The complexities of the manuscript of Billy Budd are both many and complex. From major problems with legibility to questionable additions and omissions made by his wife some time after Melville's death, making sense of Melville's composition has proven problematic for nearly all editors of this piece. Some -- like the first to produce a copy for mass production, Raymond Weaver, in 1924 -- have simply
taken the liberty of refining or adjusting or even outright changing portions of the text in the interest of clarifying this complex work. In so doing, however, Weaver effectively forces an interpretation which does not necessarily square with the text that Melville actually produced in the years before his death.
Later editors such as F. Barron Freeman returned to the manuscript in an attempt to "correct" Weaver's misreadings; but in his work -- and the work of Elizabeth Treeman that followed in the 1950s -- he continued to make the same mistakes which undermined Weaver's work: mistaking Elizabeth Melville's penmanship for the author's, inserting chapters where they thought they might fit, and imposing with an air of authority changes which are less than certain.
It was not until the 1962 work of Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. that the editors of Billy Budd systematically tackled the problem presented in the work. Suspecting that the work of Weaver and Freeman was flawed, Hayford and Sealts undertook a close study of the manuscripts stored at Harvard's Houghton Library. The result of their work was the production of both a "Reading Text" complete with notes, which now stands for many as the authoritative version of Melville's pieces, as well as a "Genetic Text," that reflects not only the manuscript as it stood upon Melville's death but also all markings and corrections made by Melville and his wife.
In all, the manuscript of Billy Budd presents a unique set of problems. Not only do editors disagree on how to organize the text, they often disagree on what actually comprises "the text." Each editor -- with differing levels of success -- has sought to make the novel as accessible as possible. Still, the often contradictory results has forced Billy Budd in to a more or less perpetual state of flux.
For a more detailed discussion of the work of these primary editors please see the following: