Herman Melville: “Billy Budd, Sailor”

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While “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Moby-Dick get a lot of attention (and are taught frequently in high school and college classes), fans of Herman Melville’s work think a lot about a piece he was writing at the end of his life. Though Melville had been working on the novella Billy Budd, Sailor for the last five years of his life, it appears that he may not have finished it when he died in 1891.

It’s surprising that Melville had been working on the novella for such a long time. Earlier in his life, he was known for the extremely rapid pace at which he wrote. For example, he wrote the mammoth Moby-Dick in just eighteen months – an epic novel that was about six times longer than Billy Budd.

So it’s odd that Melville would spend so much time on one piece – and still leave it unfinished.

Also puzzling is Melville’s motivation in writing Billy Budd at all. After he published Moby-Dick in 1851, he went on to write three other novels – Pierre: or, The Ambiguities; Israel Potter; and The Confidence-Man. Each subsequent novel increased the public’s sense that Melville had lost his mind, that his books were the ravings of a lunatic mad man. Looking back after more than 150 years, we can see that Melville was not insane but was rather highly innovative and deeply cynical about the human psyche.

Like Walt Whitman, Melville blew the lid off literary convention and, also like Whitman, was very much misunderstood and rejected by many in polite society. But unlike Whitman – and indeed unlike the whole band of Transcendentalists and their friends – Melville had a deeply pessimistic view of the world. When he saw Nathaniel Hawthorne in Europe in 1856, he told his friend that he had “pretty much made up [my] mind to be annihilated.” Hawthorne summed up Melville’s dilemma: “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.”

As he wrote novel after novel in the 1840s and ‘50s, Melville’s view of the human psyche became darker and darker, with the monomaniacal Captain Ahab epitomizing the terror of the human soul gone mad, consumed by evil.

So intense was the public’s vitriolic reaction to Melville’s work that he quit writing entirely. He disappeared into a quiet career as a New York Customs House inspector. Indeed, he had become such an obscure figure that a New York newspaper, whose offices were located just two blocks from Melville’s home in Manhattan, wrote an article that wondered if Melville had died.

So the question many Melville fans ask is: was the author of Billy Budd still cynical about the human soul and was his final novella thus a “testament of resistance”? Or had he made his peace with darkness, had he come to some kind of spiritual acceptance of the world – with the novella a “testament of acceptance”?

And what of the fact that the manuscript was apparently unfinished? When Melville died, the manuscript had not been prepared for the printer – and much ink has been spilled since that time trying to determine Melville’s intentions as a writer.

Given all the mystery surrounding this short piece of fiction, we must ask ourselves why Billy Budd is so ambiguous and what this ambiguity can tell us about Melville’s final message to his readers. When we look closely, I believe we’ll see that Billy Budd is ambiguous because Melville’s own ideas changed as he wrote it and because he wanted his readers to explore for themselves the profound questions the book asks. He wanted to challenge the intelligent and alert reader – the reader whom he so desperately wanted to find, the reader who would be waiting for him later in the twentieth century.

When Melville died in September 1891, it had been five months since he had written “End of Book” on the last page of Billy Budd. Why, then, do scholars think the novella was unfinished? Fragments, repetitions, scraps of text compete with each other. In fact, even though the book was rediscovered in the 1920s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that a somewhat definitive version was published – but even that version feels unfinished and incomplete.

Melville had a lifelong history of losing control of manuscripts. For example, he told a friend that Pierre had “got somewhat out of hand,” ending up much longer and much more complex than Melville had originally intended. And in the famous cetelogy chapter in Moby-Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, says he leave his “cetological system standing thus unfinished. . . . God keep me from ever completing anything.” The editors of the 1962 version conclude:

Perhaps the “unfinished” Billy Budd should be regarded in this light. Melville’s often declared conception of the relation between reality and literature, between “truth” and the writer’s attempt to see and state it, involved both incompletion and formal imperfection as a necessity: a work that is faithful to reality must in the end be both incomplete and unshapely, since truth is both elusive and intractable. . . .

When we look at Melville’s writing process, then, we should remember his wide-ranging, deep-diving psychological journeys. As he responded to Hawthorne’s letter on having read Moby-Dick, “The truth is ever incoherent. . . . Lord, when shall we be done growing? . . . Lord, when shall we be done changing?” Or as one critic said, Billy Budd “seems to chronicle a divided conscious; divided not by irony alone but by the reading and reflection and changing thoughts and attitudes of those five years of revisions and reconceptions.”

But Billy Budd is not simply an unfinished manuscript. To the degree that it is finished, it is deliberately ambiguous. Throughout the novella, Melville uses a quite large number of “sliding” words, changes our perspectives on all the main characters frequently, and makes direct comments regarding ambiguity and the problems of definitively answering troublesome questions. Melville’s purpose, it seems to me, was to set up a book in which the reader asks questions along with the author and, instead of having the questions answered by the author, is forced to grapple with them herself.

Take sliding words. Billy Budd is peppered with words that give the book an unfixed quality. Strange. Mysterious. Peculiar. Singular. Lurking. Secret. Obscure. Subtle. Questionable. Equivocal. Vague. Puzzle. Vex. Perplex. Wonder. Speculate. Ambiguous. These words are used in key scenes – scenes we often recall vividly. But when we reread these scenes, we find that any vividness we remember is but the vividness we have ourselves created.

Similarly, the book’s image patterns put us in a world where the line between awake and asleep is thin and malleable, a world of dreaming and trances. And the main characters – Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Captain Vere – shift and shape-change not only throughout the book but also within individual scenes. The reader simply can’t get a grasp on who these characters are. Is Billy Budd an Adam, a Christ, and Claggart a devil? Not so fast, Melville seems to say. Truth is not so neat.

Perhaps the most telling statement is one that appears late in the novella. The narrator says,

The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than fact. Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial.

Melville urges us to take care with what we read, to be slow in casting judgment and in reaching conclusions, and to allow ourselves to fully enter into the ambiguous exploration of the labyrinth. One scholar says that Billy Budd trails off, “leaving endless reverberations in our minds. There is more mystery than we had thought, and we may agree with dying Gertrude Stein that answers are less important than questions. . . . Not the tidy discourse of our first impression, [Billy Budd] is almost as inexplicable as Moby-Dick.”

If Melville had arrived at a well-defined set of answers, if this book was intended as his “testament of acceptance” or his “testament of resistance,” it is likely that he would not have carefully and neatly woven those answers into a story. Perhaps nothing underscores this more than the fact that readers and scholars have been finding their own individual answers to the problem of Billy Budd since the book was first published in 1924. While not all have followed Melville’s cues, each has at least tried to determine for himself what the book means.

But the best defense for a purposefully ambiguous reading comes from Melville’s own lifelong struggle with truth, from his long and shifting writing process, and from a thorough and alert reading of the novella. Not the unfinished, disunified work of art that many have seen, Billy Budd is a triumph as a novella that lets the reader discover “truth” for herself.

If you’re curious about the challenges Melville’s manuscript presented to scholars who rediscovered it in the 1920s, visit the University of Virginia’s outstanding American Studies website on Billy Budd. There you’ll also find a great list of online resources to help as you read the novella.

If you want to own what many scholars believe to be the “best” version of the controversial manuscript, you’ll want the 1962 Hayford and Sealts edition. And finally, if you want to learn more about Melville’s life, check out Andrew Delbanco’s biography, Melville: His World and Workor Hershel Parker’s famous two-volume biography.

Listen:Listen now as I read Chapter 2 from the 1962 Hayford/Sealts edition. It provides our first full introduction to Billy Budd.

Image Credit: Herman Melville, painted by Joseph O. Eaton, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Herman_Melville.jpg