|The manuscript of Billy Budd as Melville left it at his death in 1891 may be most accurately described as a semi-final draft, not a final fair copy ready for publication. After his death Mrs. Melville, indeed, called the story "unfinished." She had used exactly the same word in December of 1885 when reporting Melville's retirement from his nineteen years of employment, as a customs inspector: "He has a great deal [of] unfinished work at his desk which will give him occupation." The "unfinished work" of 1885 may have included the short poem of three or four leaves on which he was working early in 1886, the poem that ultimately became the ballad "Billy in the Darbies" with which the novel concludes. The novel itself developed out of a brief prose headnote setting the scene and introducing the speaker of this poem. . . . [Our study] has established the fact that more than once, believing his work to be essentially complete, he undertook to put his manuscript into fair-copy form, but each time he was led into further revision and elaboration; what still further changes he might have made had he lived to continue work on the manuscript are of course conjectural. (1)
On the time frame for composition . . .
Early in 1886, when Melville took up, or perhaps began, the work that became Billy Budd, he had in mind neither the plot of a novel nor any one of the characters as they later emerged in the course of his writing. (2)
During the first two years of Melville's retirement, 1886-87, a narrative about Billy Budd emerged out of this material. In constructing its plot he had entered a second phase of development with his introduction of John Claggart, whose presence resulted in a major shift of focus. Billy, no mutineer in this phase, reacts to a false charge of mutiny by striking and killing his accuser, Claggart; this is the act that leads to his condemnation here and in all subsequent stages of the story's growth.(2)
A third and final phase of development . . . began after November, 1888, when Melville set out (not for the first time) to put his story into fair-copy form. During the ensuing winter months or perhaps in the following spring he made another major shift of focus, which involved the full-scale delineation of a third principal character, Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, who had previously figured only as the commander in whose presence Billy struck Claggart and by whom the summary sentence of hanging was imposed upon the young sailor. So minor was this commander's part in the second phase of the story's growth that only a few leaves stood between the killing of Claggart and the beginning of the ballad; in the third phase, by contrast, Billy's trial, Vere's long speech to the court, and the dramatized execution and related episodes intervene, and an analysis of Vere's character is now provided in new antecedent chapters. The several stages and substages within this final phase of development occupied Melville until the end of his life, revision being still in progress when he died.(2-3)
Thus, in the period of over five years between his retirement from the Custom House and his death, Melville had carried the work through a series of developments intricate in detail but clear in their general lines of growth. In three main phases he had introduced in turn the three main characters: first Billy, then Claggart, and finally Vere. As the focus of his attention shifted from one to another of these three principals, the plot and thematic emphasis of the expanding novel underwent consequent modifications within each main phase. Just where the emphasis finally lay in the not altogether finished story as he left it is, in essence, the issue that has engaged and divided the critics of Billy Budd.(3)
|Although Melville never published Billy Budd, internal evidence clearly shows that he certainly meant to do so. For its posthumous publication he left no directives, however, at least none that survive, and in fact there are no specific external references to the novel by Melville himself.(12)|
On the history of the manuscript . . .
All the many reprintings of Billy Budd are, strictly speaking, versions of one or the other of these two basic texts: Weaver's 1924 text with his own 1928 modification; or Freeman's 1948 text. Since Freeman's text itself in fact depends on Weaver's 1928 text in an unfortunate way, Weaver's is the only text up to the present one to have been drawn from an entirely independent transcription of the manuscript. All the versions mentioned were of course ultimately derived from the single manuscript, for there is no other source.(12)
A basic fact about the textual situation was recognized by Weaver in 1928: "Such is the state of the Billy Budd manuscript that there can never appear a reprint that will be adequate to every ideal." The most obvious editorial ideal, of course, would be to put before the reader precisely what the author would have published. But, as Weaver perceived, no "reprint" (i.e., text) can hope to do that, for the simple reason that in many details Melville's intention cannot be ascertained because of "the state of the manuscript." . . . (12-13)
As stated, Weaver's purpose in both his versions was to prepare a text for the general reader, rather than any sort of literal transcription. Concerning his 1924 version, he wrote: "The text ... has, so far as possible, been printed verbatim from Melville's manuscript. Here and there, however, owing to the heavily corrected condition of many of the papers, slight adjustments in the interests of grammar or of style have been made in Melville's wording." This statement minimized the large number of his actual departures from the manuscript. These departures are easy enough to understand: Weaver at the time thought of Billy Budd as a story of no great importance, and he was editing it for a volume of gleanings, simply to fill out Constable's edition of Melville's complete works. He had no idea it would soon come to be considered a masterpiece.(14)
Describing his 1928 Liveright version, Weaver stated that it differed only occasionally from that of 1924. Actually there were many variations, more than forty being corrections of erroneous readings in the earlier volume. But these corrections are scattered, however, and the persistence of other errors in the 1928 version seems to indicate that Weaver had undertaken no systematic collation of his printer's copy with the original manuscript. In "editing for intelligibility with the least possible departure from accuracy," as he described his own procedure in 1928, he obviously did not interpret "accuracy" as requiring faithful transcription of the final manuscript readings.
Weaver saw evident signs that the manuscript is "in a more or less tentative state as to details," and therefore in both of his versions he took it rather as duty than as license to correct and improve what he found there, in the way he supposed Melville himself would, or should, have done, had he prepared a final copy for the printer. One might say that Weaver's way of editing was pretty much that of a publisher's copy editor styling an inconsistently prepared and not very important manuscript by a contributor for whose words he felt no awe. . . . Melville's wording, on the whole, he followed, as well as he could, but in an independent way. Where he found an interlined revision not easily legible, he sometimes adopted the canceled earlier reading rather than strain after the author's latest wording; or if such an "illegible" revision was an addition, he simply ignored it. Sometimes he discarded a revision Melville had made, and restored an earlier wording he himself preferred; and occasionally he restored canceled words or phrases he could not willingly let die. (14)
It must be insisted, all the same, that these intentional changes which Weaver made in the accidentals of punctuation and other mechanical details, and even those he made in matters of substance of words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters--were, in theory, justifiable in the light of his editorial assumptions, when given "the state of the manuscript." He believed he must exercise taste as well as discretion, and lie did so.(15)
But other, unintentional departures that Weaver made from the manuscript were less excusable. He committed many plain errors. Through oversight, it appears, he added or dropped words by the dozen, and he misread perfectly legible ones by the score. Most of these mistakes even a cursory collation of his transcription with the original mantiscript should have revealed and corrected. The signs are plain enough that his text was prepared hurriedly.(15)
The major crippling weakness from which Weaver's text suffered, however, was a prior editorial lapse: he had not studied the manuscript sufficiently.(15)
In 1948 the second text of Billy Budd appeared, edited by F. Barron Freeman, in his Melville's Billy Budd. Derived from Freeman's unpublished thesis, "The Manuscripts of Herman Melville's Billy Budd" (Harvard, 1949.), this book was the first effort to establish a "definitive text" based upon a study of the manuscript. (16)
Although not all the claims in this statement were satisfactorily realized, Freeman did more than anyone else had yet done to advance understanding of the manuscript. (16)
All three of the major errors arose primarily because Freeman failed to recognize the handwriting of Mrs. Melville, which appears at various points in Billy Budd and other late manuscripts of her husband; like Weaver, Freeman mistook all the handwriting for Melville's own (see Freeman, pp. 66-67). . . [and] followed Weaver in accepting and printing the discarded leaves as the "Preface."(18)
A second major error in Freeman's (as in Weaver's) text was the inclusion of two more superseded leaves, headed "Lawyers, Experts, Clergy." This error arose in the same way, from another of Mrs. Melville's notations. . . . Again Freeman followed Weaver in mistaking her notation for Melville's own. Weaver placed the two leaves about where they had originally stood, though this meant interrupting Melville's later leaf-number sequence and ignoring another, and correct, notation by Mrs. Melville. Freeman adhered to Weaver's placing but, honoring the chapter division and title which Weaver had ignored, printed the leaves as Ch. 19. in his edition.(19)
The third major error concerns the title of the work. No version has been given just the final title which its author gave it. Here again ,the failure of its editors to recognize Mrs. Melville's hand in the manuscript is in large part to blame. For the title of the story two versions survive. One occurs in pencil draft on a slip attached to a separate leaf: "Billy Budd / Foretopman / What befell him / in the year of the / Great Mutiny / &c". The other occurs as a penciled addition at the top of the first leaf of the story proper: "Billy Budd / Sailor / (An inside narrative.)". . . . That the second of these was in fact Melville's final intention for the title is made clear by all genetic evidence. (19)
The present edition is the first to reject the supposed "Preface," to exclude the "Lawyers, Experts, Clergy" episode from the final text, and to use the author's own final title.(20)
In one further textual matter of another class -- that of editorial judgment -- we believe that Freeman erred in following Weaver. This concerns the name of Captain Vere's ship. Some twenty-five times throughout the manuscript the name Indomitable occurs, but in six instances, found in two widely separated chapters well along in the story, the name given is Bellipotent. Our analysis of the manuscript has revealed that Melville, at the late stage when he was composing his chapter (28 in this edition) on the engagement between Vere's seventy-four and the French line-of-battle ship, decided to change Indomitable to Bellipotent. (20)