Cannibals ate my title : or, Melville's white cannibalism and the laboring body
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In Herman Melville’s first novel Typee, he creates a culture of Polynesian cannibals as decidedly more civilized than the comparatively “savage” American missionaries. This report examines Melville’s use of cannibalism as a central metaphor beyond Typee and throughout his works, spanning both time and genre, to complicate U.S. American capitalism and slavery. Melville illustrates how a body’s potential for labor determines its use value to an exploitative extent in which man-eating and laboring become practices that mirror each other and, in conversation, self-destruct. This report traces how Melville expands the object of the cannibal from other to self, ultimately warning that the desires that underlie cannibalism eat at the nation until it consumes itself from the inside, “[feeding] upon the sullen paws of its gloom!” (M-D 131). Melville applies notions of the cannibal from Typee onto the laboring body in Moby-Dick, suggesting cannibalism as tangential to capitalism and wage labor. Melville later revises this association in the short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in which the laborer rejects capitalism and is left to feed on his own body. This preoccupation continues through Benito Cereno, in which slaves cannibalize their master and commandeer the slave ship. While his uses of cannibalism are often shrouded in wordplay and allusion, Melville develops a domestic cannibalism from Moby-Dick’s Ahab’s monomania through Benito Cereno’s Babo’s rage. Melville’s consistent use of cannibalism as a metaphor for self-destrucion adumbrates a career-long tendency to break down differences between the civilized and the savage, ultimately to reveal the United States’ manipulation of laboring bodies as cannibalism disguised.