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American Literature's Aesthetic Dimensions$
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Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780231156172

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231156172.001.0001

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Reading in the Present Tense

Reading in the Present Tense

Benito Cereno and the Time of Reading

Chapter:
(p.219) [10] Reading in the Present Tense
Source:
American Literature's Aesthetic Dimensions
Author(s):

Trish Loughran

Publisher:
Columbia University Press
DOI:10.7312/columbia/9780231156172.003.0010

This chapter considers the long historical reception of Herman Melville's Benito Cereno first as a theoretical problem across time (giving special attention to a remarkable number of presentist or present-tense readings of the text) and then as a more local matter in Melville's own moment. It starts with the presentist reception of the novella for two reasons: first, because Benito Cereno has generated, over time, a remarkably high number of historically unhinged readings and, second, because critical presentism has become one of the signal gestures of our own contemporary practice in American studies. Thus, we might say that the chapter is not exempt from the presentist gesture it describes, but it is going to try to think about it and theorize it as something that has a distinct origin, in this case, in the story itself and in the world in which Melville lived—and wrote. In the end, the chapter is an experiment in how to think about aesthetic reception in ways that are both theoretical and materialist at once.

Keywords:   Herman Melville, Benito Cereno, presentism, aesthetics

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