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I still remember the trepidation with which I picked up Moby Dick for the first time after someone warned me that there was one paragraph that went on for three pages.  For any reader, let alone a kid, that is a daunting prospect.  But I persevered and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it.  That pleasure has only grown with rereadings and my appreciation has deepened as I figured out some of the symbolism of the story.  Then David Sandberg got me to read Bartleby the Scrivener (see review, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853)(Grade: A) and, once again, I was impressed.  So I figured it was time to go back and read Billy Budd again, I don't think I'd read it since High School.   Now, I was surprised at the disagreement that Bartleby still provokes among critics, but I had no idea that Billy Budd was one of the hot beds of contention in literary criticism.

The story is seemingly simple.  Billy Budd is an impressed seaman serving aboard the British ship Indomitable in 1797.  He is a young man of such sweet naïveté, gentle disposition, great good humor and surpassing physical beauty that he is extremely well liked, even adored.  This provokes the jealousy of John Claggart, one of the ship's officers.  Billy rebuffs some shipmates who are discussing mutiny (the story occurs at the time of the Great Mutiny in the British Navy), but Claggart takes advantage of the air of unrest and denounces Budd to Captain Vere.  Billy is so flabbergasted that he is unable to speak and when the Captain prompts him to defend himself, Budd lashes out at Claggart and kills him with one punch.  Given the climate in the fleet, Vere determines to make an example of Billy, so he is tried, convicted and hanged.

My brief search of the Internet reveals that there are bitter wrangles over several issues implicated by the story.   First, is it primarily about justice and is the punishment itself just?  Those who feel that Melville was trying to demonstrate the injustice of the case maintain that Vere was insane and site the following passage:

    Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins?
    Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter
    into the other? So with sanity and insanity. In pronounced cases there is no question about them.
    But in some supposed cases, in various degrees supposedly less pronounced, to draw the exact line
    of demarkation few will undertake thoí for a fee some professional experts will. There is nothing
    namable but that some men will undertake to do it for pay.

    Whether Captain Vere, as the Surgeon professionally and privately surmised, was really the sudden
    victim of any degree of aberration, one must determine for himself by such light as this narrative
    may afford.

However, no less an authority than Richard Posner (the brilliant Federal judge who was just appointed mediator in the Microsoft antitrust case) has apparently addressed this issue too.  He weighs in, as I think is proper, on Captain Vere's side and says that the maintenance of discipline required harsh measures and Vere should not be judged by modern standards.

Next there is the argument over whether the tale is mainly concerned with Capital Punishment and if so, whether it is intended to be a polemic in opposition to the practice.  The essay  Billy Budd and Capital Punishment:  A Tale of Three Centuries  (H. Bruce Franklin, Rutgers) makes a strong enough case for me to accept that Melville was indeed addressing the issue.  Whether the story is necessarily an indictment of Capital Punishment remains, for me, an open question.

Finally there is a controversy within the community of queer theorists over whether Billy Budd is a homosexual text.  It seems fairly obvious that there is at least a subtext of homoeroticism to the story.  But, in addition, I don't see how you can explain away the startling "closed interview" between Budd and the Captain, just before Billy is executed:

    Beyond the communication of the sentence, what took place at this interview was never known. But
    in view of the character of the twain briefly closeted in that state room, each radically sharing in the
    rarer qualities of nature--so rare indeed as to be incredible to average minds however much
    cultivated--some conjecture may be ventured.

    It would have been in consonance with the spirit of Captain Vere should he on this occasion have
    concealed nothing from the condemned one--should he indeed have frankly disclosed to him the
    part he himself had played in bringing about the decision, at the same time revealing his actuating
    motives. On Billyís side it is not improbable that such a confession would have been received in
    much the same spirit that prompted it. Not without a sort of joy indeed he might have appreciated
    the brave opinion of him implied in his Captainís making such a confidant of him. Nor, as to the
    sentence itself could he have been insensible that it was imparted to him as to one not afraid to die.
    Even more may have been.  Captain Vere in the end may have developed the passion sometimes
    latent under an exterior stoical or indifferent. He was old enough to have been Billyís father. The
    austere devotee of military duty, letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in our
    formalized humanity, may in the 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.
    But there is no telling the sacrament, seldom if in any case revealed to the gadding world, wherever
    under circumstances at all akin to those here attempted to be set forth, two of great Natureís nobler
    order embrace. There is privacy at the time, inviolable to the survivor, and holy oblivion, the sequel
    to each diviner magnanimity, providentially covers all at last.

I don't know about you, but start with a naval vessel, shut the stateroom door with two men inside and start throwing around words like latent, passion, primeval, embrace and sacrament and I've gotta think there's a pretty good chance we're talking "love that dare not speak its name."

Of course, there is another important theme here and that is Billy as a kind of Christ figure, even up to and including the obligatory crucifix scene as Billy is hung from the yardarm.  Topping it all off, Melville reveals that in later years men collected splinters from the mast: "To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross."  And the book ends with a sort of hymn about Billy, written by a sailor.  Oddly enough, Moby Dick has a climactic crucifix scene too.  When Moby resurfaces after killing Ahab, the Captain's corpse has become entangled in the old harpoons & lines stuckk in the whale's flank and Ishmael sees him dangling there.  I have no idea what it means that Billy, an innocent, and Ahab, the very embodiment of obsession, should both end the same.

At any rate, there is plenty of food for thought in this pretty tiny package.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Herman Melville (3 books reviewed)
Sea Stories
Herman Melville Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Herman Melville
-PODCAST: 10 Essential Questions About Moby-Dick: From The History of Literature Podcast with Jacke Wilson (History of Literature, January 30, 2023)
-ESSAY: 100 YEARS OF BILLY BUDD (Lafayette Lee, 3/23/24, IM1776)
    -ESSAY: What Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” Tells Us About Memory Loss: Dasha Kiper on Understanding and Caring For Dementia Patients (Dasha Kiper, March 23, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Melville Reborn, Again and Again: A scholar traces Herman Melville’s reputation in American and British literary circles. (Matthew Wills September 28, 2014, Jstor)
    -ESSAY: Ishmael’s Real Name Was Jonah: The Interpretive Key that Allows Us to See Melville’s Work as a Unified Whole (Will Hoyt, 8/29/20, University Bookman)
    -ESSAY: Cooking with Herman Melville (Valerie Stivers April 16, 2021, Paris Review)
    -ESSAY: Herman Melville and the Desolation of Solitude (Jason Katz, 11.23/20, Ploughshares)
    -ESSAY: Satire, Symbolism, and the “Working Through” of Historical Ghosts in The Confidence-Man (Alex McDonnell Articles, Issue 10 2020-21, Irish Journal of American Studies)
-REVIEW: of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade By Herman Melville Edited by Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer (Roger K. Miller, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: of The Value of Herman Melville, by Geoffrey Sanborn (Daniel Ross Goodman, Imaginative Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Cook, Neither Believer Nor Infidel: Skepticism and Faith in Melville’s Shorter Fiction and Poetry (Zach Hutchins, Irish Journal of American Studies)

Book-related and General Links:
-The Life and Works of Herman Melville
    -Literary Research Guide: Herman Melville (1819 - 1891)
    -Billy Budd Guide
    -ETEXT: Herman Melville: Billy Budd (Bibliomania)
    -Annotated ETEXT: Herman Melville  BILLY BUDD,  Sailor
    -ESSAY: Billy Budd and Capital Punishment:  A Tale of Three Centuries  (H. Bruce Franklin, Rutgers)
     -ESSAY: Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville's Novels (Caleb Crain, Columbia)
     -The Curse of the Somers: Billy Budd's Ghost Ship
    -ESSAY: Melville in Manhattan   (J. Bottum, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Herman Melville A Biography. Volume 1, 1819-1851. By Hershel Parker (Paul Berman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of "Herman Melville" by Elizabeth Hardwick A great critic takes on a great novelist, finding agony, homoeroticism and, ultimately, mystery (Maria Russo, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Melville by Elizabeth Hardwick (Thomas Curwen, LA Times)