Billy Budd, by Herman Melville, was first published, posthumously, in 1925. Herman Melville began writing the novella in the late 1880s. It was unfinished when he died in 1891.
The first sentence is: “In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war’s men or merchant-sailors in holiday attire ashore on liberty.”
The story opens in the year 1797. The captain of the merchant ship The Rights of Man, is reluctantly assigning 21-year-old sailor Billy Budd to the H.M.S. Indomitable. Billy Budd was a good, and well liked, sailor, but the Indomitable is a warship in need of crew members.
As his sees his former ship leave, Billy Budd turns, waves, and shouts, “Good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man!” Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, of the H.M.S. Indomitable, is not pleased with this unprofessional behavior. Billy Budd will have to learn how to be a sailor in the Royal Navy.
Billy Budd is a foundling. He possesses good looks and an abundance of charisma. He is described, in great detail, as the “Handsome Sailor” type. “…a fine specimen of genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.”
As Billy Budd settles into his assignment as a foretopman aboard the Indomitable, the bad memory of the “Great Mutiny” (which happened aboard another ship) is still fresh in many of his fellow sailors’ minds.
Billy is as loved aboard the Indomitable as he was aboard The Rights of Man.
Billy Budd is not loved by everyone, however. Master-at-arms John Claggart is envious of Billy’s good looks. Billy’s casual, unprofessional manner (in reality, a lack of training) causes Claggart to see him as a potential mutineer. Claggart thinks Billy possesses a “Natural Depravity”.
One night, Billy Budd is approached by a group of his fellow crewmen, impressed into service, as Billy had been, and try to recruit him for a potential mutiny. Billy tells them he’s not interested – he’s quite pleased with life aboard the Indomitable. One of them slips two guineas into Billy’s hand as the group leaves. Billy doesn’t understand what just happened.
Master-at-arms Claggart comes to Captain Vere and accuses Billy Budd of conspiracy to mutiny. When Billy is called into the Captain’s quarters, Billy thinks he is about be commended for his excellent service. He is caught off guard by Claggart’s accusation, and, because of a speech impediment, is dumbstruck. Billy Budd becomes so frustrated that, without thinking, he physically attacks Claggart, killing him.
So, young Billy Budd, at first wrongly accused of conspiracy, stands accused of murder. Captain Vere is the judge, and sole witness, in the drumhead court. No one believes Claggart’s accusation, not even Captain Vere. But there is no doubt that that Billy Budd committed murder. Billy doesn’t hesitate to admit guilt. The trial, and its aftermath, lasts several chapters.
Billy Budd is considered an American classic, right up there with Moby-Dick. I didn’t like it.
There’s a great story in there – I can see that. (Very clever, Mr. Melville, saying goodbye to old Rights-of-Man.) But I had a tough time following it, with all its verbosity and cultural analogies. I found my mind glazing over after reading a few pages. I’m sure I missed details, and got other details wrong.
Herman Melville died before finishing Billy Budd. Other authors, and his widow, pieced the novella together from drafts and notes. He named the warship H.M.S. Bellipotent and then renamed it Indomitable (or maybe the other way around). There was some difficulty reading Melville’s handwriting. There are several published versions of this story out there, with minor differences here and there, including the name of the ship. I thought that was interesting.
Why I chose this book:
There was something about the wording of this category – “A book set at sea” – that made me think it should be a book written before the 20th century. So when an internet search turned up Billy Budd, I knew this would be the book.