Sunday, February 28, 2010

African Culture and Melville's Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick.
By Sterling Stuckey.

New York: Oxford University Press, November 2009. Paper: ISBN: 0195372700, $27.95. 154 pages.

Review by Babacar M’Baye, Kent State University

American Culture and Melville’s Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick examines the relations between Melville’s aesthetics and African culture. While the critical literature about Melville is abundant, it usually eschews the significance of African traditions in the work of this complex American writer. American Culture and Melville’s Art focuses on three major books of Melville: Redburn: His First Voyage (1849), Moby-Dick (1851), and Benito Cereno (1855). According to Stuckey, interpreting these works’ relationships with African art will demonstrate that Melville was “a far more subtle and inventive writer than even the most fervent admirers” of these works “claim” (3-4).

Stuckey has always been interested in the connections between Africa and North America, as was apparent in the numerous times in which he hinted at them in his previous works such as Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundation of Black America (1987) and Going through the Storm: the Influence of African American Art in History (1994). For instance, while discussing the African influence in Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870), Stuckey suggests, in Slave Culture, Higginson’s fascination with the pervasive and ineradicable African-inflected “ring shout,” chants, rhythms, and feet and hand movements that blended with the Christianity of the Sea Island blacks during the Civil War (83-84). Discussing these Africanisms, Stuckey writes: “It should not surprise us that the same people constructed African huts in which they shouted and, as Higginson demonstrates in a passage that recalls Herman Melville’s Redburn, brought African sensibility to bear on Christianity” (84). A similar connection between Melville and African culture is apparent in Going through the Storm in which Stuckey reveals the ties between the African American folk figure Brer Rabbit and the character of Babo in Herman Melville’s 1855 tale Benito Cereno, whom he represents as a Senegalese. He writes: “The play of irony that informs Babo’s activities on board the San Dominick is precisely that adopted by Brer Rabbit in his African American expression . . . What is certain is that Babo is so much like Brer Rabbit that it is perfectly logical that he should have come from Senegal, a thriving center for tales of the African hare, Brer Rabbit’s ancestral model” (165).

Further connections between Melville and African traditions are also apparent in African Culture and Melville’s Art when Stuckey discussed how Melville’s knowledge of Africa mainly derived from the nineteenth-century philosophical and ideological scholarships about Africa that he read. In an attempt to refute the critic Edward Margolies’ argument that “Melville did not know blacks well” (37), Stuckey writes: “On the contrary, because he knew them well, Hegel was very useful as Melville imagined Don Benito’s dependence on Babo” (37). Stuckey continues: “Melville was almost waiting for Hegel to provide the philosophical terms for what he had long thought and espoused. Melville ties the slave trade to the wealth of England in Redburn, informing us that the wealth of Liverpool derived mainly from the slave trade, which underscore his command of the economics of master-slave relations” (37). As Stuckey argues, Melville’s knowledge of African culture is also evident in a passage in Benito Cereno in which a group of six enslaved Africans dance like “delirious black dervishes” (39). According to Stuckey, this example suggests “Melville’s recognition of abstruse aspects of Ashantee culture in [Captain] Delano’s account—the dance and music of the women” and “the best of his knowledge” of this culture (39).

Yet the strongest quality of Stuckey’s African Culture and Melville’s Art lies in the interdisciplinary methodology that he uses to suggest the links between Melville’s writings and Africa. This method is based on the use of the scholarship that might have influenced Melville before or as he was writing Moby-Dick, Redburn, and Benito Cereno. Drawing from this scholarship, which was usually and unarguably racist, Stuckey nonetheless shows its significance in the study of early African influences in early American writings which would have been difficult to corroborate without such historical documents. Two examples of such Africanisms appear in Stuckey’s analysis of Melville’s representations of non-Europeans in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick. Discussing Benito Cereno, Stuckey refers to the personae of Atufal, Babo’s lieutenant, whose characterization was influenced by Joseph Dupuis’s description of Ashantee warriors in his Journal of a Residence in Ashantee (1824). Stuckey writes: “As we know, the royal gold, in Melville’s hands, became Atufal’s iron. The ‘iron collar’ about Atufal’s neck was derived from Dupuis’s reference to [Ashantee] warriors ‘armed and equipped in their full military habits; some with iron chains suspended round the neck’” (47).

In a similar vein, Stuckey shows that Melville’s description of “the carvings of flesh from the backs and thighs of Africans in Redburn” was an image that was initially reported in Captain Amasa Delano’s book A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round the World; Together With a Voyage of Survey and Discovery, in the Pacific Ocean and Oriental Islands (37).

This book was first published in 1817 under the authorship of Amasa Delano, an American sea captain who was Born in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and served in the American Revolution as a soldier at fifteen and later as a “privateersman.” Stuckey includes this entire narrative in the last segment of African Culture and Melville’s Art, providing current scholars with an important text that can help to better understand the background that influenced Melville’s imagery of Africa in his writings, and his portrayal of the character of Captain Delano in Benito Cereno.

Additionally, Stuckey suggests the relations between Melville’s descriptions of the character of Atufal in Benito Cereno with his portrayal of the character of Daggoo in Moby-Dick. Stuckey writes: “Melville uses similar language in describing them—Atufal: ‘a gigantic black,’ ‘colossal form’; Daggo: ‘a gigantic, coal-black negro,’ ‘colossal limbs. . . . Daggoo’s ‘hearse-plumed head’ and Atufal’s death song, however, seal the argument” (48). By providing us with these parallels between Melville’s African and non-European characters, Stuckey suggests the strong impact of Africa in mid-nineteenth century American literary imagination. In this sense, African Culture and Melville’s Art compliments Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993), which also examines the representation of Africans in nineteenth-century American culture. In her book, Morrison explores the intricacies of White imagination of Blackness through her concept of “American Africanism,” that is, the study of the origins, literary uses, and constructions of the “African like (or Africanist) presence or persona” in the United States and “the imaginative uses this fabricated presence served” (6). In a similar vein, Stuckey explored the imagination of Africans in Melville’s writings and its derivation from the wider tradition of European ethnography of Africans that influenced it.

Another way in which Stuckey demonstrates the intricate relationships between Melville and Africa is through his analysis of the linkages between Moby-Dick and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas (1845). According to Stuckey, a major element in Douglas’s narrative is its allusion to slave dance and music that were heavily influenced by African traditions (82). As Stuckey suggests, the lyrics that Douglas heard on Colonel Lloyd’s Maryland plantation without largely referring to them were blues-like songs that “predated conventional spirituals” and “were difficult to grasp—perhaps owing to improvised, African-inflected song[s] intensified by the sheer agony of the slavery experienced” (82). As Stuckey points out, the shades of “sadness” and “joy” that Douglas reveals in the dance and music of the enslaved blacks might have influenced Melville’s representation of art in Moby-Dick (84). According to Stuckey, “Melville takes particular notice” of Douglas’s simultaneous expression of cheer and gloom in musical tones,” by “Using ‘gloomy,’ and ‘jolly’ as Douglas uses ‘sadness’ and ‘joy,’ to describe both music and the social condition that it reflects on the Pequod” (84). In this sense, Stuckey reveals the impact of both the slave narrative and African art in mid-nineteenth-century American literature.

Stuckey’s American Culture and Melville’s Art is a very important contribution to interdisciplinary scholarship because it establishes major connections between African culture and Melville’s Redburn: His First Voyage, Moby-Dick, and Benito Cereno. These influences demonstrate the pervasive imagination and representations of Africa in nineteenth-century American and European travel writings which provided Melville with the prism through which he learned about Africa. By considering these writings as vital historical and anthropological sources, Stuckey suggests the important role that interdisciplinary scholarships can have in the study of the relations between Africa and its parental cultures in the United States. As Stuckey points out, “the soul of the [American] nation is tied to that of black Africa” (82).

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