Melville Assignment

In the Melville Assignment, you were asked to consider an history of the United States and an idea called “Manifest Destiny.” You were asked to think about that history and its potential relationship to Herman Melville’s short story, “Benito Cereno.” Then, you were asked to consider Melville’s contemporary, Walt Whitman, and his poem, “Pioneers! Oh Pioneers!” and how it might say something different about manifest destiny.

You’ll remember from “Reading Like a New Historicist” that it is important to do research when practicing New Historical criticism. Well, for this assignment, the video on US history and Manifest Destiny is your research. What do the videos tell you about the United States, its consciousness, belief systems, ideologies, conflicts, and contradictions? How does that inform Melville’s story? How does that inform Whitman’s poem?

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Be sure to create your own post and respond to at least two other posts. When responding, work to be an historical critic. How has your classmate interpreted the history? How did your classmate interpret the literature? Did they responsibly treat the materials? How does their interpretation inform support, change, or challenge your own?

Your initial post must be 75-100 words


Manifest destiny was a term coined by a newspaper editor named John O’Sullivan in the mid-nineteenth century. It was based on the belief that white Americans were destined to conquer entire North America, which meant ousting out of the original native dwellers of the regions. The Americans believed they were doing God’s work by spreading democracy and capitalism across the continent. The continued expansion of territories created new neighboring enemies, which eventually led to the civil war, which threatened the entire continent with anarchy. Manifest Destiny had religious origins. The entire idea was not only based on greed and racism but also a divine belief that God had commanded it in the words of the historian Conrad Cherry, “America is a nation called to a special destiny by God” (Scott 2019). While the Spanish and the French believed that their duty was to spread Christianity as commanded by Jesus, the British, especially the New England Puritans, “carried with them a demanding sense of Providential purpose” (Scott 2019). The idea was to occupy ‘from sea to shining sea’ as a rationale used for the United States to extend its boundaries all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The concept of Manifest Destiny is reflected in Benito Cereno by Herman Melville and Pioneers! Oh Pioneers! A poem by Walt Whitman. Researchers to Meville’s work believe that Benito Cereno is “patronizing, or contemptuous of blacks and/or slavery” owing to the fact that to the Europeans, blacks were nothing but resources towards the accomplishment of Manifest Destiny (Robbins 1997). In Walt’s poem, he speaks of ‘tan-faced’ children whom he orders to prepare for war, agriculture, and mining, all the main activities of the newcomers to America in the 16th and 17th centuries. War was with the Native Americans, farming and mining is a reference to the colonization of the land. The entire belief of Manifest Destiny was compromised and contradictory because as a divine calling, God would not have ordered the extermination of the rest of his own creation, nor does he support capitalism anywhere in the Bible.


Robbins, S. (1997). Gendering the History of the Antislavery Narrative: Juxtaposing” Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and” Benito Cereno, ” Beloved” and” Middle Passage.” American Quarterly49(3), 531-573.

Scott, Donald M. “The Religious Origins of Manifest Destiny.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. Retrieved on 27th November 2020 from










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