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Jeff Selinger is reading...

Benito Cereno
by Herman Melville

Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” is a novella, a short novel. I read two of his novellas in high school (“Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Billy Budd, the Sailor”). A friend recommended “Benito Cereno” to me promising that it was a penetrating meditation on morality and slavery in 19th century America. He was right. It is about a Spanish slave-ship that is in distress when it is met by an American vessel from New England. The captain of the American vessel is forced to choose between protecting the captain of the Spanish ship and liberating the ship’s slaves. I can’t say much more about how the story unfolds without ruining it for the reader. But it should suffice to say that it is a trenchant critique of the racial prejudice harbored by those who claimed to abhor slavery. Melville reveals the complicity of Northerners in the perpetuation of slavery while chastising abolitionists who do not stay true to their convictions.

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