Herman Melville is best known for his 1851 novel, “Moby Dick,” but one of his other most significant works is his unfinished novella, “Billy Budd, Sailor.” I’ve known about “Billy Budd” for years and have always wanted to read it, but for whatever reason, I’d never taken the time to do so. I put it on my “bucket list” a year or so ago and finally took the time to read it last week.
For those of you unfamiliar with “Billy Budd,” it’s about a young, handsome sailor who is impressed into service aboard the British warship, HMS Bellipotent, in 1797. He’s generally liked by everyone aboard, but things turn bad when a shadowy figure asks him to participate in a mutiny. He doesn’t agree to join in the plot and later runs afoul of the ship’s Master-At-Arms, John Claggart.
For unstated reasons, Claggart dislikes the popular, young Budd, and Claggart attempts to convince the ship’s captain, Edward Vere, that Budd’s a bad apple and planning a mutiny. When Vere gets Claggart and Budd together in the captain’s quarters, Claggart confronts Budd with the accusation of mutiny. Budd lashes out at Claggart and in a freak accident kills the Master-At-Arms with a blow to the head.
Vere’s now got an accused, but well-liked, mutineer on his hands along with a dead Master-At-Arms, who was basically the chief of police on the ship. Vere has to decide whether to let Budd go or hang him for murder and mutiny. What ensues is what makes “Billy Budd, Sailor” an enduring classic of American literature.
As mention above, “Billy Budd, Sailor” was a novella left unfinished at the time of Melville’s death in 1891. Melville started the story in 1888, but it wasn’t published until 1924. What is considered the definitive text of the story wasn’t published until 1962. The version I read was the complete, unabridged text published by Enriched Classics in 2006.
As you might have imagined, “Billy Budd, Sailor” can be found on a number of recommended reading lists. It’s been on the U.S. Navy’s Professional Reading List for years, and its also recommended reading for students taking Advanced Placement Literature courses. Several years ago, Easton Press also ranked “Billy Budd, Sailor” No. 90 on its list of “100 Greatest Books Ever Written,” right there between Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and “The Confessions” by St. Augustine. “Billy Budd, Sailor” is also required reading at many law schools around the world, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom.
I’ve never seen it, but there is a motion picture version of “Billy Budd.” It came out in 1962 and was directed by Peter Ustinov. It also starred Ustinov, Terence Stamp and Robert Ryan. It was nominated for several Academy Awards.
In the end, how many of you have read Melville’s “Billy Budd, Sailor”? What did you think about it? Did you like it or not? Let us know in the comments section below.