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Billy Budd (novel)

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Billy Budd (novel)

For other uses, see Billy Budd (disambiguation).
Billy Budd
Author Herman Melville
Country United States
Language English
Genre Novella
Publication date 1924
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 131

Billy Budd is a novella begun in November 1888 by American author Herman Melville, left unfinished at his death in 1891 and not published until 1924. It was acclaimed by British critics as a masterpiece when published in London, and quickly took its place among the canon of significant works in the United States.

The novella was discovered in manuscript form in 1919 by Raymond M. Weaver, who was studying Melville's papers as his first biographer.[1] Edited by Melville's widow, the manuscript was confusing. Poor transcription and misinterpretation of Melville's notes marred the first published editions of the text. After several years of study, Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. published what is now considered the authoritative text in 1962.

The novella was adapted as a stage play in 1951 and produced on Broadway, where it won the Donaldson Awards and Outer Critics Circle Awards for best play. Benjamin Britten adapted it as an opera by the same name, first performed in December 1951.


The plot follows Billy Budd, a seaman impressed into service aboard HMS Bellipotent in the year 1797, when the British Royal Navy was reeling from two major mutinies and was threatened by the Revolutionary French Republic's military ambitions. He is impressed from another ship, The Rights of Man (named after the book by Thomas Paine). As his former ship moves off, Budd shouts, "Good-by to you too, old Rights-of-Man."

Billy, a foundling, has an openness and natural charisma that makes him popular with the crew. For unexplained reasons, he arouses the antagonism of the ship's Master-at-arms, John Claggart, who falsely accuses Billy of conspiracy to mutiny. When Claggart brings his charges to the Captain, the Hon. Edward Fairfax "Starry" Vere, he summons Claggart and Billy to his cabin for a private meeting. Claggart makes his charges and Billy is unable to respond, due to a stutter which grows more severe with intense emotion. He strikes and accidentally kills Claggart.

Vere convenes a drumhead court-martial. He acts as convening authority, prosecutor, defense counsel and sole witness (except for Billy). He intervenes in the deliberations of the court-martial panel to argue them into convicting Billy, despite their and his belief in Billy's moral innocence. (Vere says in the moments following Claggart's death, "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!") Vere claims to be following the letter of the Mutiny Act and the Articles of War.

Although Vere and the other officers do not believe Claggart's charge of conspiracy and think Billy justified in his response, they find that their own opinions matter little. The martial law in effect states that during wartime the blow itself, fatal or not, is a capital crime. The court-martial convicts Billy following Vere's argument that any appearance of weakness in the officers and failure to enforce discipline could stir more mutiny throughout the British fleet. Condemned to be hanged the morning after his attack on Claggart, Billy before his execution says, "God bless Captain Vere!" His words were repeated by the gathered crew in a "resonant and sympathetic echo."CH 26

The novel closes with three chapters that present ambiguity:

  • Chapter 29 describes the death of Captain Vere. In a naval action against the French ship, Athée (the Atheist), Captain Vere is mortally wounded. His last words are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd."
  • Chapter 30 presents an extract from an official naval gazette purporting to give the facts of the fates of John Claggart and Billy Budd aboard HMS Bellipotent — but the "facts" offered turn the facts that the reader learned from the story upside down. The gazette article described Budd as a conspiring mutineer likely of foreign birth and mysterious antecedents who, when confronted by John Claggart, the master-at-arms loyally enforcing the law, stabs Claggart and kills him. The gazette concludes that the crime and weapon used suggest a foreign birth and subversive character; it reports that the mutineer was executed and nothing is amiss aboard HMS Bellipotent.
  • Chapter 31 reprints a cheaply printed ballad written by one of Billy's shipmates as an elegy. The adult, experienced man represented in the poem is not the innocent youth portrayed in the preceding chapters.

Development history

Created slowly over the last five years of his life, the novella Billy Budd represents Melville's return to prose fiction after three decades when he wrote only poetry. He started it as a poem, a ballad entitled "Billy in the Darbies", which he intended to include in his book, John Marr and Other Sailors. Melville composed a short, prose head-note to introduce the speaker and set the scene. The character of "Billy" in this early version was an older man condemned for inciting mutiny and apparently guilty as charged. He did not include the poem in his published book. Melville incorporated the ballad and expanded the head-note sketch into a story that eventually reached 150 manuscript pages. This was the first of what were to be three major expansions, each related to one of the principal characters.[2]

Melville had a difficult time writing, describing his process with Moby-Dick as follows: "Taking a book off the brain is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole business in order to get at it with safety."[3] The "scrapings" of Billy Budd lie in the 351-page manuscript now in the Houghton Library at Harvard.

The state of this manuscript has been described as "chaotic," with a bewildering array of corrections, cancellations, cut and pasted leaves, annotations inscribed by several hands, and with at least two different attempts made at a fair copy. The composition proceeded in three general phases, as shown by the Melville scholars Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., who did an extensive study of the original papers from 1953 to 1962.[4]

"In three main phases he had introduced in turn the three main characters: first Billy, then Claggart, and finally Vere. As the focus of his attention shifted from one to another of these three principals, the plot and thematic emphasis of the expanding novel underwent consequent modifications within each main phase. Just where the emphasis finally lay in the not altogether finished story as he left it is, in essence, the issue that has engaged and divided the critics of Billy Budd".[2]

After Melville's death, his wife Elizabeth, who had acted as his amanuensis on other projects, scribbled notes and conjectures, corrected spelling, sorted leaves and, in some instances, wrote over her husband's faint writing. She tried to follow through on what she perceived as her husband's objectives but her editing was confusing to the first professional editors, Weaver and Freeman, who mistook her writing for Melville's. At some point Elizabeth Melville placed the manuscript in "a japanned tin box"[5] with the author's other literary materials, and it remained undiscovered for another 28 years.

Publication history

In August 1919, Raymond M. Weaver, a professor at Columbia University, doing research for what would become the first biography of Melville, paid a visit to his granddaughter, Eleanor Melville Metcalf, at her South Orange, New Jersey home. She gave him access to all the surviving records of Melville: manuscripts, letters, journals, annotated books, photographs, and a variety of other material. Among these papers, Weaver was astonished to find a substantial manuscript for an unknown prose work entitled Billy Budd.

After producing a text that would later be described as "hastily transcribed",[1] Weaver published the first edition of the work in 1924 as Volume XIII of the Standard Edition of Melville's Complete Works (London: Constable and Company). In 1928 he published another version of the text which, despite numerous variations, may be considered essentially the same text.

F. Barron Freeman published a second text in 1948, edited on different principles, as Melville's Billy Budd (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). He believed he stayed closer to what Melville wrote, but still relied on Weaver's text, with what are now considered mistaken assumptions and textual errors. Subsequent reprints of Billy Budd up through the early 1960s are, strictly speaking, versions of one or the other of these two basic texts.[6]

After several years of study, in 1962, Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., established what is now considered the correct, authoritative text. It was published by the University of Chicago Press, and contains both a "reading" and a "genetic" text. Most editions printed since then follow the Hayford-Sealts text.

Based on the confusing manuscripts, the published versions had many variations. For example, early versions gave the book's title as Billy Budd, Foretopman, while it now seems clear Melville intended Billy Budd, Sailor: (An Inside Narrative)'; some versions wrongly included a chapter that Melville had excised as a preface (the correct text has no preface). In addition, some early versions did not follow his change of the name of the ship to Bellipotent (from the Latin bellum war and potens powerful), from Indomitable, as Melville called it in an earlier draft. It is unclear of his full intentions in changing the name of the ship since he used the name Bellipotent only six times.[7]

Literary significance and reception

The book has undergone a number of substantial, critical reevaluations in the years since its discovery. Raymond Weaver, its first editor, was initially unimpressed and described it as "not distinguished". After its publication debut in England, and with critics of such caliber as D. H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry hailing it as a masterpiece, Weaver changed his mind. In the introduction to its second edition in the 1928 Shorter Novels of Herman Melville, he declared: "In Pierre, Melville had hurled himself into a fury of vituperation against the world; with Billy Budd he would justify the ways of God to man."

In mid-1924 Murry orchestrated the reception of Billy Budd, Foretopman, first in London, in the influential Times Literary Supplement, in an essay called "Herman Melville's Silence" (July 10, 1924), then in a reprinting of the essay, slightly expanded, in the New York Times Book Review (August 10, 1924). In relatively short order he and several other influential British literati had managed to canonize Billy Budd, placing it alongside Moby-Dick as one of the great books of Western literature. Wholly unknown to the public until 1924, Billy Budd by 1926 had joint billing with the book that had just recently been firmly established as a literary masterpiece. In its first text and subsequent texts, and as read by different audiences, the book has kept that high status ever since.[1]

In 1990 the Melville biographer and scholar Hershel Parker pointed out that all the early estimations of Billy Budd were based on readings from the flawed transcription texts of Weaver. Some of these flaws were crucial to an understanding of Melville's intent, such as the famous "coda" at the end of the chapter containing the news account of the death of the "admirable" John Claggart and the "depraved" William Budd (25 in Weaver, 29 in Hayford & Sealts reading text, 344Ba in the genetic text) :

Weaver: "Here ends a story not unwarranted by what happens in this incongruous world of ours—innocence and 'infirmary', spiritual depravity and fair 'respite'."

The Ms: "Here ends a story not unwarranted by what happens in this {word undeciphered} world of ours—innocence and 'infamy', spiritual depravity and fair 'repute'."

Melville had written this as an end-note after his second major revision. When he enlarged the book with the third major section, developing Captain Vere, he deleted the end-note, as it no longer applied to the expanded story. Many of the early readers, such as Murry and Freeman, thought this passage was a foundational statement of Melville's philosophical views on life. Parker wonders what they could possibly have understood from the passage as written.

Although Parker agrees that "masterpiece" is an appropriate description of the book, he adds a proviso. "Examining the history and reputation of Billy Budd has left me more convinced than before that it deserves high stature (although not precisely the high stature it holds, whatever that stature is) and more convinced that it is a wonderfully teachable story—as long as it is not taught as a finished, complete, coherent, and totally interpretable work of art."[5]

Analysis and interpretations

There appear to be three principal conceptions of the meaning of Melville's Billy Budd: the first, and most heavily supported, that it is Melville's "Testament of acceptance," his valedictory and his final benediction. The second view, a reaction against the first, holds that Billy Budd is ironic, and that its real import is precisely the opposite of its ostensible meaning. Still a third interpretation denies that interpretation is possible; a work of art has no meaning at all that can be abstracted from it, nor is a man's work in any way an index of his character or his opinion. All three of these views of Billy Budd are in their own sense true.

—R. H. Fogle[8]

Some critics have interpreted Billy Budd as an historical novel that attempts to evaluate man's relation to the past. Thomas J. Scorza has written about the philosophical framework of the story. He understands the work as a comment on the historical feud between poets and philosophers. By this interpretation, Melville is opposing the scientific, rational systems of thought, which Claggart's character represents, in favor of the more comprehensive poetic pursuit of knowledge embodied by Billy.[9]

In her book Epistemology of the Closet (1990/2008), Eve Sedgwick, expanding on earlier interpretations of the same themes, posits that the interrelationships between Billy, Claggart and Captain Vere are representations of male homosexual desire and the mechanisms of prohibition against this desire. She points out that Claggart's "natural depravity," which is defined tautologically as "depravity according to nature," and the accumulation of equivocal terms ("phenomenal", "mystery", etc.) used in the explanation of the fault in his character, are an indication of his status as the central homosexual figure in the text. She also interprets the mutiny scare aboard the Bellipotent, the political circumstances that are at the center of the events of the story, as a portrayal of homophobia.[10]

In the 1980s, Richard Weisberg advanced a reading of the novel based on his research into the history of the governing law. Based on his study of statutory law and practices in the Royal Navy in the era in which the book takes place, Weisberg rejects the traditional reading of Captain Vere as a good man trapped by bad law. He says that Vere deliberately distorted the applicable substantive and procedural law to bring about Billy's death. The most fully worked-out version of Weisberg's argument can be found in chapters 8 and 9 of his book The Failure of the Word: The Lawyer as Protagonist in Modern Fiction [orig. ed., 1984; expanded ed., 1989]. Weisberg's close reading of the book has confirmed the central role of Billy Budd, Sailor in the emerging field of law and literature.[11]

H. Bruce Franklin sees a direct connection between the hanging of Budd and the controversy around capital punishment. While Melville was writing Billy Budd between 1886 and 1891, the public's attention was focused on the issue.[12] Other commentators have suggested that the story may have been based on events onboard USS Somers, an American naval vessel; Lt. Guert Gansevoort, a defendant in a later investigation, was a first cousin of Melville.[13]

Harold Schechter, a professor who has written a number of books on American serial killers, has said that the author's description of Claggart could be considered to be a definition of a sociopath. He acknowledges that Melville was writing at a time before the word "sociopath" was used.[14]

The centrality of Billy Budd's extraordinary good looks in the novella, where he is described by Captain Vere as "the young fellow who seems so popular with the men—Billy, the Handsome Sailor," have led to interpretations of a homoerotic sensibility in the novel. Laura Mulvey added a theory of scopophilia and masculine and feminine subjectivity/objectivity. (Quote from Billy Budd, Sailor, Penguin Popular Classics, 1995, p. 54). This version tends to inform interpretations of Britten's opera, perhaps owing to the composer's own homosexuality.[15]

The legal scholar Robert Cover suggests in the preface to his book, Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process, that Captain Vere may have been modeled after Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Melville's father-in-law, Shaw was an abolitionist who was known to apply existing fugitive slave laws in his decisions, in spite of his beliefs. Although Cover admits there is no direct evidence to suggest this interpretation, he says there are parallels, such as Billy's "dumbness" and the rule that prohibited fugitive slaves from testifying in their own defense at trial. He believes that such a subtext was intentional.

Adaptations in other media

The stage

  • The best-known adaptation is the opera, Billy Budd, with a score by Benjamin Britten and a libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier. It follows the earlier text of 1924. Since its premiere in December 1951, the opera has become a regular production at the Metropolitan Opera house in New York City. The libretto takes many creative liberties with elements of the novella's plot.
  • Giorgio Ghedini also composed an operatic version of the novella, which premiered in 1949. It has not been as widely performed as Britten's work.



  • General Motors Theatre presented a live telecast of Billy Budd in 1955, starring a young William Shatner as Billy Budd, with Douglas Campbell as Claggart, and Basil Rathbone as Captain Vere. Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" was included as background music.
  • Two different productions based on the opera were broadcast in 1988 and 1998.

Further reading


External links

  • Herman Melville's Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  • Online version of Billy Budd at Bibliomania
  • by Klaus Benesch
  • (1948, Freeman edition), University of Virginia
  • , study guide, themes, quotes, character analyses, teaching guide

Adaptations for cinema and television:

  • Terence Stamp as Billy Budd
  • Internet Movie Database (1980) with Porgy Franssen
  • Thomas Allen
  • Dwayne Croft
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