American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

BILLYBUDD (1924). The novella Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), Herman Melville’s* (1819-1891) last work, was written between 1886 and 1891, left unfinished in manuscript, and published posthumously.

The narrative action takes place in 1797, during England’s war with Revolutionary France. As the story begins, foretopman Billy Budd, a foundling of unknown parentage, travels homeward on a merchantman, the Rights-of- Man. When the British navy impresses him into service, the merchantman’s captain laments the loss of Billy, his “peacemaker.” Billy bears his impressment on the H.M.S. Bellipotent easily, and his hard work and amiable appearance and behavior commend him to his captain, the Honourable Edward Fairfax Vere.

John Claggart, the master-at-arms, takes an immediate aversion to “the handsome sailor.” Claggart seeks Billy’s downfall and, after the unsuccessful pursuit of a French frigate, falsely accuses the young sailor of mutiny.* Billy tries to protest his innocence; when his stuttering prevents him from defending himself verbally, he strikes out physically. With a single blow, his fist knocks Claggart down dead. Captain Vere believes Billy to be innocent of mutiny and knows that Claggart’s death is unintentional. Still, a reluctant drumhead court, urged on by Vere, convicts Billy and sentences him to be hanged.

The complicated textual history of Melville’s novella began with Raymond Weaver’s publication of Billy Budd, Foretopman in corrupt editions (1924, 1928). Weaver included three sections omitted by Melville, one entitled “Lawyers, Experts, Clergy” and another, a rejected chapter on Admiral Nelson. Most famously, Weaver inserted part of a rejected chapter as a “Preface.” Subsequent editions of Billy Budd, Foretopman by F. Barron Freeman in 1948 and 1950 editions based on Freeman’s work, corrected a few of Weaver’s errors. Still, an accurate, critical edition did not exist until the one published by the University of Chicago in 1962. Editors Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts Jr. presented Melville’s draft “Genetic Text,” as well as his final version, entitled Billy Budd, Sailor (an Inside Narrative). In 1975 an edition by Milton Stern appeared, based on Melville’s “Genetic Text.” While general readers may not care about this text’s intricate editorial history, they should be aware that the Billy Budd’s to which readers, professors, and critics refer are not necessarily identical.

Beyond the editorial controversies, Billy Budd has generated a wealth of critical attention, containing, as it does, many layers of political, philosophical, and religious symbolism. Furthermore, there are, essentially, four Billy Budd’s. First is the novella itself; then there is the character Billy Budd, who has popularly come to symbolize pure innocence unjustly persecuted, though this interpretation flattens out the ironic complexity. A third “Budd” emerged in 1947, when Louis Osborne Coxe* and Robert Chapman adapted Melville’s novella for the theatre in a play originally titled Uniform of Flesh. Finally, a four-act opera based on Billy Budd, with music by Benjamin Britten and book and lyrics by E. M. Forster, premiered at London’s Covent Garden Theatre in 1951. A revised version, which more accurately resembles Melville’s story, premiered in 1964. A film was made by Peter Ustinov in 1962. Claire Denis’ film Beau Travail (1999) is loosely based on Billy Budd; it includes a soundtrack comprised of Britten’s opera, loud disco, and strange sound compositions. [See also MELVILLE DRAMATIZATIONS]

FURTHER READING: Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988; Parker, Hershel. Reading Billy Budd. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1990; Sedgwick, Eve. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1990; Weaver, Raymond M. Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic. New York: Doran, 1921.

Arnold Schmidt