DeLombard's essay departs from previous legally oriented readings of Benito Cereno by foregrounding not the title character's mysterious deposition but the novella's hitherto neglected series of contracts in order to interpret Herman Melville's only sustained literary portrayal of slavery through contemporaneous changes in contract law. Surveying the numerous legal documents that accumulate within and between the novella and its source text, Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817), the essay compares contracts and testimony to demonstrate how, instead of corroborating the legal personhood of their agents, these amassed textual assertions of civil agency cumulatively deauthorize text and author alike. The insistent temporality of law (and with it, narrative) ensures that, rather than affirming autonomous selfhood, such legal and extralegal acts of testifying and contract making document its absence.
Skip Nav Destination
Jeannine Marie DeLombard; Salvaging Legal Personhood: Melville's Benito Cereno. American Literature 1 March 2009; 81 (1): 35–64. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2008-050
Download citation file: