Observing that Herman Melville's most significant fictional addition to his source text for "Benito Cereno" (the San Dominick's skeleton figurehead) reverses the terms of a trope used in the "Agatha" letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne of 13 August 1852, this article proposes that the skeleton's role in the tale converts a perhaps frustrated attempt at professional identification with Hawthorne-detectable in the scheme of semi-collaboration broached by the letter-into a dismantling of the foundations of American identification, and of the identificatory lures involved in the processes of fiction-making and fiction-reading. Although there has been considerable focus on the narrative'smanipulation of identification (particularly the snare of Delano's perspective), critics have not provided an account of the ways in which its total fictional structure, organized around the skeleton figurehead, systematically alters the meaning of its white protagonists'- and its readers'-potential affiliations. My essay attributes critical reluctance to offer such an account to the persistence of a nineteenth-century faith in the autonomous value of "sympathy" as a political resource, and to a neglect, evident in more recent, historicist analyses, of the political work that fictional artifice performs. It traces the functions and implications of "Benito Cereno"'s skeleton through an exploration of the tale's reception history, showing this history to be comprised of a series of identificatory maneuvers which in seeking to complete or add "flesh" to the fiction, are parodied or compromised by its immanent "unbuilding" of plot and narrative teleology.
- 2006 by The Regents of the University of California