Date of Degree
English Language and Literature
The attempt to situate historically the connections between African blacks and the sea represents just one aspect of the broader effort to assess how the presence of blacks operated to determine the language, choices, representations, and directions of the narratives that Poe and Melville set at sea. What is proposed here is a rethinking of American sea fiction from the unique perspective of its racial dynamics, especially with regard to what Toni Morrison has called the "Black/Africanist presence" in American literature, a presence that she justifiably claims to have been silenced, degraded, and distorted in American criticism. This work examines the ways in which the sea was used by both Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville to frame their racial discourses and representations of the African blacks who clearly commanded the political, historical, and moral attention of both writers. Both writers recognized the "mythic" association of the sea (and ships) with concepts of freedom, and in their framing of black characters as human and symbolic embodiments of the "unfree" within this "open independence of the sea," both writers were able to dramatize a dialectical relationship between blacks/slavery and the sea itself.
Very little attention has been paid to the black characters and the black presence in Melville's works written between 1846 and 1851. But these are the very texts, I suggest, that make up the scaffolding upon which Melville constructed Benito Cereno, his 1855 masterpiece of slave insurrection at sea. Indeed, the half-dozen sea fictions that Melville wrote up to (and including) Moby-Dick set the stage, both literally and metaphorically, for the sea-masquerade and the dark racial-drama that Benito would later present. And it is these works–Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick–that, together with Poe's Pym, represent the focus of this study. For while Benito has attracted a massive critical response to its racial agendas and bold representations of blacks, there has been a grievous lack of serious attention paid to the same subjects in Melville's early novels.
deCataldo, Peter F., "Ghosts in the Machine: The Black/Africanist Presence in the Sea Novels of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville" (1998). CUNY Academic Works.