This is “Finding a Historical Topic: Paige Caulum’s Melville’s “Benito Cereno””, section 7.3 from the book Creating Literary Analysis (v. 1.0).
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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, http://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=putn;cc=putn;rgn= full%20text;idno=putn0006-4;didno=putn0006-4;view=image;seq=0359;nodepu tn0006-4%253A4.
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:
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.
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.