The Sign of the Cannibal

Melville and the Making of a Postcolonial Reader

The Sign of the Cannibal

New Americanists

More about this series

Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: 3 figures Published: August 1998

American Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In The Sign of the Cannibal Geoffrey Sanborn offers a major reassessment of the work of Herman Melville, a definitive history of the post-Enlightenment discourse on cannibalism, and a provocative contribution to postcolonial theory. These investigations not only explore mid–nineteenth century resistance to the colonial enterprise but argue that Melville, using the discourse on cannibalism to critique colonialism, contributed to the production of resistance.
Sanborn focuses on the representations of cannibalism in three of Melville’s key texts—Typee, Moby-Dick, and “Benito Cereno.” Drawing on accounts of Pacific voyages from two centuries and virtually the entire corpus of the post-Enlightenment discourse on cannibalism, he shows how Melville used his narratives to work through the ways in which cannibalism had been understood. In so doing, argues Sanborn, Melville sought to move his readers through stages of possible responses to the phenomenon in order to lead them to consider alternatives to established assumptions and conventions—to understand that in the savage they see primarily their own fear and fascination. Melville thus becomes a narrator of the postcolonial encounter as he uncovers the dynamic of dread and menace that marks the Western construction of the “non-savage” human.
Extending the work of Slavoj Zizek and Homi Bhabha while providing significant new insights into the work of Melville, The Sign of the Cannibal represents a breakthrough for students and scholars of postcolonial theory, American literary history, critical anthropology, race, and masculinity.


The Sign of the Cannibal does achieve a clarity of vision and an economy of purpose. Students of Melville, cannibal and postcolonial studies, and those interested in concise and conscientious analyses of individual texts in their cultural contexts, will find The Sign of the Cannibal an engaging and energetic book, one that will surely stimulate debate and provide students of Melville with points of departure.” — Kenneth J. Speirs , American Studies International

The Sign of the Cannibal leaves the reader convinced of the cultural importance and the importance to Melville, of the discourse of nineteenth-century cannibalism, and for this accomplishment it commands serious attention. . . . If the term ‘postcolonial’ signifies a combination of cultural, historical, and rhetorical stances such as those which Sanborn shows to converge brilliantly and touchingly in Melville’s traeatments of cannibalism, additional such postcolonial analysis will be more than welcome.” — Bryan C. Short , Studies in the Novel

“[A] compelling book, impressively reappraising Melville’s fiction in light of postcolonial theories, primarily Homi Bhabha’s reflections on mimicry. . . . What makes Sanborn’s book both exciting and insightful is his facility with the literary, historical, and theoretical levels of his argument.” — Kendall A. Johnson , American Literature

“[E]nlightening. The Sign of the Cannibal is a major contribution to Melville studies, ‘cannibal studies,’ and postcolonial theory.” — Jerry Phillips , Journal of American Studies

“Sanborn’s well-written and thoroughly researched book provides an interesting addition to postcolonial discourse, a valuable outline of cannibal studies and a new approach to Melville’s discussion of savagery. These features make it a significant and valuable addition to the three fields it intersects.” — Rebecca Weaver , Interventions

“Sanborn gives us a systematic, lucid, and thoroughly engaging analysis of the colonial response to cannibalism that illuminates the culture while shedding new light on Melville’s works from Typee to ‘Benito Cereno.’” — John Bryant, Hofstra University

“With a rare precision and insight, Sanborn offers a series of intricate, resonant, and iconoclastic readings of Melville’s texts. The Sign of the Cannibal is incisive, illuminating, and beautifully written.” — Samuel Otter, University of California at Berkeley


Availability: In stock
Price: $26.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Geoffrey Sanborn is Assistant Professor of English at Fairfield University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner of the Hennig Cohen Prize, Melville Society

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2118-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2102-6
Publicity material