Billy Budd

Literary significance and reception

The book has undergone a number of substantial, critical reevaluations in the years since its discovery. Raymond Weaver, its first editor, was initially unimpressed and described it as "not distinguished". After its publication debut in England, and with critics of such caliber as D. H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry hailing it as a masterpiece, Weaver changed his mind. In the introduction to its second edition in the 1928 Shorter Novels of Herman Melville, he declared: "In Pierre, Melville had hurled himself into a fury of vituperation against the world; with Billy Budd he would justify the ways of God to man."

In mid-1924 Murry orchestrated the reception of Billy Budd, Foretopman, first in London, in the influential Times Literary Supplement, in an essay called "Herman Melville's Silence" (July 10, 1924), then in a reprinting of the essay, slightly expanded, in the New York Times Book Review (August 10, 1924). In relatively short order he and several other influential British literati had managed to canonize Billy Budd, placing it alongside Moby-Dick as one of the great books of Western literature. Wholly unknown to the public until 1924, Billy Budd by 1926 had joint billing with the book that had just recently been firmly established as a literary masterpiece. In its first text and subsequent texts, and as read by different audiences, the book has kept that high status ever since.[1]

In 1990 the Melville biographer and scholar Hershel Parker pointed out that all the early estimations of Billy Budd were based on readings from the flawed transcription texts of Weaver. Some of these flaws were crucial to an understanding of Melville's intent, such as the famous "coda" at the end of the chapter containing the news account of the death of the "admirable" John Claggart and the "depraved" William Budd (25 in Weaver, 29 in Hayford & Sealts reading text, 344Ba in the genetic text) :

Weaver: "Here ends a story not unwarranted by what happens in this incongruous world of ours—innocence and 'infirmary', spiritual depravity and fair 'respite'."

The Ms: "Here ends a story not unwarranted by what happens in this {word undeciphered} world of ours—innocence and 'infamy', spiritual depravity and fair 'repute'."

Melville had written this as an end-note after his second major revision. When he enlarged the book with the third major section, developing Captain Vere, he deleted the end-note, as it no longer applied to the expanded story. Many of the early readers, such as Murry and Freeman, thought this passage was a foundational statement of Melville's philosophical views on life. Parker wonders what they could possibly have understood from the passage as written.

Although Parker agrees that "masterpiece" is an appropriate description of the book, he adds a proviso. "Examining the history and reputation of Billy Budd has left me more convinced than before that it deserves high stature (although not precisely the high stature it holds, whatever that stature is) and more convinced that it is a wonderfully teachable story—as long as it is not taught as a finished, complete, coherent, and totally interpretable work of art."[5]

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