In this course we will read “Benito Cereno” (pub. 1855) and “Billy Budd” (written 1891), tales of a ghostly Spanish galleon and an English man-of-war.
The first novella describes a mysterious and frightening hall-of-mirrors of slave and master aboard a floating wreck. When an American whaler offers aid, the reader sees the following action through the American Captain Delano’s eyes, limiting true vision because of his culturally conditioned benign racism. Violence begins, and his vision clears. He cries, “Slavery breeds ugly passions in man!” Our Civil War was upon us five years later.
“Billy Budd” tells the story of an impressed seaman, his murder of an officer, the following drumhead court-martial, conviction, and execution of said sailor. But the novella is so much more: this is the tale of innocence foredoomed by black malice, this time serviced by the application of navy justice. Bafflement, stress, and pain last to the end, since this tale presents original sin according to Melville’s agnosticism. We see the hero ascend to heaven as he dies. His mates, long after, always remember him at the bottom of the ocean.
Note will be taken of Melville’s writing: vivid, allusive, full of resonances from his wide reading — mythic, and universal in scope. All of this is present in “Billy Budd,” his last work of fiction.
Instructor Geoffrey Robinson earned his B.A. and M.A. in English Literature from Yale University. He has taught in secondary schools in Connecticut; at Maarif College in Samsun, Turkey; and at the Penobscot Language School in Rockland, Maine. Geoffrey has also spent 25 years as a dealer in paintings, specializing in 19th- and 20th-century European and American art.