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7.5 Testing and Refining Your Historical Claim

Paige now has an interesting idea for her paper. But she also realizes that she needs some feedback from her instructor as this stage. She submits her revised thesis and outline and receives positive comments about the topic, but a more specific challenge: “Your working claim seems too descriptive of your topic. What kind of ‘political commentary’ was Melville making in the story? What do you mean by America’s perceptions of itself? Of other nations? In other words, you can make a more critical claim about Melville’s political commentary.”

Revised Working Thesis 2: The Introductory Paragraph

Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, published in 1855, offers a profound look into the political consciousness of the 1850s. While most critics regard Benito Cereno as a political text mostly for its satirical perspective on America’s use of black slaves, Melville’s story also presents a profound insight into 1850s American self-image in relation to the rest of the world. Specifically, Melville’s construction of the characters of American Captain Amasa Delano and Spanish Don Benito Cereno, and the relationship between them, acts as a way to reflect and comment upon American society of the 1850s. Furthermore, Melville’s adaptation of the plot and characters of Benito Cereno from an actual event demonstrates his interest in current events and politics as motivation for his writing. Without an understanding of the historical events and attitudes of 1850s America, particularly the American belief in Manifest Destiny, readers may miss the chance to read Melville’s work as a political commentary on American society. As a result, it is important to understand the historical events and American attitudes surrounding the publication of Benito Cereno in order to understand Melville’s analysis of American society within his text. An examination of the American attitude of Manifest Destiny during the 1850s and the factual event that Melville based his story on allows for an understanding of Melville’s Benito Cereno as a political commentary on the hypocrisy of America’s domestic and foreign policies.

Paige now turns from her research and back toward her paper. She expands her working claim just a bit, but enough to make a claim that requires demonstration (see Chapter 1 "Introduction: What Is Literary Theory and Why Should I Care?" for more on thesis claims and introductory paragraphs). She will argue that Melville depicts the hypocrisy of America’s attitudes toward Manifest Destiny in light of its continued practice of slavery. She now is ready to begin more intensive research and begin drafting her paper.

By combining the insights of scholars with primary historical evidence, Paige can begin to build a thick description of Manifest Destiny in “Benito Cereno.” “Thick description” is a term historicist literary scholars adopted from anthropology. A thick description focuses on very specific textual details and explains those details by showing how they reflect, demonstrate, or challenge the text’s culture. A good thick description juxtaposes religious, social, political, or other historical texts with quotes from the literary text and shows how the literary text being studied can be understood within the larger web of its historical moment. In many ways, a thick description is a close reading with a twist: historical details, rather than the writer’s own ideas alone, are used to understand the text. In Paige’s case, she focuses on textual moments that speak to the idea of American exceptionalism, and she contextualizes those literary details by juxtaposing them with the political essays she found in Putnam’s Magazine and the Democratic Review. Her final paper convincingly describes some of the social ideas that underlay the political ideology of “Benito Cereno” and gives readers a new way to think about the text—a way, coincidentally, that expands our understanding of the story’s political message beyond the binaries of slavery and abolition.