American author Herman Melville's early adventures at sea pervade his literary canon, and haunt his late masterpiece Billy Budd
On 3 January 1841 Herman Melville embarked from the busy whaling port of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, in the depths of winter. He was 21 years old. Soon Melville's ship, the Acushnet, had left behind the cold New England winter, rounded Cape Horn, and emerged into the vast blue Pacific. Melville remained in that ocean for over three-and-a-half years – certainly the most adventurous, exciting and irresponsible years of his life. And whether or not he knew it then, those early years at sea would later provide rich material for his This was not Melville's first voyage. In 1839 he had worked as a sailor on the St Lawrence on a short voyage to Liverpool, England. It was partly economic necessity that drove the young Herman Melville to sea. He was born on 1 August 1819 into a moderately wealthy family, but in 1830 his father became bankrupt, and died two years later.
Melville's mother was left to support a large family on very limited means. Both before and after his voyage on the St Lawrence, Melville tried other forms of employment, such as farming and teaching, but the romance of the sailor's life clearly attracted him. Whaling voyages were notoriously long, and when he embarked on the Acushnet in 1841 he had before him the prospect of three or four years at sea.
Melville did not remain on the Acushnet throughout that time.Common sailors like him frequently changed ship. In July 1842 Melville deserted at Nukahiva in the seductive Marquesas Islands.
One month later he joined the Lucy Ann, an Australian whaler, but deserted again, at Tahiti, after playing a minor part in a small mutiny. After exploring Tahiti and Eimeo, Melville joined another American whaler, the Charles and Henry, before going ashore in Honolulu, Hawaii. Melville was typical of a large class of sailors who were capable, fairly reliable, but indifferent to professional advancement. Like many others, he was essentially footloose and fond of his liberty, and easily attracted by the prospect of adventure.
He finally left the Pacific on the naval frigate United States, which docked in Boston in October 1844. Melville had just turned 25, and his brief but eventful sailing career had come to an end.
Almost as soon as Melville returned home he began to write, and again economic necessity played its part. His first novel, Typee (1846), was based on his experiences in the Marquesas. Largely due to its tropical setting and seductive heroine, Fayaway, it achieved commercial and critical success. Melville's second novel, Omoo (1847), was a sequel to Typee, and drew upon the author's wanderings in Tahiti. Melville was buoyant about his career, but soon a new, less light-hearted strand began to enter his work. He was reading insatiably. In 1848 his friend George Duyckinck expressed surprise at Melville's growing erudition: 'Was ever any thing of this sort said before by a sailor?'
In his third novel, Mardi (1849), Melville attempted something much more intellectually ambitious than he had in Typee and Omoo - another voyage narrative, but this time an entirely allegorical one.
The book was an unmitigated failure, and Melville realised that the kind of novels he really wanted to write were unlikely to appeal to the general public. He already sensed that his best work would not be appreciated in his lifetime. In February 1850 Melville gave a copy of Mardi to Duyckinck, describing it as 'a plant, which tho' now unblown (emblematically, the leaves, you perceive, are uncut) may possibly – by some miracle, that is – flower like the aloe, a hundred years hence.'
Melville was chastened by the failure of Mardi, and his next two books – Redburn and White-Jacket were more suited to prevailing tastes. Melville dismissively described them as 'two jobs, which I have done for money.' Meanwhile he continued to read. In autumn 1849 he visited England to sell the proofs of White-Jacket, and during that time he was irresistibly drawn to bookshops. Sailing home in January 1850 he had amassed over 30 titles, and he wrote in his journal: 'Saw many books I should like to buy – but can not.'Shortly after this trip Melville began to compose Moby-Dick (1851). That novel – now by far his most famous – deftly and audaciously combines Melville's first-hand knowledge of whaling with information skimmed from factual sources such as Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale and Owen Chase's Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex.
More adventurously still, it incorporates ideas and speculations, theories and anecdotes, vocabularies and rhetorical styles from a staggering range of literary and philosophical works by, among others, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Browne, Thomas Carlyle, Pierre Bayle, Mary Shelley, Robert Burton, Ben Jonson, Goethe and Shakespeare. As Melville was composing Moby-Dick he wrote long letters to his friend and neighbour Nathaniel Hawthorne. Their tone is often euphoric, and occasionally very poignant. Melville knew he was writing a great book, and that it was likely to pass unnoticed. In June 1851 he wrote: 'Though I wrote the Gospel in this century, I should die in the gutter.'
Moby-Dick was not well received, particularly in America. Melville continued to write – Pierre (1852), The Confidence Man (1857), short stories including Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) and Benito Cereno (1855) and a very long poem called Clarel (1876) – but he never equalled his earlier successes, and his reputation languished. From 1866 until 1886 Melville worked as a Custom House inspector in New York City to support his family. Finally a small legacy from his wife's relatives enabled him to retire. In December 1889 Melville responded to a rare request for details of his life and work with a gentle refusal: 'After twenty years nearly, as an outdoor Custom House officer, I have latterly come into possession of unobstructed leisure, but only just as, in the course of nature, my vigor sensibly declines. What little is left of it I husband for certain matters as yet incomplete, and which indeed may never be completed.'
Billy Budd was one of those incomplete matters. Melville took it up early in 1886 and he worked on it until his death on 28 September 1891.
In the Pittsfield Public Library, in western Massachusetts, there is a one-room museum dedicated to Melville. Among the exhibits is a small grey tin box – a bread box – that belonged to Melville's granddaughter, Eleanor Melville Metcalf, and which once contained the unpublished manuscript of Billy Budd, found by Raymond Weaver in 1919 as he gathered material for the first biography of Melville. Weaver's sensational discovery of this late masterwork coincided with a revival of Melville's reputation in England and, to a lesser extent, in America. For several decades, Melville's books, and especially Moby-Dick, were quietly savoured, circulating for example among members of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Fabians and the Bloomsbury set. In London in the 1920s this coterie appreciation blossomed into more widespread popularity. A weaker reflection of this trend in America stimulated Weaver's project. His biography of Melville may not be a particularly distinguished work, but it had the important effect of leading him to discover Billy Budd.
Billy Budd, the novella Weaver found, was very unusual. Unlike Typee, Omoo, Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick and Benito Cereno, it does not involve American ships, either naval or mercantile. Instead, its setting is geographically and historically remote – an English warship of the late 18th century. Certain aspects of the story nonetheless derive from Melville's own experience. As he wrote Billy Budd Melville was also at work on a small volume of poems, John Marr and Other Sailors, many of which reminisce about a bygone era of sailing. Billy Budd alludes explicitly to the notorious Somers mutiny of 1842 in which Melville's first cousin, Lieutenant Gansevoort, was personally involved. Moreover Billy Budd is dedicated to Jack Chase, a fictional sailor from Melville's 1850 novel, White-Jacket. As Melville created Billy, he probably recalled Chase, and perhaps a real sailor on whom he was based. The most authoritative editors of Billy Budd speculate that 'some cluster of personal experiences, associations and naval folklore' contributed to the creation of this late novella.
However, Melville also reached outside his own experience when he wrote Billy Budd. He turned to William James's Naval History of Great Britain and Robert Southey's Life of Nelson, as well as Douglas Jerrold's play The Mutiny at the Nore, in order to improve his knowledge of the Napoleonic era. Melville set Billy Budd on an English warship at a time when the British navy was at its most powerful and most repressive, and his decision to do so was not a casual one. Both Billy and Claggart are impressed men, forced to serve for an indefinite period during a prolonged war. In Billy Budd Melville turns impressment into a metaphor for the trammelled condition not just of sailors, but of all men. His concerns here are germane to 19th-century America – or indeed to any society or century – as much as to 18th-century Britain. During Billy's trial Captain Vere admits that he is no freer than the impressed men under his command, who are forced to serve 'against their conscience'. Vere too must act against his conscience; although he recognises Billy's innocence, he condemns him to death.
Any interpretation of Billy Budd, including the one offered above, must be alert to the unusually puzzling text that Melville left to posterity. When Weaver first looked inside that bread box he found a semi-final draft of 351 manuscript leaves. Those loose leaves posed complex editorial problems, and it took many years for them to flower into an edition that did justice to Melville's intentions.
The main difficulty arose from the fact that the novella was unfinished. Weaver's 1924 edition of the text introduced Billy Budd to the public, but it was not until 1962 that Harrison Hayford and Merton M Sealts Jr. gave the text the scrupulous attention it required. These scholars produced an authoritative edition, and they were also able to show that Billy Budd had passed through three distinct and surprising stages of development. It seems that each time Melville undertook to produce a fair copy of his work he was drawn into making elaborate revisions.
Billy Budd began as only four manuscript leaves consisting of a short ballad and headnote. In this earliest version Billy was a middle-aged and apparently guilty mutineer on the eve of his execution. By November 1888 Melville had completed a second stage in which he introduced Claggart. Billy had become a young and innocent man who reacts to a false charge of mutiny by striking and killing his detractor. The story was now set in the year 1797, after the mutinies of Spithead and the Nore, and consisted of 150 leaves. In the final stage of rewriting, Billy Budd grew to its full length of 351 leaves. Melville expanded Vere from a minor figure into a character whose importance rivals that of Billy and Claggart. Thus the plot and characters as we now know them had not occurred to Melville at the outset. We might think of him beginning with a simple scenario – the middle-aged mutineer – and then unfolding leaf upon leaf around that central bud, until each major character had gained an irreducible degree of complexity.
Melville's last alterations involve Vere. These were made in pencil and have the chilling effect of calling the captain's judgment into question. Melville introduced a surgeon who is 'profoundly discomposed' and 'disturbed' by Vere's reaction to Claggart's death, and who wonders whether 'Captain Vere was suddenly affected in his mind'. In the following chapter the narrator echoes his concern, asking 'Who in the rainbow can draw the line between sanity and insanity?'
We cannot know whether Melville would have continued to alter his text, and if so, whether he would have resolved or multiplied its ambiguities. The trend of his alterations is to dramatise rather than to tell, and to make his central characters more intricate and his narrator more equivocal. Early critics, beginning with Weaver, saw Billy Budd as a clearly drawn conflict between good and evil. But a knowledge of Melville's revisions discourages such a conclusive interpretation. When Benjamin Britten and EM Forster devised their operatic version of Billy Budd they did not know about the text's intriguing growth, since Hayford and Sealts had not yet published their important edition. Yet the opera they created is wonderfully sensitive to the text, and even anticipates the complexities revealed by later scholarship. And of course the fact that Melville's tale was set in the confined space of a ship, in which the music of shanties and work-songs routinely reverberated, meant that Billy Budd was particularly suited to the medium of opera.
Vere's haunting refrain - 'I was lost on the infinite sea' - perfectly articulates his sense of consternation, and the helplessness and fallibility that haunts the Indomitable. It is a refrain that might apply equally to the reader of Billy Budd. Near the end of the novella Melville famously says: 'Truth uncompromising told will always have its ragged edges.' By the time Melville died at the age of 82, he had come a long way from the carefree sailor of the early 1840s.
His conception of the sea tale had deepened and darkened, and in the last work of his long life Melville was not prepared to provide easy answers. Instead he wanted his readers to experience the raggedness, ambiguity and incompleteness of truth – he wanted them too to feel lost.
* Ellie Stedall is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. She is currently completing her doctorate on the subject of Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad and Transatlantic Sea Literature. This essay is reprinted from Glyndebourne's current programme, with kind permission.
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