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Billy Budd


Unpublished and not even quite completed at Herman Melville's death in 1891, then reconstructed and retitled several times until the 1962 edition by Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts Jr., Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) now reigns as the author's major achievement after Moby-Dick (1851). In 1958 Richard Harter Fogle thoughtfully called Billy Budd "Melville's nineteenth century version of classical tragedy, with old forms revivified by new issues" (p. 110), and in this one may liken it to Moby-Dick. Indeed, despite his constant revision of it from 1886 until his death at the age of seventy-two in 1891, the great short novel has mostly been taught to students as one of Melville's antebellum dark romances exhibiting "the power of blackness" (p. 91), a phrase Melville himself used in "Hawthorne and His Mosses" (1850) to discuss Nathaniel Hawthorne's writing. Yet the composition took place instead during the height and flowering of American postbellum realism thirty years or more after Melville had turned from fiction to writing mostly verse. Some might feel that his five-year struggle with the manuscript during the specific era of literary realism reflects the literary-historical moment (in Hippolyte Taine's sense) in which he was writing; others, perhaps that his older philosophical view of eternal questions and dilemmas was by now harder to convey in prose than in his verse. In either case, each reader simply must ponder the fact that what Hayford and Sealts call only "a semi-final draft" (Melville, Billy Budd, p. 1) after an extended and vexing process of composing still resulted in an enduring masterpiece. Given this surprising achievement, Melville's Billy Budd has attracted massive critical evaluation, although rarely incorporating analysis of Melville's compositional phases as specifically central to its theme or interpretation.

The tragic plot evolves as follows: Billy Budd, a surpassingly innocent and handsome young seaman, kills by a single blow John Claggart, a venomous petty officer (master-at-arms) who falsely and maliciously accuses him of mutiny. Billy's death blow is further complicated because he strikes only after he is unable to speak owing to his congenital stutter—an "organic hesitancy" (p. 53)—exacerbated by heightened emotion from Claggart's accusation borne of sheer envy and personal hatred. Nevertheless, naval law dictates hanging for the act, and the fact that the events occur in 1797 at sea on HMS Bellipotent in the aftermath of the major mutinies that rocked the British navy at Spithead and Nore in the spring of that year while England was at war with France seems to require strict adherence because of the threatening virus of anarchy in the social order during wartime. At this juncture the third major actor in Melville's drama, Captain Edward Vere, although he understands fully Billy's innocence and his victimization by an invidious man, feels compelled to convince his subordinates to carry out the capital punishment. Vere even cries out that Claggart has been "struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" (p. 101). And before he does hang, Billy declares in antiphonal counterpoint, so to speak, "God bless Captain Vere!" (p. 123)—with no taint from his usual stuttering. So the innocent comes to a tragic end.

With such a powerful sequential plot tied together and embedded within a rich linguistic texture and open-ended Melvillian diction and tone, it is not surprising that Billy Budd has prompted multiple readings. These range from the interpretation of Billy as a Christ figure and sacrificial lamb to the idea that the story is a philosophical parable that confirms Melville's mature reverence for true art as the analogue to a "victory of LAW"—as he expresses it in his poem "Dupont's Round Fight" (Selected Poems, p. 12). For many years after it was first published in 1924, Billy Budd was deemed, in the words of E. L. Grant Watson, a "testament of acceptance" (p. 319); that is, a work without the subversive elements found—in very different ways, to be sure—in Melville's fiction of the 1840s and 1850s. Gradually, however, criticism and interpretation began to turn, and by the 1950s academic readers under the influence of narrative point of view and the technique of unreliable narration revisited the novel and reinterpreted it ironically. This approach spawned a spate of critics who refused passively to accept Billy's slaughter and instead attacked Captain Vere as a misguided dogmatist and a destructive legalist.

Readings in this second wave have become known collectively by Phil Withim's term as Melville's "testament of resistance" (p. 115). Such opposing approaches, referred to sometimes as the "plain talkers" versus the "ironists," have constituted a critical controversy similar to that surrounding Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (actual ghosts versus a narrator's pathology). In such controversies each critical side claims that its opponents have not just missed a major dimension of a rich, multilayered text (such as overlooking multiple levels of meaning to the white whale) but also that the opposing side has misread by 180 degrees the entire foundation of the author's vision and purpose. The "resistance" approach, nevertheless, has often been bolstered by the presence of Melville's tonal references in the text to the ambiguous nature of various terms and lexicons; in fact, that dimension of his textuality can prompt phenomenological investigation of Melville's critique of language itself with dire implications for the legitimacy of law, civilization's otherwise reliable lexicon par excellence.

When Fogle denominated Billy Budd a "nineteenth century version of classical tragedy, with old forms revivified by new issues" (p. 110), he wished to remind the emerging ironists of "resistance" that long before the time of alleged pervasive narrative irony, there lay a vast tradition of dramatic irony and irony of fate in classical tragedy from Sophocles onward and including, of course, Melville's own favorite, William Shakespeare. Although neither wrote narrative fiction, Melville regarded them as mentors far more than he did such contemporary writers as Washington Irving; even his famous enthusiasm for Hawthorne was enunciated specifically by reference to Shakespeare. Perhaps today in the wake of Billy Budd's complex critical history, it may help to reformulate Fogle's idea in the obverse: a nineteenth-century version of classical tragedy with new forms revivified by old issues.

In the opening to chapter 4, Melville alludes to his signature mode of composition and narration through indirection and apparent digression that is, however, typically pertinent to his theme. In this case, he goes on to explore the prevailing dominance of utilitarian thinking while yet deeming it to be ultimately fallacious, or at least at odds with epic or tragic grandeur.

In this matter of writing, resolve as one may to keep to the main road, some bypaths have an enticement not readily to be withstood. I am going to err into such a bypath. If the reader will keep me company I shall be glad. At the least, we can promise ourselves that pleasure which is wickedly said to be in sinning, for a literary sin the divergence will be.

Melville, Billy Budd, p. 56.

Putting the emphasis on new forms can bring us back again to Melville's phases of composition. Hayford and Sealts in the introduction to their edition of Billy Budd explain that during the five or six years Melville struggled with the manuscript he underwent three such phases corresponding to his three major characters. Billy himself dominated the earliest phase, John Claggart the second, and Captain Vere (heretofore merely a background figure) the third. Suppose we try to reenact Melville's process of composition with the not unreasonable idea that he really did hope to compose, as earlier with Moby-Dick, some type of classical tragedy, though occasioned also by such contemporary events as the mutiny aboard the USS Somers in December 1842, with the ensuing executions and courts-martial, and the Haymarket Riot in May 1886. The figure of Billy Budd could not quite function as the plausible tragic hero in the traditional Greek or Shakespearean context, in part because Billy's extraordinary goodness and innocence seem to preclude the hamartia or "tragic flaw." Melville did seek to correct this problem when he introduced Billy's stutter in chapter 2 by attributing it specifically to the hand of Satan—"the envious marplot of Eden" (p. 53). Original sin, which Melville had called the source of "the power of blackness," was thus sutured onto an otherwise angelic Billy. But that solution could never quite sustain itself because Billy, however tainted by residual original sin, so to speak, is never in possession of any genuine self-consciousness: he has "about as much," Melville writes, "as we may reasonably impute to a dog of Saint Bernard's breed" (p. 52). Billy would thus remain the center of the novel's tragic movement, yet he could not function as the tragic hero in the traditional sense.

In the second phase of composition Melville developed John Claggart as the moral and spiritual bête noire to Billy, attempting to explore nothing less than the "mystery of iniquity" (pp. 76, 108). The narrator concedes that Claggart's "portrait I essay, but shall never hit" (p. 64). As the opposing parallel to Billy, Claggart, like the handsome, innocent sailor, exhibits entirely unknown human origins, a suggestion that promotes the idea that both figures symbolically lie outside of time, or at least outside human and social history. Since the eventual confrontation between them amounts to good versus evil, such out-of-time yet universal status may seem to us readers appropriate; indeed, the narrator also tries to explain the unexplainable Claggart by recourse to the Platonic—and later Christian—concept of "Natural Depravity: a depravity according to nature" (p. 75). With such basis for character delineation, it is not surprising that both emerge as far more type than character; and as types they can but eventually destroy each other—Claggart by Billy's single "angelic" blow, Billy by naval law.

Yet in one respect Claggart, at least, is not so atemporal or ahistorical, in that Melville associates his particular duplicity with a contemporary view opposed to the lexicon and insight derived from the mythical elements in Holy Scripture. This view is the biblical higher criticism of the later nineteenth century, one associated with the growth of scientific-positivistic thought and much allied with the newer realist movement that was in its prime while Melville tried to write Billy Budd. It is not, obviously, that Claggart is an advocate of the "higher criticism," rather that the disparity between his pleasant, rational, and highly discriminating veneer belies an interior volcanic "lunacy" and "riot" (p. 76) that the narrator associates with contemporary "higher criticism." For this reason the narrator invokes the "Hebrew prophets" over "Coke and Blackstone"—those monumental writers of British law—and even "admits" ironically that he must appeal to "some authority not liable to the charge of being tinctured with the biblical element" (p. 75). He concludes the analysis of Claggart with these words: "Dark sayings are these, some will say. But why? Is it because they somewhat savor of Holy Writ in its phrase 'mystery of iniquity'? If they do, such savor was far enough from being intended, for little will it commend these pages to many a reader of today" (p. 76).

Melville's third phase of composition he turned to Captain Vere in his search for the tragic hero. To begin with, he needed a character rather than a type as well as someone actually planted in time and history. So he introduces Vere to the reader as "Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere" (p. 60), thereby establishing him with a family prominent—and profoundly divided—at the time of the English Civil War, sharply contrasting with those of unknown origin and lineage, Billy and Claggart. Furthermore, in his development as a character we become privy to both his consciousness and his reading, reading that establishes the basis for his conservative political and philosophical viewpoint, which together with his scholarly demeanor earn him the ambiguous appellation "Starry Vere" (p. 61). What authorities such as Montaigne have refined in him is a deeply a priori cast of mind, yet one also thoughtful and "free from cant" (p. 62).

This hypothetical rumination by Melville's narrator from chapter 22 would seem to capture the idea that Captain Vere finds himself an unhappy participant in a necessary tragic action that goes against his own humanity; yet he must follow through with it. Ironist critics, however, would question both the reliability of this viewpoint and even the truth of the incident itself.

Captain Vere in end may have developed the passion sometimes latent under an exterior stoical or indifferent. He was old enough to have been Billy's father. The austere devotee of military duty, letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity, may in end have caught Billy to his heart, even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest.

Melville, Billy Budd, p. 115.

These features notwithstanding, the ironist school of Melville criticism perforce denies Vere the status of tragic hero in its condemnation of him as a duped and close-minded legalist. The plain-talking critic will find him exceptional but not subject to condemnation, even though the death of Billy betokens a tragic movement to the overall drama. How does one discern, then, a grand tragic flaw in Captain Vere without otherwise diminishing the character Melville brought forth from the background in his final phase of composition? One way is to emphasize the surprising fact that, in his speech condemning Billy to the drumhead court made up of his junior officers, Vere must eventually resort to the pragmatist's argument—the argument from immediate practical consequences—in order to convince them that anything less than full punishment will invite riot and anarchy among "the people" (the seamen; p. 112), especially in the climate of recent mutiny elsewhere. He turns to this pragmatic argument, however, only after first attempting—and utterly failing—to convince them by philosophical argument that exhibits his usual a priori cast of mind ("settled convictions . . . as a dike," p. 62). Still, why might such a change in Vere's mode of argument constitute hamartia?

The answer lies in the way Melville has already addressed the issue of utilitarian thinking—he calls such thinkers "Benthamites" (p. 57)—earlier in Billy Budd. He objects deeply to such thinking and explicitly opposes it to the grandeur undergirding the poetic "epics and dramas" (p. 58) of art, and he cites as an exemplar of that grand ritualistic style the legendary Lord Horatio Nelson. But Melville also knew only too well that in the course of the nineteenth century—the time frame between when Billy Budd is set in 1797 and when Melville wrote it nearly a century later—the utilitarian mindset had won out in philosophy, ethics, and culture, including its natural compatibility with the higher criticism and postbellum literary realism. In short, Captain Vere has been forced to employ the utilitarian argument in order to try to preserve from his perspective in 1797 a traditional and conservative worldview which, as Melville knew from his perspective in the 1890s, would run counter to the actual Benthamite direction of subsequent thinking and history in the course of the nineteenth century. Therefore Vere becomes in Billy Budd the most profound demonstration of the inevitable triumph of that history in the very attempt by which he hoped to implement and maintain the alternative history. In this respect Vere exhibits both hamartia and classical irony of fate. Melville thus manages, as he sought in the earlier "Benthamite" chapter, to "hold the Present at its worth without being inappreciative of the Past" (p. 57).

Melville's profound sense of that "Present" in Billy Budd is the signature of his creativity in late-nineteenth-century intellectual and cultural history. The mode of "indirection" he admits employing in this novel and the extended compositional process can answer to the method and practice of pragmatist minds and artists like William and Henry James, respectively, during the realist movement. "Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges" (p. 128), he wrote, and although its primary reference is to the circumstances of Billy's death, the open-endedness of truth fits well into the newer paradigm of pragmatistic thought, while the novel he all but finished would engender a debate many compare with The Turn of the Screw (1898). Finally, Melville's achievement in Billy Budd may also be analogous to the work of the prolific Puritan writer Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) in its honest attempt to convey a traditional viewpoint through a newer mode of presentation whose foundations tend to undermine that traditional view—a case, dramatically, of new forms revivified by old issues. It is an achievement Captain Vere would have welcomed historically and politically but must settle for in the artistic sphere.

See alsoThe Bible; Jurisprudence; Philosophy


Primary Works

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative). Edited by Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Melville, Herman. "Hawthorne and His Mosses." LiteraryWorld 17 (17 and 24 August 1850). Reprinted in American Literary Essays, edited by Lewis Gaston Leary. New York: Crowell, 1960.

Melville, Herman. Selected Poems of Herman Melville. Edited by Hennig Cohen. New York: Fordham University Press, 1991.

Secondary Works

Brodtkorb, Paul, Jr. "The Definitive Billy Budd: 'But Aren't It All a Sham?'" PMLA 82, no. 7 (1967): 602–612.

Fogle, Richard Harter. "Billy Budd—Acceptance or Irony." Tulane Studies in English 8 (1958): 107–113. Reprinted in Stafford's Melville's "Billy Budd" and the Critics.

Hocks, Richard A. "Melville and 'The Rise of Realism': The Dilemma of History in Billy Budd." American Literary Realism 26, no. 2 (1994): 60–81.

Marovitz, Sanford E. "Melville among the Realists: W. D. Howells and the Writing of Billy Budd." American Literary Realism 34, no. 1 (2001): 29–46.

Parker, Hershel. Reading "Billy Budd." Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1990.

Stafford, William T., ed. Melville's "Billy Budd" and theCritics. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1961. Reprints numerous critical essays including three cited in this article: Fogle, Watson, and Withim.

Watson, E. L. Grant. "Melville's Testament of Acceptance." New England Quarterly 6, no. 2 (1933): 319–327. Reprinted in Stafford's Melville's "Billy Budd" and the Critics.

Withim, Phil. "Billy Budd: Testament of Resistance." Modern Language Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1959): 115–132. Reprinted in Stafford's Melville's "Billy Budd" and the Critics.

Richard A. Hocks

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