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7.3 Finding a Historical Topic: Paige Caulum’s Melville’s “Benito Cereno”

Paige is a student in an Introduction to Literature class. She’s preparing to write her final research paper for the class, and she’s interested in writing about Herman Melville’s short story “Benito Cereno,” which she read earlier in the semester.Herman Melville, “Benito Cereno,” Putnam’s Monthly 6, no. 34 (October 1855): 353–67, Making of America Collection, Cornell University Library,;cc=putn;rgn= full%20text;idno=putn0006-4;didno=putn0006-4;view=image;seq=0359;nodepu tn0006-4%253A4.

Your Process

  1. As we’ve suggested throughout this text, these process descriptions will make more sense if you’ve read the literary work under discussion. For this section, you should read Herman Melville’s 1855 short story, “Benito Cereno.” Our discussion of student research and writing will reveal important plot details that you may want to discover on your own first. Melville first published the story serially, in three parts, in Putnam’s Monthly. You can read it just as Melville’s readers did via the following links:

  2. As you read, make note of anything that seems historically interesting: references to names, dates, events, customs, and so forth.

Though written in 1855, “Benito Cereno” is set in 1799. The story focuses on Captain Amasa Delano, whose ship, the Bachelor’s Delight, encounters the Spanish slave ship San Dominick near an island off the coast of Chile. The story is, in many ways, a detective story, as Captain Delano attempts to decipher the strange behavior of the San Dominick’s crew, the enslaved Africans, and the ship’s captain, Benito Cereno. The story culminates in a dramatic moment of violence that reveals to Delano that the Africans are actually in charge of the ship. The Spanish sailors, Delano realizes, have been acting their “rightful” parts on threat of death from the former slaves, who hope Delano will leave while still unaware of their mutiny. Let’s look at Paige’s process to see how she develops a working thesisA thesis is the major claim of your paper: a specific, debatable point that you seek to demonstrate about the work you are studying. Your working thesis is part of the writing process; it’s your initial hunch about the work that allows you to begin the process of research and writing. The working thesis is usually revised and refined through the writing process.—an early idea about what she might use as her claim for the essay—about Melville’s story.

Paige’s Process

  1. Paige knows that the publication date of the story is important, so she does some preliminary research to identify the important issues that were confronting America specifically and the world generally during the 1850s. In other words, Paige considers that “Benito Cereno” may be engaging in some form of cultural debate or discussion.
  2. Paige then does a background investigation of Herman Melville; she finds biographical material helpful.
  3. After her initial inquiries, Paige thinks that her paper will focus on the historical issue of slavery in the story, for “Benito Cereno” can be read as a meditation on slavery’s injustices. Paige discovers that Melville was an abolitionist and that critics interpret “Benito Cereno” as Melville’s warning to his fellow citizens about the devastating—and potentially bloody—consequences that could follow should the United States continue to allow slavery. Many scholars, Paige uncovers, believe that Melville based his story on the Amistad case (, settled in 1841 by the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Africans who rebelled against and killed their captors.“Teaching with Documents: The Amistad Case,” United States National Archives, On the other hand, in Melville’s story the rebel slaves are not vindicated; in fact, they are executed for their actions against the crew of the San Dominick.
  4. Paige is interested in exploring these tensions further. She hopes that some historical research can help her understand the complex messages about race and slavery in Melville’s “Benito Cereno.”
  5. Before doing significant research, however, Paige develops a working thesis that will help her make sense of her early research:

Working Thesis

Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’ can be understood as a political commentary on the potential consequences of slavery for the United States.

This working claim is very broad: a reader would certainly ask, “Understood by whom?” “What potential consequences?” and “What kind of commentary?” However, this broad claim gives Paige a starting point. She has isolated a few key terms that she will use as she begins to research the topic further.