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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

The Ineffable Billy Budd

I deeply admire Herman Melville's three brilliant B's: Bartleby, Benito, and Billy. Yet I love best of all, his last work of fiction, Billy Budd.

From 1866 to 1886, Melville worked as a customs inspector in New York City. This literary genius worked six days a week, earned at most four dollars a day, was offered bribes that he refused to take, had to pay some of his measly salary to the political party in power, found himself increasingly forgotten as a novelist, and wrote only poetry. But then, after his retirement in 1886, he began writing Billy Budd. It was unpublished at the time of his death in 1891, and remarkable for a tone and style distinct from Moby Dick.


Thomas Mann, the famous German writer, as he neared death, read Billy Budd. Mann called it "the most beautiful story in the world," even expressed a wish to have written this work of fiction. How the manuscript finally reached the hands of Columbia University's Raymond Weaver in the early 1920s is quite a story. The piecemeal manuscript given to Weaver reflected Lizzie Shaw Melville's help as Herman's scrivener. And yes, despite marital difficulties, Lizzie remained with Herman until his death, then re-established in her new lodgings, a room devoted to her husband, the writer. The original Billy Budd manuscript is in the Houghton Library at Harvard, with the comingled handwriting of Herman & Lizzie, along with excisions, insertions, pinned and pasted scraps, and Melville's "cryptic hand."


Although I read and "taught" Billy Budd (whatever that means) in the past, it seemed fitting at age 77 to read and reread the novel in an elegant 1993 edition from Easton Press. The book has a black leather cover accented in 22 kt. gold, archival quality paper with gilded gold edges, end-sheets of exquisite fabric, and a silk ribbon marker.

This was a Christmas gift from a dear friend in Sedona, Arizona, whose neighbor was having to drastically downsize and offered her his collection of Easton Press literary masterpieces. Carole knew I was working on a novel that involved Moby Dick, so she sent me her copy of Billy Budd & Benito Cereno. I looked on Abe Books and learned this edition is on offer for 179 dollars. Wisely, as I read both Benito and Billy, I made light pencil marks only!


The title page reads: Billy Budd, Sailor

An inside narrative.

What Befell him

in the year of the GREAT MUTINY.

Then at the bottom of the page:

Dedicated to Jack Chase, Englishman, wherever that great heart may now be, here on earth or harboured in paradise. Captain of the maintop in the year 1843 in the U.S. Frigate United States.


This Monday, June 7th, I say good-bye to Herman on my website, though I will continue to read Melville. For the past months he has been an emotional and intellectual force for me; and his three B's are true works of art, as is Moby Dick.

Next week: Thomas Mann's own Billy: Tadzio and Death in Venice

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