Alright, let's play a word-association game. I say, Herman Melville, and you say... Moby-Dick!
Now, let's imagine that we play this game in the year 1891, the year of Melville's death. I say, Herman Melville, and you say...
Wait, you didn't say anything. That's because Melville's books went out of print in the year 1876, largely due to the critical backlash to his 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Melville's first two novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), were both popular and successful books. They were fairly simple adventure stories based upon his experiences as a sailor in the U.S. Navy, and for a few years it would have been very chic to invite Herman Melville to your New York salon to spin a good old sea-yarn.
But as Melville continued to publish, it gradually became clear that he wasn't just setting out to write adventure stories. His work dealt with historical, religious, and philosophical themes in great detail. Melville's reputation rapidly declined, and he was so discouraged that after the year 1866 he more or less stopped writing. When the plates for his books were burned in a fire, no one even bothered to replace them.
Melville worked on Billy Budd at the very end of his life, from the years 1888 to 1891. The book was not discovered until 1921, when Melville's granddaughter gave the manuscript to Raymond Weaver, a man who had decided to go against all the dictates of common sense and good business practices and write a biography of an author that was but a footnote in American literature, Herman Melville.
Except that Weaver's biography, Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic, began a Melville revival that only accelerated when he released the unknown novel Billy Budd in 1924. Billy Budd is a taut little morality tale that takes place on board a ship of the English Royal Navy. It focuses on John Claggart's false accusation of Budd as a mutinous man, and the difficult moral and legal decision that falls on the Captain's shoulders as a result. The story is philosophically rich and remarkably nuanced, and the historical situation only adds to the suspense because it takes place in the year 1797, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars and in the wake of several massive mutinies in the English fleet.
After Weaver's brave biography, people began to worship Melville. In particular, Moby-Dick became recognized as one of the greatest novels, both in America and abroad, ever to have been published. Billy Budd is a classic in its own right. It has since been converted to film a number of times, most notably by John Huston, and an opera has been made of the book written in part by E.M. Forster (of A Room with a View and A Passage to India fame). Next to Moby-Dick, though, Billy Budd may seem like small fry.
But next time you hear Herman Melville, allow yourself a mental hiccup before you spit out Moby-Dick. Remember that you might not ever have heard of Moby-Dick (or Herman Melville for that matter) if it weren't for Billy Budd.
Everyone get your imaginarium hats on. Ready? Good. Let’s say you've just added us to your Facebook account. So far so good. Next thing you know, we’ve posted on your wall: “The jerk store called, they ran out of you."
Not likely, we know—we're a pretty nice crowd, after all. But if it were to happen, you'd probably wonder what on earth you'd done to make Shmoop so mad. And guess what? We'll never tell. Nope. Never. You’ll just have to go through life knowing that someone has it out for you, but never know why.
People can be weird, and human relationships can be complex. Sometimes folks just don’t get along for reasons that are never understood.
Billy Budd, with its central conflict between the driven Claggart and the innocent Billy, delves into the mysteries of human motivation. Just why Claggart has it out for Billy is never really made clear. That means we as readers get to participate in trying to figure out what his motivations might be. Is he jealous? In love? Crazy?
Reading Melville’s novel is a lot like trying to “read” people. It can be vague and at times frustrating, but ultimately it’s a process that invites us to reflect on why people do the things they do. These definitely aren’t the sorts of questions that lead to clear-cut, immediate answers. By asking them, though, we’re on the road to understanding what makes those around us tick, and maybe even what drives our own actions and motivations. And you know what they say about knowing…
Definitions to The Words You Don't Know
An excellent glossary to Herman Melville's book.
Explanations of the Allusions You Missed
There are a number of complex webs of allusion in Billy Budd. This dedicated professor has chased down the vast majority of them for you.
Herman Melville, Spinner of Sea Yarns
A photo of the renowned author. Note how confident and upright he looks, and remember that this is before his career took a nosedive. Why do we keep this image in our heads instead of the aged Melville, poor and alone?