Melville finished his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, when he was all of thirty-two years old. Still a young writer, he had crafted one of the most incredibly dense and imaginative works in all of literature, a book now praised by many as the greatest novel in English. But Moby-Dick failed, slammed by critics and spurned by readers; Melville's truths were too hard to hear.
Billy Budd was written decades later, by a man who had known rejection. The book was never published in Melville's lifetime. It sat, uncollated, unfinished, and undiscovered until 1924. Various titles have been attached to it: Billy Budd; Billy Budd, Sailor; Billy Budd, Foretopman. We often find "An Inside Narrative" attached to these; because of the state in which the manuscript was found, a few variations vie for the position of authoritative title.
Between 1851, when Moby-Dick failed, and 1891, when Melville died and left Billy Budd in an unfinished state, the writer had raised a family, worked at various tedious jobs to pay the bills, and faced continuous rejection for works now praised as containing some of the greatest writing not only of Melville's time, but of any time. It is difficult not to read some of Melville's life experiences into these later works.
It is not known exactly when Melville wrote Billy Budd. Our best guess place the first seeds of the work sometime after 1855, but that leaves a thirty-five year gap. Thanks to the scholarship of Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., we can surmise something of the process of writing the novella (Busch xxi). Melville began with the famous poem, "Billy in the Darbies," the haunting sailor's song that finishes the book. From there, he wrote drafts that from the start explored Billy's situation in view of British eighteenth-century history. Claggart and Vere came in later drafts, and through various reworkings became more complex and developed characters.
Many have read the book, with the sailor's undeserved death at its climax, as Melville's reconciliation with his own rejection and failure. Frederick Busch also takes into consideration Melville's family life. Melville was not a particularly easy father or husband. When writing, he was prone to sullenness and terrible selfishness. We know almost nothing specific of his relationship with his firstborn son, Malcolm. One day in 1867, when Malcolm was only eighteen years old, the boy came home from work, locked himself in his room, and put a bullet through his own head. The family said it was an accident. In the tender father-son relationship between Captain Vere and Billy, wherein the father figure dooms the son and the son gives the father his benediction, Frederick Busch sees Melville searching for a way to work through the loss of his own son (xxii-xxiii). But as we know little of the specifics of their relationship, and have no direct evidence linking biography to the novella, all of this speculation remains tentative.
What we do know is that Billy Budd today is ranked as one of Melville's greatest works, and one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. The story of a doomed sailor, the text has acquired one of the richest traditions of interpretation of any book ever written. Its richness, depth, and ambiguity have given it a powerful life in American universities, where it is on the canon list for English literature as well as a seminal text for gay and lesbian studies. Due to its allegorical elements, Billy Budd is also eternally popular on high school reading lists. But far from being a pat fable, Billy Budd is one of the great novels of questions. The novella is not brimming with the dark metaphysical and philosophical dread of Moby-Dick; many of the questions here are specific and ethical in nature, firmly located within the time and place of Billy's situation. What is the individual's place in a social system? In a time of war? What do duty and principle demand, and what is the price of obeying that demand? Melville's novella presents a situation with complicated implications, none of which are explained away or neatly categorized by the novella's allegorical elements. Melville criticizes the neat symmetry of fiction, in a way that would suggest unhappiness with a simplistic allegorical reading. Symbolism here enriches, rather than explains away. Though less astounding than Melville's masterpiece, Billy Budd reveals a mature and penetrating writer, still in full command of his powers, with perspective enough now to ask questions about his own art.