Hailed as the best short story ever written, this literary masterpiece is the haunting story about a handsome sailor who becomes a victim of man's intransigence. Photo insert.
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About the Author
Michael J. Everton is Associate Professor of English at Simon Fraser University and the author of The Grand Chorus of Complaint: Authors and the Business Ethics of American Publishing (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Date of Birth:August 1, 1819
Date of Death:September 28, 1891
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Place of Death:New York, New York
Education:Attended the Albany Academy in Albany, New York, until age 15
Read an Excerpt
In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war's men or merchant sailors in holiday attire, ashore on liberty. In certain instances they would flank, or like a bodyguard quite surround, some superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation. That signal object was the "Handsome Sailor" of the less prosaic time alike of the military and merchant navies. With no perceptible trace of the vainglorious about him, rather with the offhand unaffectedness of natural regality, he seemed to accept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates.
A somewhat remarkable instance recurs to me. In Liverpool, now half a century ago, I saw under the shadow of the great dingy street-wall of Prince's Dock (an obstruction long since removed) a common sailor so intensely black that he must needs have been a native African of the unadulterate blood of Ham -- a symmetric figure much above the average height. The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest, in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humor. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the center of a company of his shipmates. These were made up of such an assortment of tribes and complexions as would have well fitted them to be madly could have drawn the sort of honest homage the Handsome Sailor in some examples received from his less gifted associates.
Such a cynosure, at least in aspect, and something such too in nature, though with important variations made apparent as the story proceeds, was welkin-eyed Billy Budd -- or Baby Budd, as more familiarly, under circumstances hereafter to be given, he at last came to be called -- aged twenty-one, a foretopman of the British fleet toward the close of the last decade of the eighteenth century. It was not very long prior to the time of the narration that follows that he had entered the King's service, having been impressed on the Narrow Seas from a homeward-bound English merchantman into a seventy-four outward bound, H.M.S. Bellipotent; which ship, as was not unusual in those hurried days, having been obliged to put to sea short of her proper complement of men. Plump upon Billy at first sight in the gangway the boarding officer, Lieutenant Ratcliffe, pounced, even before the merchantman's crew was formally mustered on the quarter-deck for his deliberate inspection. And him only he elected. For whether it was because the other men when ranged before him showed to ill advantage after Billy, or whether he had some scruples in view of the merchantman's being rather short-handed, however it might be, the officer contented himself with his first spontaneous choice. To the surprise of the ship's company, though much to the lieutenant's satisfaction, Billy made no demur. But, indeed, any demur would have been as idle as the protest of a goldfinch popped into a cage.
Noting this uncomplaining acquiescence, all but cheerful, one might say, the shipmaster turned a surprised glanc e of silent reproach at the sailor. The shipmaster was one of those worthy mortals found in every vocation, even the humbler ones -- the sort of person whom everybody agrees in calling "a respectable man." And -- nor so strange to report as it may appear to be -- though a ploughman of the troubled waters, lifelong contending with the intractable elements, there was nothing this honest soul at heart loved better than simple peace and quiet. For the rest, he was fifty or thereabouts, a little inclined to corpulence, a prepossessing face, unwhiskered, and of an agreeable color -- a rather full face, humanely intelligent in expression. On a fair day with a fair wind and all going well, a certain musical chime in his voice seemed to be the veritable unobstructed outcome of the innermost man. He had much prudence, much conscientiousness, and there were occasions when these virtues were the cause of overmuch disquietude in him. On a passage, so long as his craft was in any proximity to land, no sleep for Captain Graveling. He took to heart those serious responsibilities not so heavily borne by some shipmasters.
Now while Billy Budd was down in the forecastle getting his kit together, the Bellipotent's lieutenant, burly and bluff, nowise disconcerted by Captain Graveling's omitting to proffer the customary hospitalities on an occasion so unwelcome to him, an omission simply caused by preoccupation of thought, unceremoniously invited himself into the cabin, and also to a flask from the spirit locker, a receptacle which his experienced eye instantly discovered. In fact he was one of those sea dogs in whom all the hardship and peril of naval life in the great prolonged wars of his time never impaired the natural instinct for sensuous enjoyment. His duty he always faithfully did; but duty is sometimes a dry obligation, and he was for irrigating its aridity, whensoever possible, with a fertilizing decoction of strong waters. For the cabin's proprietor there was nothing left but to play the part of the enforced host with whatever grace and alacrity were practicable. As necessary adjuncts to the flask, he silently placed tumbler and water jug before the irrepressible guest. But excusing himself from partaking just then, he dismally watched the unembarrassed officer deliberately diluting his grog a little, then tossing it off in three swallows, pushing the empty tumbler away, yet not so far as to be beyond easy reach, at the same time settling himself in his seat and smacking his lips with high satisfaction, looking straight at the host.
These proceedings over, the master broke the silence; and there lurked a rueful reproach in the tone of his voice: "Lieutenant, you are going to take my best man from me, the jewel of 'em."
"Yes, I know," rejoined the other, immediately drawing back the tumbler preliminary to a replenishing. "Yes, I know. Sorry."
"Beg pardon, but you don't understand, Lieutenant. See here, now. Before I shipped that young fellow, my forecastle was a rat-pit of quarrels. It was black times, I tell you, aboard the Rights here. I was worried to that degree my pipe had no comfort for me. But Billy came; and it was like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy. Not that he preached to them or said or did anything in particular; but a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones. They took to him like hornets to treacle; all but the buffer of the gang, the big sha ggy chap with the fire-red whiskers. He indeed, out of envy, perhaps, of the newcomer, and thinking such a "sweet and pleasant fellow," as he mockingly designated him to the others, could hardly have the spirit of a gamecock, must needs bestir himself in trying to get up an ugly row with him. Billy forebore with him and reasoned with him in a pleasant way -- he is something like myself, Lieutenant, to whom aught like a quarrel is hateful -- but nothing served. So, in the second dogwatch one day, the Red Whiskers in presence of the others, under pretense of showing Billy just whence a sirloin steak was cut -- for the fellow had once been a butcher -- insultingly gave him a dig under the ribs. Quick as lightning Billy let fly his arm. I dare say he never meant to do quite as much as he did, but anyhow he gave the burly fool a terrible drubbing. It took about half a minute, I should think. And, lord bless you, the lubber was astonished at the celerity. And will you believe it, Lieutenant, the Red Whiskers now really loves Billy -- loves him, or is the biggest hypocrite that ever I heard of. But they all love him. Some of 'em do his washing, darn his old trousers for him; the carpenter is at odd times making a pretty little chest of drawers for him. Anybody will do anything for Billy Budd; and it's the happy family here. But now, Lieutenant, if that young fellow goes -- I know how it will be aboard the Rights. Not again very soon shall I, coming up from dinner, lean over the capstan smoking a quiet pipe -- no, not very soon again, I think. Ay, Lieutenant, you are going to take away the jewel of 'em; you are going to take away my peacemaker!" And with that the good soul had really some ado in chec king a rising sob.
"Well," said the lieutenant, who had listened with amused interest to all this and now was waxing merry with his tipple; "well, blessed are the peacemakers, especially the fighting peacemakers. And such are the seventy-four beauties some of which you see poking their noses out of the portholes of yonder warship lying to for me," pointing through the cabin window at the Bellipotent. "But courage! Don't look so downhearted, man. Why, I pledge you in advance the royal approbation. Rest assured that His Majesty will be delighted to know that in a time when his hardtack is not sought for by sailors with such avidity as should be, a time also when some shipmasters privily resent the borrowing from them a tar or two for the service; His Majesty, I say, will be delighted to learn that one shipmaster at least cheerfully surrenders to the King the flower of his flock, a sailor who with equal loyalty makes no dissent. -- But where's my beauty? Ah," looking through the cabin's open door, "here he comes; and, by Jove, lugging along his chest -- Apollo with his portmanteau! -- My man," stepping out to him, "you can't take that big box aboard a warship. The boxes there are mostly shot boxes. Put your duds in a bag, lad. Boot and saddle for the cavalryman, bag and hammock for the man-of-war's man."
The transfer from chest to bag was made. And, after seeing his man into the cutter and then following him down, the lieutenant pushed off from the Rights-of-Man. That was the merchant ship's name, though by her master and crew abbreviated in sailor fashion into the Rights. The hard-headed Dundee owner was a staunch admirer of Thomas Paine, whose book in rejoinder to Burk e's arraignment of the French Revolution had then been published for some time and had gone everywhere. In christening his vessel after the title of Paine's volume the man of Dundee was something like his contemporary shipowner, Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, whose sympathies, alike with his native land and its liberal philosophers, he evinced by naming his ships after Voltaire, Diderot, and so forth.
But now, when the boat swept under the merchantman's stern, and officer and oarsmen were noting -- some bitterly and others with a grin -- the name emblazoned there; just then it was that the new recruit jumped up from the bow where the coxswain had directed him to sit, and waving hat to his silent shipmates sorrowfully looking over at him from the taffrail, bade the lads a genial good-bye. Then, making a salutation as to the ship herself, "And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man."
"Down, sir!" roared the lieutenant, instantly assuming all the rigor of his rank, though with difficulty repressing a smile.
To be sure, Billy's action was a terrible breach of naval decorum. But in that decorum he had never been instructed; in consideration of which the lieutenant would hardly have been so energetic in reproof but for the concluding farewell to the ship. This he rather took as meant to convey a covert sally on the new recruit's part, a sly slur at impressment in general, and that of himself in especial. And yet, more likely, if satire it was in effect, it was hardly so by intention, for Billy, though happily endowed with the gaiety of high health, youth, and a free heart, was yet by no means of a satirical turn. The will to it and the sinister dexterity were alike wanting. To deal in double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature.
As to his enforced enlistment, that he seemed to take pretty much as he was wont to take any vicissitude of weather. Like the animals, though no philosopher, he was, without knowing it, practically a fatalist. And it may be that he rather liked this adventurous turn in his affairs, which promised an opening into novel scenes and martial excitements.
Aboard the Bellipotent our merchant sailor was forthwith rated as an able seaman and assigned to the starboard watch of the foretop. He was soon at home in the service, not at all disliked for his unpretentious good looks and a sort of genial happy-go-lucky air. No merrier man in his mess: in marked contrast to certain other individuals included like himself among the impressed portion of the ship's company; for these when not actively employed were sometimes, and more particularly in the last dogwatch when the drawing near of twilight induced revery, apt to fall into a saddish mood which in some partook of sullenness. But they were not so young as our foretopman, and no few of them must have known a hearth of some sort, others may have had wives and children left, too probably, in uncertain circumstances, and hardly any but must have had acknowledged kith and kin, while for Billy, as will shortly be seen, his entire family was practically invested in himself.
Copyright © 1999 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgements Introduction Herman Melville: A Brief Chronology A Note on the Text
Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative)
Appendix A: The British Debate over the French Revolution
- From Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
- From Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (1791–92)
Appendix B: The Rule of Law
- From Herman Melville, White-Jacket (1850)
- From Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Fugitive Slave Law” (1851)
- From Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854)
- From Henry David Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859)
- Herman Melville, “The Portent (1859)” (1866)
- Herman Melville, “The House-top. A Night Piece (July, 1863)” (1866)
- Sarah Piatt, “The Palace Burner. A Picture in a Newspaper,” The Independent(28 November 1872)
- From L. H. Atwater, “The Great Railroad Strike,” Presbyterian Quarterly and Princeton Review(October 1877)
- From Clement, “Let Law Violated Be Vindicated,” New York Evangelist (26 August 1886)
- From Arthur Edwards, “Chicago’s Experience with Anarchy,” Chautauquan(December 1886)
Appendix C: Naval Mutiny
- The Spithead and More Mutinies, 1797
- The Somers Mutiny, 1842
- a. From Robert Southey, The Life of Nelson (1813)
- b. From Souglas Jerrold, Black-Eyed Susan(1829)
- c. From Captain [Frederick]Marryat, The King’s Own and the Pirate (1830)
- a. From [Charles Sumner,] “The Mutiny of the Somers,” North American Review (July 1843)
- b. From Gail Hamilton, “The Murder of Philip Spencer,” Cosmopolitan (June-August 1889)
Appendix D: Corporal Punishment
- From Captain [Frederick] Marryat, The King’s Own and the Pirate (1830)
- From Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years before the Mast (1840)
- From Herman Melville, White-Jacket (1850)
- From Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853)
- From [Harriet Ann Jacobs,] Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)
- From Herman Melville, “Bridegroom Dick. 1876” (1888)
Appendix E: Capital Punishment
- From Statutes Relating to the Admiralty, Navy, Shipping, and Navigation of the United Kingdom (1749)
- From Herman Melville, Typee (1846)
- From Herman Melville, White-Jacket (1850)
- From Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Suicide” (1851)
- From E.S. Nadal, “The Rationale of the Opposition to Capital Punishment,” North American Review (January 1873)
- From Elbridge T. Gerry, “Capital Punishment by Electricity,” The Arena (January 1889)
- From Hugh O. Pentecost, “The Crime of Capital Punishment” (1890)
- From Frederick Douglass, “Lynch Law in the South,” North American Review (July 1892)
Appendix F: Sexuality
- From Statutes Relating to the Admiralty, Navy, Shipping, and Navigation of the United Kingdom (1749)
- Walt Whitman, “In Paths Untrodden” (1860)
- From John Addington Symonds, A Problem in Greek Ethics (1883)
- From Herman Melville, “Bridegroom Dick. 1876” (1888)
- From John Addington Symonds, Walt Whitman: A Study (1893)
- W.H. Auden, “Herman Melville” (1939)
Appendix G: Pessimism
- From Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea (1819–44)
- From James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night (1870–74)
- Herman Melville, “The Berg. A Dream” (1888)
- Herman Melville, “The Enthusiast” (1891)
- From William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
Works Cited and Select Bibliography
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
¿Billy Budd¿ The book ¿Billy Budd¿ was a good book for readers who like war stories. Herman Melville is the author of the book. He is a very famous author. He wrote ¿Mobey Dick¿ as well. The book is not an extremely easy read some words are challenging but it is still a good read. There are really only two major characters in the whole book. They are Captain Vere and Billy. They are in the main plot through out the whole book. Billy is a young man he is only 19 and he decides he wants to join the navy. I would describe him as brave and rough. He goes through allot of challenging things in the book, but he perseveres and stays true to his country. Captain Vere is an older man and he is the captain of the ship. I would describe Captain Vere as a very intelligent person but he is very hostile in some parts of the book. He also interprets people for who they really are. The book takes place on an American ship in a war against the British navy. The boat Billy is assigned to leaves from a port on the coast of Mass. The boat is made for war and and is a light brown and has a large America flag at the top that ¿ruffles¿ in the ¿harsh wind¿. The whole story takes place on the ship sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1800¿s. The plot of the book is a young man named Billy is on a a ship headed for Europe to fight a navel battle and someone frames Billy for treason against his ship crew. The people on the ship are not highly trained soldiers, they are just men who wanted to defend their county against the British so they joined the navy to attack Europe. Herman Melville was born in New York City Aug. 1, 1819. He ranks highly among some of Americas most famous authors. Herman¿s father was a merchant from New England and his mother came from a New York Dutch family. Herman¿s father died in 1831 from a mental and financial breakdown. The family Moved to Albany, New York in 1833. He died in New York in 1891 and the manuscript for ¿Billy Budd¿ was published in 1924. Some quotes made in story were ¿fight with your hearts not your hands¿ by Captain Vere before the final battle. Billy made one major quote and it was ¿if you blame me for treason you are cheating yourself and everyone on this ship¿. The theme of the book is a clash between innocence and evil. The man that frames Billy for treason is and evil man and Billy is a honest good hearted person who is accused for treason. This book is symbolic of a clash between innocence and evil. I though this book was a hard read but a good read I would recommend this book to anyone that is fourteen and up. If you like Herman Melville writing you will also like this book. Its not a huge action story but it does have a twist at the end and its not a bad on. It is a good book and I encourage people to read this book because I enjoyed and I think other readers will to.
This book was really hard to read at first because of the complex language. I thought Melville memorized the dictionary before he ever started writing. Even though it starts out boring, it gets better, and in the end, you actually feel good about having completed it. It really is not long at all, and I used spark notes for better understanding. Basically, it is a challenge, but one worth confronting. Enjoy!
For an AP English school project my group decided we would read Billy Budd because it sounded interesting and action filled. However, this is far from the case. This is one of the boringest books I have ever read. The plot is extremely slow and hard to follow due to Melville's constant interruptions and ramblings about unimportant memories or ideas. Literally, chapters 3, 4, and 5 can all be skipped because they are completely irrelevant to the story and are aimless rambles. There is little to no dialog which adds to a slow read. For a 100 page book, this took a long time to complete. Melville uses a lot of uneeded huge complex words that make Billy Budd a deficult read. The plot is extremely anticlimatic and when it begins to pick up, it is instantly terminated and sumed up. There are no seabattles or sword fights and no action like you would think and hope. The lack of dialog and actual storyline due to uneeded and annoying rambles causes barley any characterization, making it hard to care about any of the characters Melville presents. They are all very dry. The villian, his plot, and demise are lame and Billy Budd is naive, unobservant, and stupid leading him to be an extremely disappointing protagonist. Don't waste your time with this book - I thought it sucked. But if you must read it, I strongly suggest reading the sparknotes along with it. I'd reread the Scarlet Letter before I ever touched this book again.
I read this book for school, and while I am not exactly inept, this book was hard as mess to read. Started out boring, but then I actually printed book notes and used them to help me understand and comprehend the book, and it really is a great book, if you're up for a challenge.
Herman Melville, best known for his novels of the sea, has written some very good books, which include ¿Moby Dick¿, ¿Redburn¿, and ¿Bartleby the Scrivener¿. One of his great stories is ¿Billy Budd the Sailor¿. Melville was born in New York into a family of merchants. When Melville was 12, his father died. At the end of Melville¿s life during his retirement, the story ¿Billy Budd the Sailor¿ was written, but it was not discovered until Melville had passed on. Some people say that the story was never completely finished. The story takes place at the end of the eighteenth century; Billy Budd, the main character, is a sailor on the H.M.S Right-of ¿Man a British navy ship. Shortly after the story starts, he is transferred to a new ship called the H.M.S Bellipotent. The shift to the new ship doesn¿t work out that well for Billy. He was off to a good start, but rumors started and Billy gets mad. The rumors lead to him getting into a fight with the master-at-arms on the H.M.S Bellipotent . What happens to Billy after this? Well, you will have to read the book to find out. The story is a more challenging nineteenth century American story, but it is well worth the efforts you put in to it. ¿Billy Budd¿ is a very good book, one that you can read more than once and still find something new each time.
I started reading this book in english class and dreaded it. The wording was hard and the story line didn't seem to catch my attention at first. However, the more and more we talked about it, it got more interesting. We started watching the movie that goes along with it and that helped clarify a lot of things. The story line is very well written and the relationship between this story and the story of Christ's crucifixtion is very interesting. I would recommend this book(not to read on your own time but for english classes to read together). It was a good experience
Billy Budd, Sailor is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Melville's deep character descriptions lead to the hidden meanings and deep emotion so strong in this book. All the alusions, especially Biblical ones, show that Melville is writing for the critical and intelligent reader. This book requires thought on the reader's part but leaves a lasting impression. Reading comprehension is vital for your enjoyment, but for those that are able to grasp the novella's meaning it is a wonderful book. I highly recommend it!
This book is the worst book i have ever read. Let me repeat my self for you to get the point, it is THE worst book on the planet. A wasre of money and time. Never read this book. EVER! Thank you for taking the time to read this review. It is way better then the book. It doesnt even desearve half a star
Boring tedious language