Benito Cereno

The Demise of the 19th Century American Liberal: Representations in ”Benito Cereno” and Our Nig

For the abolitionists and intellectual opponents of slavery during the 19th century, fruitless sympathy from the “enlightened” liberals of northern states was simply not enough. In the literary works “Benito Cereno” and Our Nig, authors Herman Meville and Harriet E. Wilson argue that sentimental sympathy towards racial injustices does not necessarily translate into social amelioration. In both accounts, Melville and Wilson employ characters with embedded stereotypes to demonstrate how such preconceptions can deter liberals from realizing the complexities of life. Naïve benevolence skewed reality, they claim, and thus was a detriment to the cause.

Melville and Wilson both approach the slavery issue as fundamentally wrong—this is a given—however, they are slow to credit liberals solely for “having their heart in the right place.” Unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose sentimental novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a deliberate attempt to make readers “feel” the right way about slavery, Melville and Wilson argue that the sentimental liberal response to slavery was as flawed as the system itself. “Benito Cereno” and Our Nig are works that attack liberal condescension and pity in order to make a statement that such an approach to the issue...

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