Featured Faculty Publication

Prof. Jeannine DeLombard
"Salvaging Legal Personhood: Melville's Benito Cereno"
American Literature 81 (2009): 35-64
Accessible here


Prof. DeLombard's essay departs from previous legally oriented readings of Benito Cereno by foregrounding not the title character's mysterious deposition but the novella's hitherto neglected series of contracts in order to interpret Herman Melville's only sustained literary portrayal of slavery through contemporaneous changes in contract law. Surveying the numerous legal documents that accumulate within and between the novella and its source text, Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817), the essay compares contracts and testimony to demonstrate how, instead of corroborating the legal personhood of their agents, these amassed textual assertions of civil agency cumulatively deauthorize text and author alike. The insistent temporality of law (and with it, narrative) ensures that, rather than affirming autonomous selfhood, such legal and extralegal acts of testifying and contract making document its absence.

This essay won the Melville Society  Hennig Cohen Prize in 2010. The prize "honors excellence in scholarship and writing in an article or book chapter on Melville."

Professor DeLombard’s research examines transatlantic print culture at the multiple points where law, slavery, and citizenship intersect. Her forthcoming interdisciplinary monograph, In the Shadow of the Gallows: Race, Crime, and American Civic Identity  (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) serves as a prequel of sorts to her first bookSlavery on Trial: Law, Print, and Abolitionism (University of North Carolina Press 2007). A Faculty Research Fellowship at the University of Toronto’s Jackman Humanities Institute will allow her to devote the current academic year to a number of publishing projects, including her next book, Ebony Idols & Blackened Reputations: Famous Fugitives, Privacy, and the Transformation of American Civic Identity. 

The 2010-11 Dornsife Fellow at the Huntington Library and 2007 NEH Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, Professor DeLombard has also held recent fellowships at Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Centre, the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture, and the Library Company of Philadelphia. Since 2003, her work has received generous support from three SSHRC Standard Research Grants. 

Professor DeLombard serves on the editorial board of American Literature. In 2009 she was elected lifetime member of the American Antiquarian Society.