Created slowly over the last five years of his life, the novella Billy Budd represents Melville's return to prose fiction after three decades when he wrote only poetry. He started it as a poem, a ballad entitled "Billy in the Darbies", which he intended to include in his book, John Marr and Other Sailors. Melville composed a short, prose head-note to introduce the speaker and set the scene. The character of "Billy" in this early version was an older man condemned for inciting mutiny and apparently guilty as charged. He did not include the poem in his published book. Melville incorporated the ballad and expanded the head-note sketch into a story that eventually reached 150 manuscript pages. This was the first of what were to be three major expansions, each related to one of the principal characters.
Melville had a difficult time writing, describing his process with Moby-Dick as follows: "Taking a book off the brain is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole business in order to get at it with safety." The "scrapings" of Billy Budd lie in the 351 leaves of manuscript now in the Houghton Library at Harvard.
The state of this manuscript has been described as "chaotic," with a bewildering array of corrections, cancellations, cut and pasted leaves, annotations inscribed by several hands, and with at least two different attempts made at a fair copy. The composition proceeded in three general phases, as shown by the Melville scholars Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., who did an extensive study of the original papers from 1953 to 1962.
In three main phases he had introduced in turn the three main characters: first Billy, then Claggart, and finally Vere. As the focus of his attention shifted from one to another of these three principals, the plot and thematic emphasis of the expanding novel underwent consequent modifications within each main phase. Just where the emphasis finally lay in the not altogether finished story as he left it is, in essence, the issue that has engaged and divided the critics of Billy Budd.
After Melville's death, his wife Elizabeth, who had acted as his amanuensis on other projects, scribbled notes and conjectures, corrected spelling, sorted leaves and, in some instances, wrote over her husband's faint writing. She tried to follow through on what she perceived as her husband's objectives but her editing was confusing to the first professional editors, Weaver and Freeman, who mistook her writing for Melville's. At some point Elizabeth Melville placed the manuscript in "a japanned tin box" with the author's other literary materials, and it remained undiscovered for another 28 years.
After Raymond M. Weaver, a professor at Columbia University, produced a text that would later be described as "hastily transcribed", he published the first edition of the work in 1924 as Volume XIII of the Standard Edition of Melville's Complete Works (London: Constable and Company). In 1928 he published another version of the text which, despite numerous variations, may be considered essentially the same text.
F. Barron Freeman published a second text in 1948, edited on different principles, as Melville's Billy Budd (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). He believed he stayed closer to what Melville wrote, but still relied on Weaver's text, with what are now considered mistaken assumptions and textual errors. Subsequent editions of Billy Budd up through the early 1960s are, strictly speaking, versions of one or the other of these two basic texts.
After several years of study, in 1962, Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., established what is now considered the correct, authoritative text. It was published by the University of Chicago Press, and contains both a "reading" and a "genetic" text. Most editions printed since then follow the Hayford-Sealts text.
Based on the confusing manuscripts, the published versions had many variations. For example, early versions gave the book's title as Billy Budd, Foretopman, while it now seems clear Melville intended Billy Budd, Sailor: (An Inside Narrative)'; some versions wrongly included as a preface a chapter that Melville had excised (the correct text has no preface). In addition, some early versions did not follow his change of the name of the ship to Bellipotent (from the Latin bellum war and potens powerful), from Indomitable, as Melville called it in an earlier draft. It is unclear of his full intentions in changing the name of the ship since he used the name Bellipotent only six times.