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Abstract

This essay won the 2005 Literature Compass Graduate Essay Prize, American Section.

This essay on Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (1856) examines the author’s views on savagery not merely as ethnic composition but as a progression through the performative to become a product of language itself. Thus, locating the savage becomes less a task of highlighting cultural otherness than examining how one writes and speaks about the primitive. In Benito Cereno, Melville liberates the discourse of civilized versus savage from what today would be considered a strictly post-Colonial model – one which seems to fit Melville’s own encounters with the cultural outsider as documented in his early works Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and Mardi (1849) – and places it in a linguistic sphere. Melville therefore introduces us to a savagery writ so large that only a system of signs becomes large enough to contain it. The critical figure in Benito Cereno is Babo, the mastermind behind a play of such monstrous proportions that even the reader becomes a savage actor in his infernal drama.