Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 on Pearl Street in New York City, the third of eight children born to Maria Gansevoort Melville and Allan Melville. Both the Gansevoorts and the Melvilles had ties to the American upper class; the families both played important roles during the Revolution. Allen Melville was 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 Chicago, he went back east again to help his debt-ridden family. 

Driven to desperation at age twenty-one, Melville signed up to work on a whaler, the Acushnet. This journey took him around South America and into the Pacific Ocean. After eighteen months on board, the ship arrived in the Marquesas Islands. There, Melville decided to abandon ship. With his shipmate, Richard Tobias Greene, he took refuge on the island and accidentally wandered into a tribe of cannibals. Melville stayed with them for four weeks before he was rescued by an Australian vessel. 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.

Leaving the Marquesas, Melville soon found that life on a ship that had rescured was little better than it had been on the Acushnet. Rebelling against it, he became embroiled in a mutiny and was jailed for a few weeks in a British prison. This experience would also give rise to a novel, Omoo in1847. After being freed, Melville stayed in Tahiti and Hawaii trying to earn money to make his way home. Eventually, he was hired on a US Navy frigate and returned to Boston in October of 1844.

Life among these natives and numerous other exotic experiences abroad provided Melville with a rich supply of literary conceits. Armed with the voluminous knowledge obtained from constant reading while at sea, Melville wrote a series of novels detailing his adventures and his philosophy of life. Typee and Omoo were followed Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849), another novel 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.

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 shorter works. 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 the short story “Bartelby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853) and th novellas “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” (1854) and “Benito Cereno” (1855). (All three of these works are examined in a SparkNote Study Guide called Melville Stories.) 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 in 1888, and Timoleon in 1891, the year that Melville died.

Background on Billy Budd, Sailor

At the time of his death, Melville had recently completed his first extended prose narrative in more than thirty years. However, this work would remain unpublished for yet another thirty-three 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-20th 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 of Billy Budd

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, Elizabeth. 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 multiple 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.