Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819, the third of eight children born to Maria Gansevoort Melville and Allan Melville, a prosperous importer of foreign goods. When the family business failed at the end of the 1820s, the Melvilles relocated to Albany in an attempt to revive their fortune. In another string of bad luck, overwork drove Allan to an early grave, and the young Herman was forced to start working in a bank at the age of thirteen.

After a few more years of formal education, Melville left school at eighteen to become an elementary school teacher. This career was abruptly cut short and followed by a brief tenure as a newspaper reporter. Running out of alternatives on land, Melville made his first sea voyage at nineteen, as a merchant sailor on a ship bound for Liverpool, England. He returned to America the next summer, to seek his fortune in the West. After briefly settling in Illinois, he went back east in the face of continuing financial difficulties.

Finally, driven to desperation at twenty-one, Melville committed to a whaling voyage, of indefinite destination and scale, on board a ship called the Acushnet. This journey took him around the continent of South America, across the Pacific Ocean, and to the South Seas, where he abandoned ship with a fellow sailor in the summer of 1842, eighteen months after setting out from New York. The two men found themselves in the Marquesas Islands, where they accidentally wandered into the company of a tribe of cannibals. Lamed by an injury to his leg, Melville became separated from his companion and spent a month alone in the company of the natives. This experience later formed the core of his first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, published in 1846. An indeterminate mixture of fact and fiction, Melville’s fanciful travel narrative remained the most popular and successful of his works during his lifetime.

Life among these natives and numerous other exotic experiences abroad provided Melville with endless literary conceits. Armed with the voluminous knowledge obtained from constant reading while at sea, Melville set out to write a series of novels detailing his adventures and his philosophy of life. Typee was followed by Omoo (1847) and Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849), two more novels about his Polynesian experiences. Redburn, also published in 1849, is a fictionalized account of Melville’s first voyage to Liverpool. His next novel, White-Jacket; or The World in a Man-of-War, published in 1850, is a more generalized and allegorical account of life at sea aboard a warship.

Through the lens of literary history, these first five novels are all seen as a prologue to the work that is today considered Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick; or The Whale, which first appeared in 1851. A story of monomania aboard a whaling ship, Moby-Dick is a tremendously ambitious novel that functions at once as a documentary of life at sea and a vast philosophical allegory of life in general. No sacred subject is spared in this bleak and scathing critique of the known world, as Melville satirizes by turns religious traditions, moral values, and the literary and political figures of the day.

Motivated to the passionate intensity of Moby-Dick in part by a burgeoning friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville was unperturbed by the lukewarm reception that his grandest novel enjoyed in the initial reviews. However, Melville reevaluated his place in the literary world after the outraged reaction to his next novel, Pierre; or The Ambiguities, which appeared in 1852. The sole pastoral romance among Melville’s works, this self-described “rural bowl of milk” became known as a decidedly bad book as much for its sloppy writing as for its incestuous theme and nebulous morals.

After the disastrous reception of Pierre, Melville turned his attentions to the short story. In the following five years, he published numerous fictional sketches of various lengths in several prominent periodicals of the day. Most notable among these works are “Bartelby, The Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.” In this period, he also published his final two completed novels: a historical work titled Israel Potter; or Fifty Years of Exile, in 1855, and a maddeningly bleak satire of trust titled The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, in 1857.

In the remaining thirty-five years of his life, Melville’s literary production cooled considerably, grinding nearly to a halt. A brief stint on the national lecture tour gave way to more stable employment as a customshouse inspector, a job he held for almost twenty years before his retirement in the late 1880s. A volume of war poetry, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, appeared in 1866, and Melville published the lengthy poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land in 1876. Toward the end of his life, Melville produced two more volumes of verse, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon (1891).

At the time of his death in 1891, Melville had recently completed his first extended prose narrative in more than thirty years. However, this work would remain unpublished for yet another thirty years, appearing in 1924 in a limited London edition under the title of Billy Budd. Only after Melville began to gain wider acclaim in the mid-twentieth century did scholars and general readers begin to read Billy Budd with serious care. Based in part on events Melville himself experienced at sea, Billy Budd also incorporates a historical incident involving Melville’s first cousin, who played a role, similar to Captain Vere, as an arbitrator in a controversy involving the trial and execution of two midshipmen on board the U.S.S. Somers in 1842.

Melville’s first great literary historical proponent, Lewis Mumford, saw Billy Budd as a testament to Melville’s ultimate reconciliation with the incongruities and injustices of life. According to Mumford, Billy Budd is the placid, accepting last word of an aged man and an affirmation of true religious transcendence. Later critics, such as Lawrance Thompson, saw in Billy Budd a bitter satire that served only to reconfirm Melville’s earlier acerbity. According to Thompson, Melville’s cynicism and defiance appear all the more heightened and corrosive for their more subtle means.

The last, long-delayed work of a long-silent author, Billy Budd is a unique document in American letters. It stands as one of the most ambiguous and inscrutable works of one of America’s most ambiguous and inscrutable authors. The two major critical views—Billy Budd as religious paean, or Billy Budd as jaded satire—have only served to fuel the legend of Billy Budd. Standing in such sharp opposition to each other, these two views persist with equal vigor to the present, providing continuous debate for readers the world over.

A Note on the Text

Melville worked on Billy Budd during the final years of his life, and though he seems to have essentially finished a draft of the novel, he never prepared it for publication. When he died in 1891, he left it in the form of an extremely rough manuscript with innumerable notes and marks for correction and revision, some in his own handwriting, some in the handwriting of his wife. Undiscovered until more than thirty years after Melville’s death, the novel went unpublished until 1924. Because of the indefinite state of the manuscript and the lapsed time between Melville’s death and its discovery, there has been a long-standing editorial controversy with regard to how the book should be edited and arranged. As a result, there are many widely varying editions of Billy Budd.

Editors working directly from Melville’s manuscript have produced three separate editions of the novel: one prepared by Raymond Weaver in 1924, one by F. Barron Freeman in 1948, and two by Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr.—a reading text and a “genetic text”—in 1962. The Freeman edition is partly based on the Weaver edition, and, to make matters more complicated, the Freeman edition was reedited in 1956 by Elizabeth Treeman, who claimed to have found more than 500 errors in Freeman’s work. Editors have disagreed about issues such as how authoritative the revisions in Melville’s wife’s handwriting really are—Weaver, in fact, mistook Elizabeth Melville’s handwriting for her husband’s, a mistake that earned him the scorn of subsequent editors. Other disagreements concern chapter order, the inclusion or exclusion of certain chapters Melville may have wished to cut, and the name of Billy’s ship, which Melville’s manuscript calls “the Indomitable” twenty-five times and “the Bellipotent” six times. Most editors have gone with “Indomitable,” but Hayford and Sealts conclude that Melville intended to change the name to “Bellipotent.

Today, the Hayford/Sealts reading text is generally regarded as the best version of Billy Budd, though as perhaps befits a novel of such deep thematic ambiguity, a truly definitive text is impossible. Most commercially available editions are based on the Hayford/Sealts reading text, including this SparkNote, which utilizes the Library of America edition of the novel. Other editions are likely to differ widely, in the several respects mentioned above.