This is “Finding Historical Evidence: Melville’s “Benito Cereno””, section 7.4 from the book Creating Literary Analysis (v. 1.0).
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Now that Paige has a topic, she needs to begin researching it to find evidenceEvidence consists of incontestable facts (at least for the purposes of your argument) that lend concrete support for your thesis and claims. In literary studies, evidence often consists of quotations from primary and secondary texts. that she can use to develop and support her claims. Most historical claims require two kinds of evidence. Primary sourcesPrimary sources are literary or nonliterary texts from the period under study. In literary studies, stories, poems, and plays are primary sources, as are other historical documents such as letters, essays, sermons, and autobiographies. are texts—literary or nonliterary—from the historical period being studied. When you’re writing about literature, your literary texts are usually primary sources. Paige is writing about American culture just before the Civil War, and so she can consider “Benito Cereno”—which was written in 1855—a primary text. Paige knows that she needs more primary texts to help her understand the complex treatment of slavery in “Benito Cereno.” She must read the short story in parallel with contemporary texts that discuss similar subjects. She decides to look for other texts about slavery in several digital archives. A good researcher, however, will make certain that he or she has investigated what other scholars have written on a particular topic. In order to help her make better sense of her primary sources, she next turns to the ideas of other modern scholars. Books and articles written by scholars about a particular literary work, historical period, or other academic topic are referred to as secondary sourcesSecondary sources are books and articles written by scholars about a particular literary work, historical period, or other academic topic..
Archival researchArchival research involves visiting collections of primary texts stored either physically in libraries or online in digital archives. involves visiting collections of primary texts. Sometimes these collections are stored physically in libraries. Scholars interested in these materials must travel to the archives that hold them. If you’re a student in California and are interested in William Faulkner, for instance, you’d have to travel to the University of Mississippi or the University of Virginia to see many of Faulkner’s papers. Though special collections like these are accessible only to a small group of faculty and students (mostly those at larger research universities), this type of research has been the basis of most historical literary criticism. Increasingly, however, primary sources can be found in extensive—and often freely available—digital archivesDigital archives are collections of primary or secondary sources stored in electronic databases.. Today, literary scholars and students at all types of schools have access to a wealth of primary historical sources, including magazines, newspapers, out-of-print novels, artworks, and much more.
As she continues her research, she is especially interested in digital archives. She finds an important research source: Cornell University’s Making of America Collection (http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/m/moa), a free archive of primary materials from the nineteenth century.Making of America Collection, Cornell University Library, http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/m/moa. When she first visits the collection, she searches for “slave.” This search returns 21,319 matches: far too many for Paige to investigate for this paper. Searching in digital archives can be tricky. When a search term is too broad, like Paige’s, then it will result in too many primary sources. If a scholar’s search terms are too precise, she might not find anything using them. When Paige searches Making of America for the term “slave revolt,” for instance, nothing matches. This isn’t because none of the sources there discuss slaves rebelling against their masters, but because none happen to use that exact term to describe those rebellions.
Good historical research requires a mixture of precise and broad inquiries. When “slave” returned 21,319 hits, Paige knew she needed to hone her search terms. When “slave revolt” returned none, she also knew to try other combinations, to keep experimenting until she found a set of results she could manage. Good historical research also requires scholarly flexibility. Often claims must be reconsidered, adjusted, or entirely revised in light of the primary evidence the scholar uncovers. Writing well about history requires that a scholar’s claims follow from the evidence; historical criticism suffers when scholars pick and choose only the evidence that fits the claims they want to make.
Revised Working Thesis
An examination of the American attitude of Manifest Destiny during the 1850s and the factual event that Melville based his story after allows for an understanding of “Benito Cereno” as a political commentary on the effects of America’s perceptions of itself on its relationship with other nations.