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Billy Budd

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Wikipedia article

'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. The work has been central to Melville scholarship since it was discovered in manuscript form among Melville's papers in 1919 by Raymond Weaver, his first biographer.

It has an ignominious editorial history, as poor transcription and misinterpretation of Melville's notes on the manuscript marred the first published editions of the text. 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); some versions do not change the name of the ship to 'Bellipotent' (from the Latin 'bellum' war and 'potens' powerful), from 'Indomitable', as Melville called her in an earlier draft. It is unclear of his full intentions in changing the name of the ship since he only included the name 'Bellipotent' six times.


The plot follows Billy Budd, a seaman impressed into service aboard HMS 'Bellipotent' in the year 1797, when the 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 very topical book by Thomas Paine of that period, leading Budd to shout as it leaves "good-by to you too, old 'Rights-of-Man'" clearly intended to have a double meaning, and considered so by the crew who hear it).

Billy, an orphaned illegitimate child suffused with innocence, openness and natural charisma, is adored by the crew, but for unexplained reasons 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, Vere summons both Claggart and Billy to his cabin for a private confrontation. When, in Billy's and Vere's presence, Claggart makes his false charges, Billy is unable to find the words to respond owing to a speech impediment. Unable to express himself verbally, he strikes and accidentally kills Claggart.

Vere, an eminently thoughtful man whose name recalls the Latin words "veritas" (truth) and "vir" (man) as well as the English word "veer," then convenes a drumhead court-martial. He acts as convening authority, prosecutor, defense counsel and sole witness (except for Billy himself). He then intervenes in the deliberations of the court-martial panel to argue them into convicting Billy, despite their and his belief in Billy's innocence before God. (As 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.

Having started the process, Vere and the other officers find that their own opinion matters little. "We are not talking about justice, we are talking about the law", that is, the law dictates what must ensue, whether or not it is just. The law states that an enlisted man killing an officer during wartime (accidentally or not) must hang. Vere spells out the awful truth and explains their inability to mete out leniency.

At his insistence, the court-martial convicts Billy; Vere argues that any appearance of weakness in the officers and failure to enforce discipline could stir the already turbulent waters of mutiny throughout the British fleet. Condemned to be hanged from the ship's yardarm at dawn the morning after the killing, Billy's final words are, "God bless Captain Vere!", which is then repeated by the gathered crew in a "resonant and sympathetic echo." The story may have been based on events onboard USS 'Somers', an American naval vessel; one of the defendants in the later investigation was a first cousin of Melville, Lt. Guert Gansevoort.

The novel closes with three chapters that cloak the story with further ambiguity:

*Chapter 28 describes the death of Captain Vere. In a naval action with a French vessel named the 'Athe' (the 'Atheist'), Captain Vere is mortally wounded and carried below. His last words are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd."

*Chapter 29 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. In the gazette article, William Budd is a seaman but a conspiring mutineer probably of foreign birth and mysterious antecedents who, when confronted by the honest John Claggart, the master-at-arms loyally enforcing the law on board one of His Majesty's ships, stabs Claggart to the heart, killing him. The gazette concludes that the manner of the crime, and the weapon used, both point to Budd's foreign birth and subversive character; it then reports that the mutineer has paid the price of his crime and nothing more is amiss aboard HMS 'Bellipotent'.

*Chapter 30 reprints a cheaply printed ballad written by one of Billy's shipmates as a kind of elegy for the Handsome Sailor. And yet the adult, experienced man depicted by the poem is not at all the young innocent whom the reader has met 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 a full three decades where his only literary activity was writing poetry. Yet it began as a poem, a ballad entitled "Billy in the Darbies", intended for inclusion in his book 'John Marr and other Sailors'. As he did with some other poems in the collection, Melville composed a short, prose head-note to introduce the speaker and set the scene. The Billy here was different, an older man condemned for inciting mutiny and apparently guilty as charged. The piece was eventually excluded from the published book. Instead 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 centering around one of the principal characters.

Composing was always a difficult process for the author who described his method while writing 'Moby-Dick' as follows: "Taking a book off the brain is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panelyou have to scrape off the whole business in order to get at it with safety."

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. Nevertheless, it has been established that the composition proceeded in three general phases as shown by the work of Melville scholars Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. who did an extensive study of the original papers from 1953 to 1962.

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 even, in some instances, wrote over her husband's faint writing. All this was done with the best of intentions, trying to follow through on what she perceived as her husband's objectives had he lived to finish the task. Unfortunately these editorial activities introduced a measure of confusion into the efforts of the first professional editors, Weaver and Freeman, who mistook her writing for Melville's. Mrs. Melville at some point placed the manuscript in "a japanned tin box" with the author's other literary remains, where it remained undiscovered for another 28 years.

Publication history

In August 1919 a Columbia faculty member named Raymond M. Weaver, 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 her grandfather: 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, of course, 'Billy Budd'. After producing a text that would later be described as "hastily transcribed", 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, different version of the text which, despite numerous variations, may be considered essentially the same text.

A second text, edited on different principles by F. Barron Freeman, was published in 1948, as 'Melville's Billy Budd' (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). This edition tried to remain closer to what Melville actually wrote but unfortunately relied on Weaver's text with all its various mistaken assumptions and textual errors. All the many subsequent reprints of 'Billy Budd' up through the early 1960s are, strictly speaking, versions of one or the other of these two basic texts.Hayford & Sealts, pp. 12-23

In 1962, Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., established what is now considered the correct 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.

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 along side '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 which had just barely 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.

In 1990 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, like 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 oursinnocence and 'infirmary', spiritual depravity and fair 'respite'."

'The Ms': "Here ends a story not unwarranted by what happens in this world of oursinnocence and 'infamy', spiritual depravity and fair 'repute'."

Melville had written this as an end-note after his second major revision. When he went on to enlarge the book with a third major section developing Captain Vere he canceled it entirely because it no longer applied to the expanded story. Many of the early readers, like Murry and Freeman, deemed this passage no less than 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 does add 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 storyas long as it is not taught as a finished, complete, coherent, and totally interpretable work of art."

Analysis and interpretations

A story ultimately about good and evil, 'Billy Budd' has often been interpreted allegorically, with Billy interpreted typologically as the Christ or as Adam (before the Fall), with Claggart (compared to a snake several times in the text) figured as Evil. Part of Claggart's hatred comes because of Billy's goodness rather than in spite of it.

Claggart is also thought of as the Biblical Judas. The act of turning an innocent man in to the authorities and the allusion of the priest kissing Billy on the cheek before he dies, just as Judas kisses Jesus on the cheek when he was betrayed, are cited in support of this reading. Vere is often associated with Pontius Pilate. This theory stems mainly from the characteristics attributed to each man. Billy is innocent, often compared to a barbarian or a child; while Claggart is a representation of evil with a "depravity according to nature," a phrase Melville borrows from Plato. Vere, without a doubt the most conflicted character in the novel, is torn between his compassion for the "Handsome Sailor" and his martial adherence to his own authority.

Some critics have conceptualized 'Billy Budd' as an historical novel that attempts to evaluate man's relation to the past. Harold Schechter, a professor who has written a number of books on infamous American serial killers, has often pointed out that the author's description of Claggart could be considered to be a definition of a sociopath, although Melville was writing at a time before the word "sociopath" was used.

Thomas J. Scorza has written about the philosophical framework of the story and he understands the work as a comment on the historical feud between poets and philosophers. Melville, in this interpretation, 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.

In her book 'Epistemology of the Closet', 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.

In the 1980s, Richard Weisberg advanced a reading of the novel based on his careful research into the history of the governing law. Based on his mining of statutory law and actual practice 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 and proposes instead 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.

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.

Other critics interpret Budd's character as the antithesis of Claggart, the fallen angel. Like his peers, Budd is naturally good, but also has the courage and ability to believe in his goodness to the point that it is not accessible to him as a concept. Vere represents the good man with no courage or faith in his own goodness, and is therefore susceptible to evil.

Claggart is the archetypal fallen angel, a man who has abandoned his goodness for ego, and, knowing this, i.e. his own cowardice, seeks to seduce the flawed Vere and destroy Budd.

The centrality of Billy Budd's extraordinary good looks"the young fellow who seems so popular with the men—Billy, the Handsome Sailor" says Captain Verehave led to interpretations of a homoerotic sensibility in the novel, as well as analysis based on Laura Mulvey's 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.

The book's concluding chapters raise anew a question that is implicit throughout Melville's story: How can one know the truth? The focus of chapter 21 on the court-martial impeaches that court-martial'sor, indeed, any legal proceeding'sattempts to establish "the truth." So, too, the book's multiple endings, and the doubt and confusion pervading the "inside narrative's" account of events aboard this ship, leave one totally in doubt about whether one can ever know the truth, even from an "inside narrative."

Legal scholar Robert Cover suggests in the prelude 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. In addition to being Melville's father-in-law, Shaw was an abolitionist who was known for strict adherence to fugitive slave laws in his decisions, in spite of his beliefs. Although Cover admits there is no direct evidence to suggest it, he points to several parallels, such as Billy's "dumbness" and the rule requiring fugitive slaves to remain "dumb" (i.e. not speak in their own defense at trial) that strongly imply this subtext was intentional.

Adaptations in other media

The stage

In 1951, Louis O. Coxe and Robert Chapman's 1949 adaptation for the stage opened on Broadway, winning both the Donaldson Awards and Outer Critics Circle Awards for best play. 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, which follows the earlier text as prepared for publication by Raymond Weaver in 1924. The opera premiered in December 1951 and has become a regular production at the Metropolitan Opera house in New York City and is generally well-known. Britten's distinct style has given the opera a unique perspective on the book, and the opera takes many creative liberties on the original book's plot. Another operatic version, composed by Giorgio Ghedini and premiered in 1949, also exists.


A film version was made (in black and white) in 1962, starring a young Terence Stamp as Billy Budd, and a self-cast Peter Ustinov as the entrapped Captain Vere. Ustinov also produced, directed, and worked on the script of the film, which was adapted from Coxe and Chapman's play. The movie also stars Robert Ryan as Claggart and David McCallum as Wyatt, Gunnery Officer. Claire Denis' 'Beau travail' is also loosely based on the novel.


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 productions based on the opera appeared in 1988 and 1998.

Further reading

*Richard Weisberg (1989) 'The Failure of the Word: The Lawyer as Protagonist in Modern Fiction,' Yale University Pres



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