Some would argue that Moby Dick, written at the height of his popularity, is Herman Melville’s best work. But his novella Billy Budd, written in obscurity and published twenty years after his death, just might surpass his early masterpieces for its concise portrayal of humanity.
“The author is generally supposed to be dead,” writes poet Henry Cannoll in 1886. Five full years before he passed, Cannoll’s tribute to Herman Melville was published in the Commercial Advertiser in January as if Melville were long gone. Cannoll complains “and of late years he has done nothing in literature. For a long while he has been in the custom house as inspector, and is dependent on his salary. Although his early works are still popular… he has, indeed, been buried in a government office.” So dramatic, yet four years later, the same sentiment reappears. Literary columnist William J. Bok lamented that Melville had been forgotten. In his November 7 column, he wrote:
“…if one chose to walk along East 18th Street, New York City, any morning about 9 o’clock, he would see the famous writer of sea stories—stories which never have been equaled, perhaps, in their special line. Mr. Melville is now an old man, but still vigorous …Forty-four years ago, when his most famous tale, Typee appeared, there was not a better known author than he, and he commanded his own prices. Publishers sought him, and editors considered themselves fortunate to secure his name as a literary star. And to-day? Busy New York has no idea he is even alive.”
Ironically it is in this same five year span that several editors of American anthologies sought permission to print Melville’s poetry and prose. In 1888, Melville happily consented to the inclusion of a biography and one chapter from Moby Dick, the infamous mighty whale capture, in Harper and Brothers’ Fifth Reader of American Literature. And with that, Harpers unknowingly began a trend. That same year Edmund Stedman secured permission from Melville to include four stories and six poems in the anthology A Library of American Literature and later an American Anthology (1900). Melville wasn’t dead yet by any means.
And unknown to his literary friends and followers, Melville was working on his final piece, a novella. Melville, unfortunately, was known to burn collections of personal correspondence, and nothing survives of any personal reference to this final work. Some would argue that Moby Dick written at the height of his popularity is his best work. However ironic it may appear, his novella Billy Budd, written in obscurity and published twenty years after his death, just might surpass his early masterpieces for its concise portrayal of humanity.
In his novella Billy Budd, Herman Melville portrays a variety of characters, intentionally setting their virtues within a framework of good and evil. These virtues are elevated by Melville’s descriptive language, specifically in passages where the narrator describes Billy and further where Billy encounters evil. Melville’s diction alone ennobles a theme of innocence.
From the beginning, Melville the narrator paints Billy as a good man, one gifted with influence and physical beauty. Before Billy even serves on the Indomitable, the lieutenant of The Rights of Man declared that “virtue went out of” Billy and “sugared” his crew. He further emphasized that the inherent goodness of Billy was enough to change the negative environment in his ship’s foretop. As the story progresses, the narrator adds to Billy’s physical description. He is quickly called “Baby Budd” because of his apparent youthfulness. Claggart and the Dansker, too, call him “Baby.” And he’s described as “welkin-eyed,” implying that his gaze and eyes are practically heavenly in their blue tone. His skin is described as “lily” white with a suggestion of a rose blooming beneath the surface when he flushed. The very adjectives of smooth, purity, lily, and rose hint at ideals of physical perfection. Melville even goes so far as to epitomize Billy as a Greek sculpture, a masculine beauty, the Handsome Sailor.
The narrator also suggests that Billy exuded a natural grace, “something in the mobile expression and every chance attitude and movement, something suggestive of a mother eminently favoured by Love and the Graces.” Thus Melville further intimates that Billy was born of nobility out of wedlock, attributing his naturally elegant mannerisms and physical beauty to his possible bloodline. Melville’s descriptions of Billy’s mannerisms in combination with those of his appearance haunt our awareness of his innocent nature. Yet Melville deepens this superficial picture of innocence by contrasting these descriptions with the reader’s awareness of the flaws within him and Billy’s growing awareness of the evil nature in others.
The reader first realizes that Billy is not a stereotype of perfection when Melville describes Billy’s inclination to defend himself when the sailor of the Red Whiskers literally dug at his ribs. Billy immediately reacts with a blow and proceeds to “give the fool a terrible drubbing.” The reader now knows that Billy does have a temper, and even skill to fight when needed, yet Red Whiskers and the other sailors now love and respect him. Ironically, the lieutenant recounting the tale terms Billy “a fighting peacemaker.” Another notable flaw is Billy’s speech impediment. Melville intentionally describes it for the reader before the reader ever witnesses it. It’s as if Melville wants the reader to see Billy’s humanity, to sway the reader’s judgment as he presents him as the imperfect and perhaps tragic hero. Again, this contrast further magnifies the innate virtue in Billy, but as the story unfolds, Billy also awakens to evil.
Through brief conversations with the Dansker, Billy is first exposed to Claggart’s evil intentions. Still doubtful, Billy is puzzled most when the Dansker tells him that “Jemmy Legs is down on you,” for Billy had believed Claggart when he called him “the sweet and pleasant young fellow.” Though the language is ironic since it comes from Claggart, this description still types Billy as an innocent, a man who represents goodness. In fact, part of Billy seems to deny the possible duplicity within someone in authority. This trait again draws attention to Billy’s innocent nature. Melville even says that our young sailor would never have heard of as yet the “‘too fair-spoken man.’”
Perhaps the strongest instance where Billy becomes aware of the evil in man is when Claggart directly accuses him of mutiny before Vere. When Billy is first summoned to Vere’s cabin, he is described as one of an “immature nature,” for he did not have the ability to discern Claggart’s intent. Upon hearing Claggart’s words, Billy’s normally pleasant countenance was transformed into a pall of “white leprosy” likened to “one impaled and gagged.” Here, Billy’s mute response and physical agitation imply that the very accusation coupled with his acute but belated understanding of Claggart flaunt his innocent nature against the present evil. For the reader, Melville’s contrast of this dark moment illuminates the trusting innocence of Billy more than any physical description could. Melville has shown us Billy’s very nature.
By story’s end, Melville’s descriptions have created a singular character of innocence, one he calls a “childman” of simple-mindedness. Every character who meets Billy knows that he has this unique and noble quality, though they each react differently to it. Many sailors love him, the Dansker mentors him, Vere fathers him, and Claggart destroys what he can’t become himself. Through all of these experiences, Billy remains distinctly human, for an innocent nature is not perfect.
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 The Writings of Herman Melville: Correspondence, Volume 14, ed. Lynn Horth (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 728.
 Herman Melville, Billy Budd & Other Stories (Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Classics, 1998), 232.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Ships motif” by Alfred Jensen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.