Reading Billy Budd Summary
by Hershel Parker

Start Your Free Trial

Download Reading Billy Budd Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Reading Billy Budd Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When Herman Melville died in 1891, his reputation had been declining for forty years. Ever sinceMoby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851) disappointed an audience longing for another of Melville’s South Sea romances such as Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and its sequel Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), the novelist had lost readers steadily. His subsequent Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities (1852) confused critics and readers fully as much as his strange tale of Captain Ahab in pursuit of the white whale had and alienated them more with its themes of incest and suicide. After the stark failure of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade(1857), Melville, still only thirty-eight years old, gave up fiction for poetry and drifted into literary obscurity.

From 1866 to 1885, Melville supported his family by working as a customs inspector in New York. Around the time of his retirement from this position, he began a story of a sailor impressed on a British warship near the end of the eighteenth century. Billy Budd is falsely accused of mutinous inclinations by the ship’s master-at-arms, John Claggart. Unable to defend himself against the charge because of a speech impediment, Billy lashes out with his fist and kills Claggart. Circumstances lead the captain to order Billy summarily tried and, once found guilty, hanged immediately aboard ship. Melville worked on this short novel for several years but died without quite completing it.

Melville’s poetry had proven no more popular than his fiction of the 1850’s, and so, there being no call for another book by Melville, the family retained the manuscript. Not until 1924 did Raymond Weaver edit Billy Budd, Foretopman for publication. Its appearance sparked a revival of interest in Melville that has continued ever since, with the posthumous narrative becoming, afterMoby Dick, its author’s most celebrated work.

Unfortunately, Weaver had made a number of errors in constructing a reading text from Melville’s often difficult and sometimes illegible manuscript. The most egregious came about because Melville’s widow, happening upon a two-paragraph fragment in a separate folder, wrote on it “preface for Billy Budd?” Failing to distinguish the handwriting from Melville’s own, Weaver assumed that the author had so intended it; thus, for the next thirty-eight years all readers of Billy Budd, Foretopman began with the supposed preface. When Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., reedited the manuscript, they discovered, among other things, that the “preface” was in fact a canceled portion of what eventually became chapter 19. Only in 1962, when the Hayford-Sealts edition, retitled Billy Budd, Sailor in accordance with what appeared to be Melville’s final intention, reached print did anyone have an opportunity to read a version more or less free of errors. (Hayford and Sealts admitted that conjecture was sometimes necessary and that Melville had not cleared up the inconsistencies of the manuscript before his death.) Decades later there remain in print various inexpensive editions of Billy Budd with the spurious preface and other major errors.

Hershel Parker regards his book as a guide both to Melville’s novel and to the Hayford-Sealts edition; appropriately, he has dedicated Reading Billy Budd to these editors not only of a reading text but also of a painstakingly prepared “genetic text” that facilitates a study of the elaborate process by which Melville’s novel grew from a ballad, “Billy in the Darbies,” to the now-familiar story with the ballad at the end. Reading Billy Budd  is in four parts, the first of which places the novel in its historical context, both in the sense of describing Melville’s establishment of its setting and in the sense of locating the book within its author’s final years and within its literary milieu. At the end of part 1, Parker summarizes the adventures of Melville’s neglected manuscript up to the time of...

(The entire section is 1,997 words.)