stephen Chbosky’s [The Perks of Being a Wallflower]

Update: The content of this blog post was developed into an academic article that was published by The ALAN Review. I’m thrilled to announce that this article obtained the Nilsen-Donelson award for the best academic article published in 2013. Click on the following link to download a PDF version of the full article: Writing Through Growth, Growth Through Writing: [The Perks of Being a Wallflower] and the Narrative of Development

Original cover of Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (1999)

I remember the first time that I held that bright green cover in my hands early in the morning during the Christmas of 2002. In all honesty, I had no concrete clue of what the novel was about. I just remember surfing through the web, looking for young adult books to get me through the holidays, and the title of this novel caught my attention: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Now, it was an unusually complex title for a young adult novel, but seeing as I myself felt like a wallflower at times, something about the title spoke to me. Little did I know that I was about to read the book that led to a shift in my being… a book that affected me on levels beyond comprehension… a book that almost 14 years later continues to shape who I am.

When people ask me what is my favorite text of all time, they would probably expect me to say something that any other literary scholar would say: Shakespeare’s dramas, Milton’s poetry, Dickens’ novels, or maybe even Thoreau’s philosophies and discussions. However, my answer would undoubtedly be the aforementioned book titled Perks of Being a Wallflower, written by Stephen Chbosky. Sure, the book is not a book for everyone. Many people become “nauseated” with the protagonist’s overly sentimental musings, and others simply get angry with the protagonist’s lack of action (these were reactions that some of my past students had when first reading the novel). Others accuse the book of being a rip-off of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; true, it is unsurprising to see that Salinger’s text was indeed an influence for Chbosky’s work (it is even one of the many novels that the protagonist encounters throughout the narration), but comparing the two works would be like comparing apples and pears: they have similar textures and flavor profiles, but in the end they are different fruits that possess different forms.

I consider the novel to be one-of-a-kind. Charlie, the protagonist, is one of the most vulnerable, raw, real, and honest literary characters that I have encountered within the realm of young adult fiction (and arguably, all genres of fiction). The novel is one of the few instances in which readers have the opportunity to witness the uncensored perspectives of a male character who is not afraid to share his thoughts and sentiments. As of now, it has been the only book that has been capable of making me cry. True, I read the novel during a vulnerable time: like Charlie, I was lost, and confused, and I was looking for someone to speak to. Charlie, the protagonist of the novel, ultimately became that person. But, even when reading Perks numerous times after escaping my own period of vulnerability, it still continues to “listen” to me, and to speak to me. It still continues to haunt me. And every time I read it, it says something different to me.

The film was superbly acted by Emma Watson as the vivacious and complex Samantha, and Logan Lerman as Charlie, the film’s heart-breaking and fractured protagonist.

The reason I’m bringing this book up is because I finally was able to see the film adaptation of this novel, which was written AND directed by Stephen Chbosky himself. The movie was only being shown in select theaters, but this weekend, it finally was shown in theaters across the nation. Truth be told, I was rather afraid to see the film. When our favorite books are adapted to the silver screen, there is always the fear that the adaptation won’t live up to our expectations, and that the film will never reach the standards of the original source. However, after seeing the movie last night, I realized that my feelings were misguided. The film adaptation of Perks was endearing, touching, and thought-provoking. But even more so, the movie was crafted for a generation who grew up with the ideals and thoughts manifested in Chbosky’s original text: originality, uniqueness, and loyalty. The movie invites us to ultimately find a sense of belonging in “the island of misfit toys.”

Overall, the film has received very positive reviews. It currently has a score of 8.4/10 in IMDB, and it was certified as a fresh film in Rotten Tomatoes, with a current approval rate of 86% among critics and 95% among audience members. And in all honesty, those who don’t understand the movie, or that consider it another bland coming-of-age story either fail to sympathize with the hurdles that the protagonist had to overcome, or they find it hard to connect with the notion of being an outsider (after all, not everyone is aware of the unique perspective that one develops when “standing on the fringes of life”).

In due course, the film left me inspired, and it pushed me to submit an article that I wrote on the novel last semester to the ALAN Review, the nation’s leading journal on the study and teaching of young adult literature. Frankly, I had reservations in terms of submitting the article for review, mostly because I feel like I cannot effectively do justice to my favorite novel of all time. In addition, I am aware that the article is far from perfect. However, just like Charlie had to learn how to participate, I needed to step out of the shadows and take an academic risk. I have no idea whether or not the article will be accepted for publication, but I guess there was no harm in trying.

Anyway, to conclude today’s post, I will include an excerpt from the article that I submitted. Wish me luck!

Excerpt of “Writing through Growth, Growth through Writing: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Narrative of Development” written by Angel Daniel Matos:

[…]

Although Perks is certainly considered epistolary in terms of its form and delivery, its content and function are definitely attuned towards the aims of developmental fiction. Given that the protagonist depicts his own developmental process through his writing, and given that the novel is written via a series of letters, it is imperative that the reader becomes attuned to how the process of writing and the process of Bildung work together to fulfill and challenge the nuances of development within the literary scope. The process of writing in Perks manifests primarily in two ways: through the letters that Charlie writes to the anonymous recipient and through the assignments and tasks that he completes for his English class in high school. Fascinatingly, Charlie’s writing is very much reflective of his own development as a person, and the writing that we encounter in the first letters of the book is more scrambled, disorganized, and “immature” in comparison to the prose found in his final letters.

For instance, here’s an example of Charlie’s writing at the beginning of the novel: “Aunt Helen told my father not to hit me in front of her ever again and my father said this was his house and he would do what he wanted and my mom was quiet and so were my brother and sister” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 6). This sentence exemplifies the writing style that is predominant during the first letters of the novel: the prose is peppered with run-on sentences, he has not mastered the art of punctuation, and his ideas many times lack coherence and cohesion. We see that his writing style, and even the topics that he discusses in his letters, begin to evolve and mature as Charlie gains more experience with the art of writing, and as he begins to delve in increasingly complicated efforts to understand himself and the people around him. Charlie’s English teacher, Bill, assumes the role of Charlie’s mentor not only from an educational standpoint, but from a formational one as well. Charlie also takes Bill’s advice and suggestions quite seriously, and although he always gives Charlie A’s on his report cards, he always labels his essays with a lower grade as a way of challenging him:

First of all, Bill gave me a C on my To Kill a Mockingbird essay because he said that I run my sentences together. I am trying now to practice not to do that. He also said that I should use the vocabulary words that I learn in class like “corpulent” and “jaundice.” I would use them here, but I really don’t think they are appropriate in this format. (Chbosky, 1999, p. 14)

After Bill’s recommendations, Charlie’s letters increasingly avoid the use of run-on sentences, and his prose becomes much clearer and more efficient, saying more using less words. It is also interesting to note that when Charlie writes about the books that Bill assigns to him, he manages to use writing as a way of evaluating the actions of the characters in the books he reads, and he always tries to establish parallels between his own life and the “life” portrayed in the books.

This notion of comparing and contrasting becomes important in terms of the content depicted in Charlie’s letters, for it is in this instance that he begins to situate himself more prominently in the actions that are represented in the letters. At first, most of what he writes about is concerned with the observations that he makes of his family. This notion of writing “empirical” observations of the people he observes becomes the main focus of Charlie’s letters until Bill begins to notice that Charlie constantly stares at people and scrutinizes them obsessively. He then asks Charlie what he thinks about when he observes people, and after he tells Bill everything he thinks about, the teacher remarks that although thinking a lot is not necessarily a bad thing, “sometimes people use thoughts to not participate in life” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 24). This remark pushes Charlie to further assess his own life and the degree to which he participates in events, talks with other people, and tries to make friends. However, the very process of writing his thoughts obliges him to become introverted and pensive, and he continues to write letters as a way of assessing his own life: “when I write letters, I spend the next two days thinking about what I figured out in my letters. I do not know if this is good or bad” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 28). The effort that Charlie puts in trying to understand his meditations is a clear indicator that Bill was right to some extent, for so much effort is put into trying to understand, that there is little room to actually live and enjoy life.

Despite the mental effort and time required in the crafting of his letters, there seems to be a radical shift in terms of the content being portrayed after Bill warns Charlie about the perils of overthinking. The focus of the letters shifts from a focus on family to a focus primarily on Charlie’s efforts to socialize and make friends. In due course, Charlie becomes very close to a group of seniors at his school, known for not being the most popular and loved people within the premises. The first friend he makes in high school is Patrick, a gay senior with a penchant for jokes and mischief, and who introduces Charlie into the world of drinking, smoking, and the unwritten rules of sexual behavior. He also befriends Sam (short for Samantha), who is Patrick’s stepsister and on whom Charlie develops an obsessive crush. The bulk of the letters depicted after this point discuss the differences that exist between Patrick, Samantha, other friends, and himself, his strivings to understand the motivations behind their thoughts and actions, and more importantly, the arduous process of integrating himself with Patrick and Samantha’s circle of friends.

Charlie develops a clearer sense of the world through this arduous process of integration, and through his immersion in new experiences such as drug use, masturbation, visits to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and through his exposure to different literatures. His analysis of the content of his letters, and the feedback he gets from his essays at school, demonstrate that Charlie is developing the ability to make his writing more concrete and understandable due to the fact that he is undergoing experiences that provide him with a substantial analytical platform. Even more so, Charlie’s development of his writing prowess leads him to the discovery of the craft he wants to hone as a professional endeavor: “I have decided that maybe I want to write when I grow up. I just don’t know what I would write” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 46). Although at first the letters prevented him from participating due to their introspective and slightly amateurish nature, it is when Charlie combines his writing skills with the experiences that he has obtained that allows him to develop a richer image of who he is and who he wants to be. Interestingly, the more Charlie writes, the more he understands himself, and the easier it is for the recipient of the letters to develop a more defined snapshot of Charlie’s mind. In other words, the more Charlie begins to understand himself, the more others also begin to understand him.

It is unclear whether Charlie keeps copies of the letters for himself; however, Charlie consistently makes reference to past letters. Charlie compares and contrasts experiences illustrated in his letters, and he also revisits previous points of discussion in order to reevaluate his thoughts using the knowledge that his experiences have thrust upon him. For instance, Charlie once reads a poem to his friends titled “A Person/ A Paper/ A Promise Remembered,” written by Patrick Comeaux and given to him by Michael (the friend who committed suicide), which portrays the growth of a boy into a man, and concludes with the speaker’s suicide due to his disillusionment with life. At first, Charlie is unable to understand the poem clearly, and he is unwilling to understand why a person would commit suicide. But, during New Year’s Eve, Charlie writes a letter in which he confesses that a particular experience has unfortunately helped him to grasp the intended meaning of the poem:

I just remembered what made me think of all this. I’m going to write it down because maybe if I do I won’t have to think about it. And I won’t get upset. But the thing is that I can hear Sam and Craig having sex, and for the first time in my life, I understand the end of that poem. And I never wanted to. You have to believe me. (Chbosky, 1999, p. 96)

It is important to note that in this instance, Charlie is using writing for a new purpose: rather than using the letters as a means of interpreting himself and his world, he uses writing as a way of distancing himself from his thoughts, as if writing were a way of draining his worries away from his mind. Even more so, it is through looking back at his own writing that he is able to comprehend how he loses innocence, and how he is able to understand concepts that used to escape his cognizance. It is after this point that Charlie becomes a “rebel” in many aspects: he begins to smoke and drink more than ever; he begins to explore his sexual identity by hanging out more often with Patrick and kissing him every so often, and he secretly offers his sister assistance when she believes she is pregnant.

Charlie begins to realize that life does not have to be lived according to others’ expectations, and if he is to achieve any degree of happiness, he has to find a way to balance his desires and social demand. This stepping away from society’s parameters also manifests within Charlie’s writing, seeing as he begins to experiment with different styles of writing and of conveying ideas: “I wrote a paper about Walden for Bill, but this time I did it differently. I didn’t write a book report. I wrote a report pretending that I was by myself near a lake for two years. I pretended that I lived off the land and had insights. To tell you the truth, I kind of like the idea of doing that right now” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 128). Thus, rather than complying with a formula or a set of rules on how to tackle his literary interventions through writing, he delves into an experimental endeavor in which he filters the information he decodes in the book through his own set of experiences. Rather than simply being a sponge that absorbs and regurgitates ideas, Charlie begins to view the act of writing as a mediation between a conversion taking place, turning him into an active writer rather than a passive one. Thus, the parallels between emotional and mental development, or Bildung, become increasingly tied to the act of writing throughout the progression of the novel. Furthermore, notice that Charlie seems rather pleased with this new direction that he is taking.

Charlie’s progression from a passive to an active participant is not an overnight change, but rather, it is a very difficult and gradual process. Despite his small victories and attempts, Charlie still remains a wallflower towards the concluding letters of the novel. However, in the climactic letter of the novel, Samantha confronts Charlie and obliges him to face the consequences of his lack of action. Sam has broken up with her boyfriend because he was cheating on her, yet Charlie never made an attempt to date Sam now that she was newly single. In a fit of frustration, Sam confronts Charlie with the truth after he confesses that he did not take action because he was more concerned with her sadness than with trying to be with her:

It’s great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn’t need a shoulder. What if they need the arms or something like that? You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things. (Chbosky, 1999, p. 200)

And rather than replying to her accusations with words, Charlie approaches Sam and starts to kiss her. They soon end up on the bed, kissing passionately, but just as they are about to go all the way, Charlie begins to have a nervous breakdown. To make a long story short, Charlie slowly but surely remembers the fact that he was sexually abused as a child by his diseased aunt Helen, which explains why Charlie was so repressed and had difficulties participating in life. After a few months in the hospital after his breakdown, Charlie begins to come to grips with his repressed past, and he proposes to move on and change the direction of his life. […] Indeed, the surprising and unprecedented moment in which Charlie reawakens his repressed past is indeed heartbreaking and difficult to tolerate emotionally, but it is the moment in which Charlie truly begins to feel free from the unbearable burden of trying to figure out why he is the way he is, and why he so desperately craves to understand the world around him. And although action leads him to achieve his moment of breakthrough, it is the act of writing that helps him put his life into perspective, and that provides the missing puzzle pieces that complete the image of the self.

[…]

The main characters of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” From left to right: Charlie (Logan Lerman), Patrick (Ezra Miller), and Sam (Emma Watson)

Wilde

Listening to the “Unheard Lyric”: Amplifying Faint Discourses in Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales

It’s interesting how easy it is for me to forget songs and stories that I heard last year, yet at the same time, it’s so easy for me to recall songs and stories that I heard as a child. Ask me something about the plot of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and I might need a few minutes to collect my thoughts and remember what the novel is even about. However, ask me a question about Maurice Sendack’s Where the Wild Things Are, Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, and the act of recalling and remembering is instantaneous. There is something about the apparent simplicity of Children’s literature that makes it not only easy to remember, but ostensibly easy to understand and deconstruct. However, underneath this aura of simplicity is a complex struggle of ideas, aims, and goals: Children’s literature is anything but simple, and I think Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales attest to this notion.

Notice how the name of the genre implies possession: children’s literature. But a question that surfaces simply by looking at the label of the genre is: does this literature, as the name implies, truly belong to children? After all, how many children’s books have we seen out there written by actual children? What does this imply? How is the notion of children’s literature complicated as we realize that the genre has become a fad, and virtually anyone with influence or social status can write and publish a children’s book? Everyone from Madonna, to Bill Cosby, to Billy Crystal, to Whoopi Goldberg, to Queen Latifah, to Brooke Shields, to Ray Romano has published a children’s book. Is it because they’re easily marketable or easy to write? This, of course, greatly affects the perception of the genre within academia. However, what mostly makes children’s literature an ignored area within literary criticism is not only its apparent simplicity and its marketability, but also to its didactic nature. In his book Sticks and Stones, Jack Zipes brings most of these problems to the surface, offering a somewhat fatalistic and negative view of children’s literature as a hot commodity, which leads to the production of formulaic books that follow the same patterns and that serve to mold and construct how a child should be—his attack on the Harry Potter series is well-known amongst those who study children’s and young adult texts. But his tirade against children’s literature, interestingly, is interpreted through the lens of an adult ideology. How do children perceive the literature that is designed for them? Do notions such as formulas and patterns truly bother them? What do we do if our children love Harry Potter? Tell them that their tastes are horrible and that they should be embarrassed to embrace such a redundant and formulaic text? In due course, Zipes’ assertions attack children’s literature by ignoring the very values and the audience that defines the genre.

Debates on the usefulness of art aside, and whether or not children’s literature is or isn’t art, or even if the genre overuses patterns or formulas, one thing is absolutely clear: children’s literature is deemed to be inherently useful and instructive. Not only is it meant to entertain, but it also serves as a heuristic aid that feeds children a set of ideas, or better said, dogmas. Whether or not the text constructs the child or aids the child in his or her own identity construction is open to debate, but nonetheless, we must realize that the lessons in the genre are looming, and the sense of didacticism that they possess is absolutely real. Recalling the children’s works I mentioned earlier, notice that each and every one of them instills an important lesson that children carry with them for the rest of their lives, and notice how this lesson is extremely reliant on what the author thinks a child should know. I mentioned these three books because they were some of my favorites as a child; however, it was after I reflected on this choice that I realized that in essence, all of these works tell the same story: Where the Wild Things Are, Peter and Wendy, and The Wizard of Oz emphasize on the idea that there IS no place like home. It’s strange that now that I look back, the notion of home was a central concern to me: after moving from New Jersey to Puerto Rico at the age of 8, there was always a desire to return home. But Peter Pan never arrived at my window to whisk me away, clicking my heels three time never brought me back to New Jersey, and I metaphorically never escaped the island where the “wild things” were found.

Perhaps the first break that we make from the realm of children’s literature occurs at that moment when we realize that their lessons, aims, and methods fail to sustain in our own lives. This does not mean, however, that these lessons have no value. We have to admit that children’s literature predominates in our own lives in a time when innocence presumably reigns supreme: it is a time in which we are empty canvases. We are open to the world, and we approach the content and message of children’s literature in an unpretentious fashion: we are usually unaware of the possibility of embedded subversion peppered throughout a text, we definitely don’t think about how useful or useless a text is, and our perceptions are not influenced nor bound by critical and ideological lenses. In other words, we could care less if The Wizard of Oz represents a struggle of classes as exemplified by the dynamic between the wicked witch and her henchmen, we are ostensibly oblivious to the struggles of humanity and animality in Where the Wild Things Are, and we certainly don’t give a damn in terms of the implications of space and place in Peter and Wendy. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge when approaching children’s literature from a scholarly perspective: keeping in mind that the audience for a children’s text is a child, how are we able to approach these texts from a critical and scholarly perspective without ignoring the genre’s target audience, and the assumed ignorance and innocence laced the ideal child? In other words, how do we learn to listen to that child-like voice inside of us, while still complying with our adult desire to analyze, deconstruct, and understand?

I think Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales provide a lot of food for thought when it comes to these questions. After all, the notion of Oscar Wilde writing children’s literature seems to be bewildering in every sense of the word. How can an advocate of the uselessness of art devote his precious time towards crafting a text that is essentially instructive and pragmatic? How does Oscar Wilde view his target audience? Even more so, keeping in mind Wilde’s affinity for subversion and refusal to be confined within conceptual boundaries, how does Wilde attempt to transform and challenge the notion of a children’s literature via his unique take on fairy tales? First of all, perhaps it is important to know why Oscar Wilde wrote children’s tales in the first place. In a letter that he sent to G.H. Kersley on the reason why he wrote the short story The Happy Prince, Wilde presents the fairy tale as a genre capable up reaching the deepest trenches of the imagination, those trenches that are inaccessible to most people in society. He writes that The Happy Prince

is an attempt to treat a magic modern problem in a form that aims at delicacy and imaginative treatment: it is a reaction against the purely imitative character of modern art – and now that literature has taken to blowing loud trumpets I cannot but be pleased that some ear has cared to listen to the low music of a little reed.” – Letter to G.h. Kersley on the Happy Prince. (Kohl 51)

Notice that the actual short story definitely complies with this aim. What is so surprising about The Happy Prince is that at first, we are given the impression that we are about to delve in a very realistic story. Rich description is provided in terms of the prominence of the statue located above a tall column, and conversation is focused on the fact that children shouldn’t cry because the happy prince, a statue, doesn’t cry. This sense of realism suddenly takes a turn as the focus of the story shifts towards a Swallow and his infatuation with a reed. Notice that the reed, although personified, has no concrete method of expressing its desires in a way that a human or living creature can. The swallow is constantly mocked by its peers, seeing as the reed is unable to communicate with the bird, and seeing as it is presumed that the reed has nothing valuable to offer. The swallow, however, is able to look beyond what is expected from a typical communicative relationship, and learns how to approach the reed in a different fashion. The bird focuses on the rhetoric of the reed’s movements, as guided by the influence of the wind. The reed bows down to the bird as if accepting its courtship and the swallow keeps the reed company for a while. The swallow even goes as far as to describe the reed as flirty or as a coquette, interpreting its subtle swaying as an act of seduction. What is clear here is that the swallow is open to a language that is not directly interpretable by the other birds that surround him, which in due course not only demonstrates the sensitivity that the bird possesses, but also its openness to listen to the voices of those who cannot speak.

This obviously resonates with ideals that Wilde was trying to promote at the time; indeed, with his active experimentation with homosexuality during the crafting of the Happy Prince and Other Fairy Tales, many of the messages within these stories seem to give voice to the Other, while in turn, attuning people’s ears to the sound that the metaphorical reed makes. But it is also uncanny that the story alludes to the voice of the child: one of the most ignored and snubbed voices within culture and society. Indeed, there is definitely a resemblance between the Swallow and the child, seeing as both are able to hear and see things that are disregarded by adults due to their experience and their embracing of cultural restraints. Children definitely embrace imaginative treatment while adults, especially within Victorian times, tended to reject it. The correlation between the child and the animal is indeed a common parallel within children’s literature. As Sue Walsh points out in her essay “Child/Animal: It’s the Real Thing,” both the child and the animal allow one to frame and express ideas about human identity more than any other idea, and this is because both concepts engage in a similar discourse that avoids any sense of mastery. In other words, although one can presumably write about children and animals, one could never fully master what the concept of animal or child means. This makes the use of these concepts especially useful for infusing one’s own ideologies and beliefs within a text.

It is obvious that both children and animals are central figures within Wilde’s tales. Not only is an animal one of the central figures within The Happy Prince, but they are also central in his tale known as The Star-Child, in which animals are first mistreated and ignored by the beautiful child, but then they become key towards the star-child’s salvation (recall that it is the rabbit that helps him find the different colored pieces of gold). This sense of leveling between the adult, the child, and the animal seems to portray a utopian ideal within Wilde’s tales, an ideal that may even be deemed socialist or Marxist, especially when taking into account Wilde’s values and ideas—recall that Wilde is, after all, the author of a 1891 essay titled “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” which approaches capitalism as a disease that suppresses the soul and prevents individuals from discovering their true talents. It would be unwise to ignore how influential egalitarianism is in all of the tales that we have read for today’s class: The Star-Child ultimately roots for a sense of cohesion between beggars and royals, implying that inherently, there is no essential difference between the two. The story, as I already mentioned, also strives to smooth the differences between humans and animals. The Selfish Giant invokes the values of compassion to demonstrate that those with property should be willing to share said property with individuals who do not possess the same amount of power or ownership. Even in The Happy Prince, we observe that wealth is being distributed to those who are in need of capital in order for their talents to thrive. The Marxist undertones of the stories seem to be blatantly obvious to the experienced adult reader, but we must question whether this notion of capital inequality would be apparent to a child. Norbert Kohl, in his discussion of selfishness and selflessness in his book titled Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel, points out that in due course, reading the fairy tales alongside to Marxist theory might be a bit far-fetched, seeing as

the socialism inherent in his gentle fairy-tale seems far more geared to aesthetic effect than to political propaganda. If these tales are indeed ‘wry pieces of social and moral commentary’, as one critic suggests, then it must be said that the commentary contains little insight into or analysis of the social causes and effects of poverty. (54)

When it comes down to it, we must admit that even when writing in one of the most didactic and pragmatic genres within the literary realm, Wilde could still find a way to ensure that his textual creations would aspire to be not only instructive, but above all, artistic. The four fairy tales that we read for today’s class, for instance, use a high style of language that exceeds the very basic vocabulary that usually predominates in children’s texts. Notice, for instance, how the giant in Wilde’s tale, The Selfish Giant, expresses sorrow and regret when he realizes that Spring has not arrived due to his self-centeredness: “How selfish I have been!” he said; “now I know why the Spring would not come here. I will put that poor little boy on the top of the tree, and then I will knock down the wall, and my garden shall be the children’s playground for ever and ever.” An adult reader would clearly see that the giant felt regret for his actions, as is implied by his desire to help the young boy up the tree as a retribution for the wrongs he committed.

However, true to the fashion of the fairy tale genre, Wilde peppers his prose with overt and obvious statements that reinforce the lesson inherent within the text. The giant’s proclamation, for instance, is followed by a declaration stating that “He was really very sorry for what he had done.” But the complexity of language in Wilde’s fairy tales does not stop there. Kohl, for instance, remarks that Wilde’s fairy tales are adorned with everything from archaic and biblical phrases, personifications, and elaborate descriptions, all which enhance the artistic value within the tales (56). Elizabeth Goodenough, in her discussion titled “Oscar Wilde, Victorian Fairy Tales, and the Meanings of Atonement,” posits that this use of various stylistic registers within his fairy tales are actually employed to destabilize the “Victorian pathos of broken hearts and the cult of dying children,” focusing on miserable and illustrative “portrayals of expiation and renunciation, failure and death” (340). And while I personally agree that the medley of voices, registers, and allusions serve to cement the validity of the values present within the tales, let us not forget that Wilde was overly sensitive to issues of audience and the reception of his work, as evidenced by the lengthy responses he would write when receiving critical backlash. When it comes down to it, fairy tales are usually written with a child audience in mind, but it is usually an adult who ultimately serves as the decoder of the written word. Fairy tales are notorious for being dubbed as bed-time stories, and the fairy tale itself comes from an extremely oral tradition. Although the stories are written for children, Wilde definitely wanted to entertain and perhaps allude to the aesthetic sensibilities of the adult who reads the text out loud to the child. I would undoubtedly argue that Wilde was a vivid precursor to what I will dub, thanks in part to a conversation I had with Ana Jimenez, the Shrek effect—alluding to the 2001 Dreamworks film that is in essence a children’s movie that subtly but constantly portrays content that only a person with an adult mindset would and could appreciate. This is turn allows adults to take part with, and fully enjoy, a discourse primarily targeted towards a younger audience.

Indeed, this notion of using a children’s text to allude to the sensibilities of an adult may be approached as another way in which multiple or unheard voices are amplified, but let us not forget the subversive nature of this sense of duality. During the time Wilde was writing fairy tales, this genre was undergoing radical transformations in terms of its aims and purpose. As Jack Zipes points out in his book Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion:

No longer was the fairy tale to be like the mirror, mirror on the wall reflecting the cosmetic bourgeois standards of beauty and virtue that appeared to be unadulterated and pure. The fairy tale and the mirror cracked into sharp-edged, radical parts by the end of the nineteenth century. (107)

We can arguably say that with his fairy tales, Wilde not only cracked the mirror, but he ultimately shattered it. Wilde refused to fully embrace the concept of “happily ever after” with his tales, and he clearly twisted and contorted the tale in order to not only challenge his readers, but in order to highlight ideas and discourses that are marginalized and ignored. The Happy Prince portrays the death of a swallow that gave its life for a greater good. Although we may view the swallow as a scapegoat that sacrificed itself to subdue the tensions that permeated its environment, and although the swallow and the prince’s heart were chosen as the most precious things in the city, notice that the social problem was not entirely fixed: the statue of the prince will simply be replaced by another icon. In The Star-Child, the protagonist finds atonement and redemption and becomes a ruler that governs his land with the values of kindness and charity in mind, but his hardships lead him to die within three years, and he is replaced by an evil ruler. As a matter of fact, The Star-Child is even more subversive than we may initially deem, because as Zipes brilliantly pointed out, this tale is a deliberate subversion of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, where the theme of beauty is inversed in order to challenge its value in contemporary society. As Zipes points out:

Whereas Andersen sees beauty as connected to the duckling’s outward grace as a swan and subservience to the aristocracy of the swans, Wilde’s ideological position implicitly mocked Andersen while presenting a more complex notion of beauty. (125)

But rather than being subversive for the sake of simply being subversive, Wilde’s twists and turns not only highlight the hypocrisies of his society, but they also aim to shed light on figures, people, and ideas that are shadowed by powers such as capitalism, greed, and corruption—and both the powered and the powerless have a say in Wilde’s tales. The beautiful and the ugly have a voice. The poor and the rich have a voice. Even the big and the small can be heard.

Throughout my reading on Wilde’s tales, I encountered an argument posited by the aforementioned Elizabeth Goodenough that not only sparked emotion and insight, but it ultimately influenced the title and focus of this presentation:

The poignant and satiric tonalities of the tales […] sound a dual audience. They invert the logic of [the] premature little adults and the Victorian morbidity of gazing on childish pain by registering a childlike responsiveness to the feelings of others, a compelling lyric to which adults are tone deaf. (349)

A childlike responsiveness to feeling that adults ultimately cannot hear… it’s clearly there. I guess the question is: when are we going to start listening? When it comes down to it, Oscar Wilde’s tales, and ostensibly children’s literature in general, are no different to the melody of the reed. Indeed, they emit lyricism, a language, and arguably, a discourse, but it is quite easy for all of these to go by unperceived by the metaphorical, and at times literal adult ear. Ultimately, Wilde’s tales are in essence pleas towards hearing the subtle whispers of culture and society… of giving voice to the mute and the unspeakable. Wilde’s tales even served the purpose of giving a voice to the side of his personality that people were unwilling to perceive at the time, as argued by Kohl: “In the tales, Wilde was unburdened by the role the public expected him to play, and also by his own need to represent himself as a wit and a clever but moral outsider, and so he was quite free to tell his stories and to reveal another side of his character, that is, his conventional morality” (61). Through amplification as facilitated through subversion, through language, through art, and yes, believe it or not, through pragmatics, Wilde’s fairy tales transform the faint whispers of the burdened, the poor, the animal, the child, the homosexual, the ugly, the marginalized, the dreamer, and the artist into a piercing scream. He transcends children’s literature into everyone’s literature. And like most of the children’s texts that I’ve encountered, Wilde’s screams are ones that are simply unforgettable.

Now that’s what I call art.

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The following post was a paper presentation that I prepared for a doctoral course that I am taking this semester titled “Wilde and Synge: Art as Subversion.” I am planning to continue developing this paper into a publishable article, so any and all feedback is definitely welcome!

Fear

On Uncertainty and Fear

When I took a survey of early English literature as an undergrad, I inevitably had to tackle a text that virtually every English major is bound to encounter during their studies: Beowulf. During our discussion of the text, my professor and friend, Dr. Nickolas Haydock, asked us why the text’s infamous creature (Grendel) instilled so much fear to other characters within the text, and presumably, to the reader. After much debate and speculation, Dr. Haydock looked at us with a stern face and said: “Grendel instills fear because so little is known about him.”

Prior to that moment, I never really approached fear as a lack of knowledge. However, something within that idea resonated within me, perhaps because it alludes to a simple and indisputable truth: we all fear the unknown, and when we are forced to confront it, inner chaos and turmoil ensue. When something can be explained or understood, it loses its capacity to frighten and to stir negative emotions.

I think horror movies are a good example of this notion. For instance, John Carpenter’s 1978 movie Halloween scared millions of viewers, not only because it included the obvious thrills and scares, but also because the movie’s villain–the one and only Michael Myers– remains a mystery. Why was he troubled? What was his motive to kill? We are never offered answers to these questions. Michael Myers could ostensibly be anyone. Fast-forward to 2007, a year in which Rob Zombie re-imagined the film and gave Michael Myers a back-story and the motive. The sense of enigma that electrified the fear in the original movie became nothing but an undetectable spark in the remake.

I invoked the notion of fear for a reason. Sure, Halloween is just around the corner and mischief is in the air, but I encountered fear distilled through an unexpected source: Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Sure, we encounter fear that is portrayed in a typical fashion–we are unaware of what is going on throughout the development of the plot, we are unable to explain the strange occurrences happening within the San Dominick, and we encounter a strange, seemingly symbiotic relationship between a white Spanish captain and a “meek” African slave. But the novella as a whole invoked another sense of fear: the fear of uncertainty.

This text was extremely slow, especially when considering that it is in essence a maritime narrative. However, towards the end, I expected a payoff for my efforts–I expected all the pieces to fit together. And  things definitely made more sense with the “grand reveal,” or should I say, with the “removal of the canvas.” But even though the pieces are put together, I am still left in the dark, and I am unable to envision the entire picture. Benito Cereno continues to be bizarre and nonsensical. It refuses to fit itself in a mold, and it refuses to provide direct and concrete answers.

What makes Benito Cereno so fearful is its ambiguity–its refusal to be explained, especially when approaching the issue of race. The more I think I come closer to determining the meaning and the root of the racial tensions in the novella, the less I become certain with my convictions. Race in American 19th Century literature is indeed a provoking ambiguity, especially when focusing on race as an empancipatory dialectic. I think this definitely became clear as I paid attention to a course discussion on Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Do we want to claim that the elimination of the interracial couple from the novel’s equation was an affirmation of Cooper’s racism, or do we want to view it as an emancipatory affirmation? Consider how this notion becomes polemical when we realize that Cooper puts so much effort into infusing exorbitant amounts of pathos into these two doomed characters.

I think a similar issue manifests within Benito Cereno, but the voltage of this issue is increased tenfold. We see a reversal of the white owner – black slave binary, and Melville depicts a “world” in which the white slave succumbs to the wishes of the black master. And indeed, I think it is easy for some readers to find the actions of the slaves questionable, manipulative and revolting. After all, they successfully managed to overthrow the Spanish colonists and turn the remaining survivors into puppets. I can only begin to imagine how one of Melville’s contemporary readers would’ve approached the topic: they either would’ve been shocked or completely disgusted. But is something worthwhile achieved by shocking the audience? Will it lead them to realize that the actions of these slaves are no different to the actions committed by white slave masters?

I think it’s easier for today’s readers to feel much more sympathy for the enslaved Africans (I certainly did). After all, they were taken against their will from their homeland in order to attend to the needs of someone from a different racial and cultural background. Talk about abuses of power! Modern readers would probably view the slaves’ actions as completely justifiable and Karmic.

But, to justify their actions is to justify murder, is it not? Perhaps both the white Spaniards and the slaves should be scrutinized critically, but then again, wasn’t it the Spaniards who ripped out the African natives from their homeland in the first place? What we are observing here is a struggle between power and blame, and it’s interesting to see how power circulates through the members of the San Dominick in an almost Foulcaudian fashion. I know that we now live in the time where the notion of the “death of the author” predominates, and that a once a text is circulated, it no longer belongs to its writer. However, I can’t help but speculate what Melville’s views towards race were, and what conceptions of race he was trying to project in the narrative. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to pin this down.

I think that this difficulty is due mostly to the metamorphosing depiction of both races throughout the progression of the novella. At first, Melville seems to depict both whites and blacks in a very egalitarian fashion:

While left alone with them, he was not long in observing some things tending to heighten his first impressions; but surprise was lost in pity, both for the Spaniards and blacks, alike evidently reduced from scarcity of water and provisions; while long-continued suffering seemed to have brought out the less good-natured qualities of the negroes, besides, at the same time, impairing the Spaniard’s authority over them. But under the circumstances, precisely this condition of things was to have been anticipated. In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery. (170)

Notice that the lack of provisions and of material necessities such as food as put both blacks and whites on the same level: misery and suffering provides a bind that makes them equal. On that boat, they are all beings capable of suffering. Misery in this ship leads blacks to increase power while causing whites to lose it. But notice as well that Melville clearly depicts this leveling between the slaves and the Spaniards as a natural disorder–a parody of how things should “naturally” be. Is Melville trying to be satirical? Is he trying to be emancipatory? Is he critical? Or is he simply embracing the attitudes predominant during the time? It’s nearly impossible to tell… it seems to be deliberately ambiguous. This sense of uncertainty is simply frightening.

The ambiguity of race attitudes is manifested in other parts of the novella as well, particularly in the instance in which Captain Delano witnesses one of the oakum-pickers striking a Spanish boy with a knife simply because he did not like a word that this boy used. Once again, the act can indeed be interpreted as transgressive, but is this any different from the way slaves were typically treated by whites? Captain Delano is obviously appalled with this occurrence: “Had such a thing happened on board the Bachelor’s Delight, instant punishment would have followed” (180). However, we see that Benito Cereno approaches the event with a degree of nonchalance, stating that the action “was merely the sport of the lad” (180). Indeed, I thought at first that Melville was once again peppering the narrative with hints of egalitarianism: whites deserve to be treated equally to how the slaves are treated. But this sense of equality ultimately becomes moot when we figure out that Cereno was making no big deal of the situation because the slaves threatened him. What I first thought was liberation was actually the exertion of power disguised as goodwill.

I fear that there is no solution to how Melville approached the creation of Benito Cereno, and the purpose behind its crafting will forever be unknowable. That is the fallacy of speculation: it’s simply difficult to reach a solid conclusion. Not knowing is indeed uncomfortable… but it is precisely this invocation of fear that leads to critical thinking. What answers or insights are provided by the act of NOT knowing? Even more importantly, are knowing and not knowing binary constructs, or is there something in between these two concepts that we are unable to see? Isn’t that an ultimate manifestation of the fear of the unknown… that the knowledge we use to interpret the world prevents us from finding or even being able to perceive gray areas?

Perhaps Melville didn’t have an exact purpose when it came to race. Perhaps he simply wanted to confuse us. Perhaps he wanted us to struggle in a way that he struggled in his own life. I think it is safe to say that the unknown definitely frightened Melville, and in due course, it made him miserable. With that in mind, it is no wonder that this story relaxes “good order.”

References:

Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales by Herman Melville

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net