is considered Melville's literary masterpiece, this one, had he lived to complete it, may
have surpassed the other. Moby-Dick was not successful in Melville's lifetime (and it is truly a grueling book to read), and Melville wasn't particularly
successful in his lifetime, either. Had this present book been completed and published, that might have changed, and his name brought back into public
favor. And this one is very readable, other than the fact that so much of its language is obsolete, and I had to keep a dictionary handy.
First begun in 1888, Melville left it incomplete at his death in 1891. It was later published posthumously in London in 1924, and according to Wikipedia, proclaimed a masterpiece by British critics. The first version, edited by Melville's wife and Raymond M. Weaver, is not considered very accurate to Melville's intentions. The present Dover copy here, however, edited by Melville scholars Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. is considered the definitive version. It was published in 1962. This is also a brand new offering from Dover, just made available here in 2017, and I snatched it up because it is not in the public domain yet, being published in 1962, so, at least this version isn't yet offered as a free eBook. The Dover edition is only 74 pages, so it is not that long. However, their Thrift Edition are very compact, being considerably less pages than a "normal" paperback. And though it is "readable" (at least compared to Moby-Dick!), it isn't a quick read and requires concentration.
Melville was quite skilled at character studies, although perhaps not to the level of Joseph Conrad, Edith Wharton, or Dostoyevsky. It is a tale of "good vs. evil" and, sadly, good does not triumph. I mention now that this review has spoilers, so if you plan to read the book (and you should!), don't read all of this review.
The story is set in England in 1797, at the time of threats connected with the French Revolution, and also during a period when the British Royal Navy was dealing with mutinies. Billy Budd is the cream of the crop on a merchant ship, the Rights-of-Man. He is young, handsome, and innocent. His natural charm and inner beauty make him a favorite with all the crew, and the captain considers him essential because he keeps the peace over the whole ship.
However, in a flash, he is "impressed" into duty with the warship HMS Bellipotent. The captain must release him, though it is with the dismay for all concerned. However, Billy, ever cheerful, makes the adjustment and captures the hearts of his new crew. Everyone, except one, the master-at-arms John Claggart. In contrast to Budd's inner and outer beauty, Claggart is inherently evil in nature. And though he performs his duties with full responsibility, his conniving soul has become consumed with a hatred toward Budd, perhaps merely because he radiates the goodness and beauty lacking in himself. Therefore, he begins plotting Budd's destruction. It is the old seaman, Dansker, who warns "Baby Budd" that "Jemmy Legs" is down on him. Of course, Budd, in all his sweet innocence cannot take it seriously. After all, Claggart has a pleasant word for him whenever they pass. In Budd's naiveté, he is unable to see what lies beyond the surface.
There is not much action taking place in this story, but a subtle development toward the climax. And here is the spoiler: In the end, Claggart presses false claims against Budd to the captain, for taking steps to incite mutiny on the ship. The captain who, as everyone else, likes Budd, cannot imagine this to be true. So he invites them both for a private consultation. As Claggart lays out his "evidence," Budd is stunned. For an otherwise perfect man, he does have one flaw, and that is, when under extreme stress, he cannot speak; he stutters. When asked to respond to Claggart's charges, no words can escape his mouth, so to compensate for his frustration, he strikes a blow to Claggart's head, killing him. And, that's all I will say of the plot. You will have to read it to know the ending.
But the novel is really unfinished, and critics are still not sure what Melville's true intentions were in the writing of this story. The Wikipedia article linked above has quite a bit to say about possible interpretations. One is that Claggart may have been gay and attracted in that way to Budd. Truthfully, that was the impression that stuck with me as I read it.
This story has gained quite a bit of popularity with other art forms, being adapted for the stage, films and television. Benjamin Britten's opera of the same title is perhaps one of the best known. Below: Charles Nolte in the title role on Broadway.
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