Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reflections on Billy Budd

The Melville, Pennsylvania Project, Book VIII

I’m at least as intrigued by the way Melville’s last published prose work, the novella Billy Budd, Sailor, came to be as I am by the story itself. For it was composed towards the very end of his life and literary career, after he had been working on poetry almost exclusively for the better part of three decades. When you consider the fact that the last work of prose writing to appear by Herman Melville had been published nearly thirty years before (The Confidence-Man, 1857), the fact that there is any Billy Budd to reflect on at all is pretty astonishing all by itself.

Although it wasn’t even published until well after Melville’s death (1924; Melville died in 1891), Billy Budd is still one of his best-known writings. Aside from Moby-Dick, it is the one story that most people I have asked have heard of before and can identify as belonging to Melville’s work. Many of my generation remember being assigned Billy Budd in high school English – my wife is one of these. I don’t remember ever being assigned anything Melville wrote, including Moby-Dick or the famous short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener”.

(I never read anything I was assigned to in English class anyway though, so I’m the wrong person to ask. The only thing I can remember reading is maybe two chapters of Great Expectations, and the Cliff Notes for The Scarlet Letter. In my sophomore year of high school, I dropped from a 3.5 grade on a 4-point scale to a 1.0, or a “D”, in one marking period, chiefly because I didn’t read any of the books. That's an unbreakable record in my family.)

To address that elephant standing in the room, Billy Budd is also cited as “evidence”, for some, of at least a suppressed homo-erotic aspect to Herman Melville’s writings. There is a famous moment from the television show “The Sopranos” where the family engages in discussion of the book’s “gay” themes ( (kind of a funny scene really, or at least it is when Tony Soprano describes Billy as “the ship’s florist”!). I don’t know whether this book can be taken as proof of latent (or not) homosexuality on Melville’s part, nor am I all that interested in the subject. Although I am hopeful that one or both of the critical/biographical works I am planning to read in the next couple of months will at least help clarify the matter, for my own general understanding.

Certainly there are numerous references to Billy Budd’s great “beauty”, a word used often in the novella. He has a kind of angelic quality that Melville doesn’t really hold back on. But many have argued that Billy’s looks correspond to a religious subtext in the story, and the descriptions of the young man could be interpreted as being in the service of that. After all, Billy himself does end up dying a rather Christ-like death, fully turning the other cheek.

This subject, while not critical to understanding the whole story, does point in the direction of another question, which has to do with the overall intention of Billy Budd in the first place. Is it a character study, an expansion on the idea of a young, handsome sailor on a ship’s crew and how he may or may not get on with the rest of the men? In other words, is it strictly about men’s interactions, their relationships, their human concerns? Or, as some have speculated, is it really a kind of spiritual allegory, substituting Billy in the martyr’s role, willfully meeting death despite his youthful innocence? These are the questions that have driven the debate around this fascinating tale since the early 20th century.

For me, in general, Billy Budd was more difficult to latch on to than other short works by Melville I have read, or novels for that matter. I’ve spent several days trying to figure out why, and I still don’t really know. In addition to being well-known, it’s considered one of his finest writings by most critics. I can’t say exactly what it is about the novella that makes it more obscure and slightly more impenetrable to me than his other sea-stories, but I may be able to offer some theories.

There was a great deal of time and experience acquired by Melville between the years he wrote his other novella-length works, “Bartleby” and “Benito Cereno”, and the time he was writing Billy Budd, and this naturally had a great effect on the final product. It’s my idea that as time went on, even as early as the later 1850s, when he was writing The Confidence-Man, Melville drifted away from the parameters of a more “conventional” story-telling style. After he concluded his last novel, and it received the usual half-hearted notices and public dismissal, Melville seemed more than ready to gravitate into other forms of writing – which he did, transforming himself into a poet almost overnight. For most of the next 30 years, as I said above, he wrote mostly poems, and some experimental poetry-prose mash-ups.

Indeed, Billy Budd, by all scholarly accounts, began as a poem entitled “Billy in the Darbies” – “darbies”, I have since learned, means irons or chains. The final version of the poem, that is only a couple of stanzas long, appears at the end of the novella. The volume I read which contained the final version of Billy Budd also, helpfully, contained early versions of the poem that led to the narrative story, which was originally longer. You can see how Melville initially planned to tell the story of a very handsome young sailor who was convicted for trying to generate a mutiny on board a whaling vessel, while remaining entirely innocent of the crime. Yet instead of attempting to defend himself against the charges in the impromptu court-martial, he fatally drops his accuser in one blow, then faces his own imprisonment and death with a Christ-like bravery and demeanor.

Looking to my own experience, being a terrible poet, I can’t say that I have ever come close to having a story develop out of a poem; I would think it would be easier to go the other way, and boil a story down to verse, but I can’t really say. I do know that given that provenance, it would seem impossible for Billy Budd to read the same way as the earlier stories that began as “normal” prose drafts and were refined and revised into the present versions. Is it too obvious to point out that the intellectual implements used to bring a poem into reality must be different from those used to draft a work of fiction?

Also, it seemed to me that even if Melville had not been writing poetry for all that time, he was clearly experimenting with narrative itself, and what it means to tell a story using a prose format. If you look at tales such as “The Two Temples” or “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids”, those “stories”, while written in recognizable narrative prose, are not traditional fictions. As I have written here previously, they examine two similar situations with overlapping characters but in different physical settings. Sometimes described as “diptychs”, I am not sure what writings like this really accomplish, for lack of a better word – but I know for sure they don’t tell a gripping yarn. They’re simply not built for that. They’re more experimental.

Melville had proved more than once he could tell an exciting story. He was interested in different ways of employing his skills as an artist. Even earlier works such as the novel Mardi dabbled in experimental techniques by fusing poetry and prose in many segments, revealing that Melville was interested in such hybrid forms from an earlier point in his career. And clearly this desire to “mix it up”, to use current vernacular, remained alive in this vibrant and self-driven artist up through the very end of his writing life.

Billy Budd, in the final version, is closer to traditional story-telling than many of his other later works, but it doesn’t feel, to me anyway, like a traditional story. It is marked by Melville’s wandering intellect, vast body of experiences, and inclination towards uncharted literary territory. Perhaps this corresponds to his physical wanderlust as a younger man, characteristic of a brave soul who was always willing to discover new things, and to push himself into undiscovered intellectual and even spiritual challenges.

Even if I cannot say Billy Budd is my favorite among his works, my admiration for it as a final cannon blast from the deck of one of literature’s most intrepid man-of-wars is here given earnest, if imperfect, testimony.


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