100 Years of ‘Billy Budd’

Revisiting Herman Melville’s Classic “Billie Budd”: 100th Anniversary

Long celebrated as a revelatory work second only to his great epic, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s tragic novella Billy Budd has endured periods of extravagant praise, bitter criticism, and overwrought analysis. From the time it first appeared in printed form in 1924, the tale of the “handsome sailor” has been interpreted as a morality tale, a deathbed confession, an exploration of colonialism or homosexuality, and even a failed attempt to redeem Melville’s magnum opus. But Billy Budd is more than this, and it stands alone, not as Melville’s final revelation or his greatest work, but as a parting gift, with the author at his most sympathetic.

Billy Budd is a novella set during the final years of the 18th century when the British Empire is still reeling from the loss of its American colonies and Napoleonic France threatens its hegemony everywhere else. As the Royal Navy battles the French for supremacy of the high seas, it impresses large numbers of sailors from smaller vessels, including a young seaman named Billy Budd.

Billy belongs to the ironically-named merchant vessel, The Rights of Man, which is seized by a British man-of-war on its way home in the Narrow Seas. Billy, widely known as “the handsome sailor” but also “Baby Budd,” is strong, capable, and brimming with vitality. He is a “sweet and pleasant fellow” and, above all, a “peacemaker” aboard the Rights. Billy’s captain is distraught at losing him, but the enforced enlistment goes forward anyway, and Billy soon finds himself the new foretopman on the H.M.S. Bellipotent.

Like the heroes of myth, Billy is a foundling, knowing nothing of his own origins. Melville describes him as an “upright barbarian,” likening him to Father Adam before meeting the serpent. The young man is blessed with an almost royal physique and visage, with “noble descent… as evident in him as a blood horse.” We are also informed of his virtues — prudence, conscientiousness, and natural vitality — which are pristine, unadulterated, and exceedingly rare in civilized men. Billy’s gentleness, innocence, and natural beauty quickly endear him to his shipmates, and time and again they delight in his guileless nature.

But for some reason or another, which the narrator cannot explain, Billy arouses the intense hatred of the Bellipotent’s master-at-arms, John Claggart. Claggart, who himself has the appearance of a noble background, seems to possess a natural depravity and unreciprocated malice — powerful inner forces that he takes great pains to conceal, possibly even from himself.

Billy attracts Claggart’s insurgent wrath after spilling soup in the man’s presence, and the latter soon launches a quiet campaign of sabotage against the handsome sailor. Ignorant of Claggart’s treachery, Billy finds himself repeatedly framed and punished for misdeeds orchestrated by the master-at-arms, and it leaves him deeply distressed. We see the obverse side of the young man’s innocence and vigor: a deep-seated fear of physical punishment, which incites a crippling stutter.

Eventually, Claggart falsely accuses Billy of plotting a mutiny, which Melville reminds us is a terrible danger for the Royal Navy, “more menacing to England than the contemporary manifestoes and conquering and proselyting armies of the French Directory.” With memories of the dreaded Spithead and Nore mutinies still fresh, the Bellipotent’s captain, Edward “Starry” Fairfax Vere — another figure perceived to descend from a higher nobility — summons Billy and Claggart to his quarters. There, Claggart accuses the boy, leaving Billy stunned, stuttering, and unable to defend himself. But in a moment of rage, Billy lashes out at Claggart, killing him instantly, with Vere, typically quiet and restrained, exclaiming: “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!”

Like the rest of the crew, Vere has deep compassion for Billy and believes in the boy’s innocence, but he convenes a drumhead court-martial anyway, acting as judge, prosecutor, and defense. Vere privately believes Billy was justified in Claggart’s death, but citing the Mutiny Act, the captain orders the handsome young sailor’s execution. The ship’s chaplain visits Billy but departs confounded. Though polite and receptive, the “young barbarian” seems to know next to nothing of God and shows no concern for his own soul after death. Billy is hanged the next morning, with his last words of “God bless Captain Vere!” reverently echoed by the other members of the crew.

Like Melville himself, Billy Budd had to be rescued from obscurity and painstakingly reassembled decades after its final sepulture. Professor Raymond Weaver, biographer and accidental canonizer, found it resting peacefully (and in pieces) in a “japanned” breadbox in 1919, unfinished and undiscovered since Melville’s death in 1891. The manuscript was a clutter of folders and leaves, with ghostly scribbles and cryptic marginalia that made transcription nearly impossible. But somehow Weaver did it, and when a “hastily transcribed” Billy Budd, Foretopman appeared in 1924, it received instant acclaim and helped galvanize an ongoing Melville revival on both sides of the Atlantic.

Despite Weaver’s guesswork and numerous transcription errors, Billy Budd, Foretopman was first declared a masterpiece in London’s most prestigious literary magazines, with British men of letters John Middleton Murry and John Freeman establishing a popular interpretation that would endure for years. Juxtaposing it with the dark and troublesome Moby-Dick, Murry likened Billy Budd to a long-awaited answer to a riddle: “It was Melville’s final word, worthy of him, indisputably a passing beyond the nihilism of ‘Moby Dick’ to what may seem to some simple and childish, but will be to others wonderful and divine.”

Freeman took the comparison even further, “If it seems fantastic to compare Moby-Dick with Milton’s Paradise Lost and assert a parallel conception in each, it will seem fantastic to say that in a shorter story, Billy Budd, may be found another Paradise Regained.” Billy Budd was canonized within months of its publication, due in no small part to the effusive praise of luminaries like Murry and Freeman. And with this proper English endorsement, educated Americans soon joined the chorus, lionizing this homegrown Milton who languished in their midst for so long — whose New York Times obituary once mourned as “a man who is so little known.”

The view that Melville’s long-lost manuscript — his last utterance — was a revelation or deathbed confession was hard to resist. Moby-Dick, though commonly revered, still weighed heavily on the hearts and minds of its admirers. As Freeman later explained in his review of Billy Budd: “Moby-Dick ends in darkness and desolation, for the challenge of Ahab’s pride is rebuked by the physical power and the inhumanness of Nature; but Billy Budd ends in a brightness of escape, such as the apostle saw when he exclaimed, ‘O death, where is thy sting!’”

This interpretation persisted well into the 1960s, when Melville scholars Harrison Hayford and Merton Sealts, Jr., published Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), correcting Weaver’s errors and establishing the authoritative version widely read today. Billy Budd, Sailor spurred yet another Melville revival, just as American society was contending with 1960s counterculture, which gave rise to biting critiques of capitalism, colonialism, militarism, and traditional morality. Billy Budd became a cudgel for such movements and a case study of injustice and the costs of military necessity. Many young activists saw themselves in the tragic Billy — innocent, pure, and victimized — while other readers construed a Christian allegory, with Billy representing the Lamb of God.

Despite Billy Budd’s haunting ambiguity, most interpretations are unwilling to peer beyond a basic dichotomy of good and evil, with the rare exception insisting on devastating social critiques. But this sells Billy Budd and Melville short. With the right persuasion, many readers might agree that there are no angels in this story, but could they accept a Billy Budd without a devil?

Billy’s prudence and conscientiousness are virtues, and his naiveté is a possible shortcoming. Vere’s discipline and willingness to embody the law for the greater good can also be seen as virtuous, while the captain’s uncompromising austerity as an obvious defect. But what of the infamous master-at-arms? Our narrator tells us that Claggart is malicious and maybe even depraved, which the man carefully hides. He sets a deadly trap for the handsome seaman for no obvious reason — at best spilled milk — and in the end, he has innocent blood on his hands.

But the narrator in Billy Budd provides a clue. Claggart’s envy and antipathy are presented in several pages as something far deeper than anything encountered in literature elsewhere. In fact, it is so profound that Claggart himself can hardly conceive it. There is a powerful “energy” surging beneath the surface, which might as well be an invariable part of Claggart’s nature. Melville compares the master-at-arms to a scorpion, “for which the Creator alone is responsible, [to] act out to the end the part allotted to it.” We see a similar constancy in Billy’s natural innocence and involuntary attack on Claggart — a strange parallel to Moses, another foundling. The steadfast Vere, a man who has been slowly fashioned into the very embodiment of law and martial discipline, cannot act outside his nature; it has become almost biological. When fictional characters act, how often do we recognize the emotions and desires surging beneath the surface? Might they also be indecipherable to the players themselves, like the profound hatred that seizes Claggart after Billy spills his soup?

Billy is often depicted as a Christlike figure, and with Melville’s characteristic depth, I cannot help but wonder if there is a Girardian theme at play. It is easy enough to identify the scapegoat mechanism in Billy Budd, but the role of mimetic and metaphysical desire may present challenges to our knee-jerk interpretation. Is the innocent barbarian so unconcerned about the state of his soul a dead ringer for the crucified Son of God? There were two unexpected deaths on the Bellipotent, after all.

As Billy Budd is further dissected and its subtleties slowly erased, it is likely to fall out of favor with the general public and return to the shadows from whence it came. But this would be a tragedy in its own right, not only on account of Billy Budd’s miraculous journey to publication, but also its deeper mysteries, which reveal something discomforting about our virtues and moral judgments. What appears straightforward and knowable in Billy Budd usually belies a complexity that few of us are ready to accept, and so we stick with the good, the bad, and the ugly, taking everything at face value. There is no penalty for doing so; a shallow reading is still quite enjoyable, for Billy Budd is a fine work of art. Like the rest of the crew of the Bellipotent, we are charmed by the handsome sailor, and his tragic end appears to reinforce what we already believe. Most readers learn to recognize an unreliable narrator in Moby-Dick, but in Billy Budd we are easily seduced. The voice reassures us with homespun descriptions of good and evil — virtue and depravity. But after gaining our trust, the narrator confesses that he is prone to inaccuracies and cannot reliably discern his subjects; this is a tell.

Billy Budd, Melville’s final epiphany, invites readers to ignore its countless ambiguities, trust the voice, and cling to a familiar moral scaffolding, all the while urging us to leave the well-worn path and withhold our judgment. Once we do step away, resisting the charms and depravity of the characters, a much different picture begins to materialize. We do not find a morality tale, a deathbed confession, or a societal critique, but a social organism with involuntary impulses and energies that give it form and an observable human nature. It is unpleasant and somewhat disappointing, but it leaves us humbled. Recognizing our inability to reliably discern such things helps us appreciate the tragedy of Billy Budd; it is a kind of self-denial, and a first step towards a truer spirituality.

Lafayette Lee is an American writer and a contributing editor of IM—1776. He can be followed @Partisan_O.

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