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Complicating Vere: Melville’s Practice of Revision in Silly Budd JOHN WENKE Salisbury State University illy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) has spawned a host of determinate arguments that cast Captain Vere as either a beleaguered champiBon of “measured forms” or a brutal oppressor of primal innocence.’ Over many decades these so-called pro-Vere and anti-Vere critics have culled the various published versions of Melville’s unfinished and extensively revised narrative.’ The proliferation of such resolutely fixed, though polarized, accounts seems an ironic counterpoint to Melville’s own inability to let the story go. Every time Melville thought the story was finished, he set out to make a fair copy for the printer; but every attempt to complete a fair-copy enticed him into making further revisions. Even after five years of work, near the end of his life, Melville, according to Hayford and Sealts, “undertook a comprehensive late pencil revision that affected words and phrases on most leaves, supplied various patches, and substituted a number of whole leaves, notably the passage affecting the surgeon and Captain Vere” (BB 239). Consequently, what is (was and may be) in a reading text of Billy Budd constitutes a vexing problem in Melville studies, the engagement of which should inform any serious attempt to determine the hermeneutical substance of Melville’s historical, political and archetypal tale. Remarkably, over the last thirty-five years, there have been relatively few attempts to ground critical and scholarly arguments on the Hayford-Sealts Genetic Text of Billy Budd. Such a dearth is peculiar: Hayford and Sealts’smon- ’Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts,Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), leaf 333, p. 417. Subsequent references appear parenthetically as BB and identify text by manuscript leaf and page number. References to the editors’ commentary will be identified by page number. For incisive summaries of the history of Billy Budd criticism see Robert Milder, “Introduction,” in Critical Essays on Melville5 Billy Budd, ed. Robert Milder (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989),pp. 3-18 and Merton M. Sealts,Jr. ‘‘Innocenceand Infamy: Billy Bud& Sailor,” in A Companion to Melville Studies, ed. John Bryant (New York: Greenwood Press, 19861,pp. 407-30. *For a classic “pro-Vere” position, see Milton R. Stern, The Fine Hammered Steel ofHerman Melville (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1957),pp. 206-39 as well as his “Introduction” to Billy Budd, Sailor, ed. Milton R. Stern (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 19751,pp. xi-xliv. For a recent “pro-Vere” argument see Peter Shaw, “The Fate of a Story” American Scholar 62 (1993): 591-600. For classic “anti-Vere”arguments see Kingsley Widmer, “Billy Budd and Conservative Nihilism” in The Ways of Nihilism: A Study of Herman Melville’s Short Novels (Los Angeles: Ward-Ritchie, 19701,pp. 1658and Stanton A. Garner’s “Fraudas Fact in Herman Melville’sBilly Budd,” SanJose Studies 4 (May 1978):82-105. ~~ ~ A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 8 3 J O H N W E N K E umental achievement “isdesigned to show the growth of the text, insofar as that can be seen from the surviving leaves” and thus provide foundational evidence for scholarly argument (BB 270). In their “Perspectives for Criticism” Hayford-Sealts indicate “that a reliable text” has cleared the way “for definitive criticism” (BB 27). But a quarter of a century later, Sealts once again calls for criticism that emerges from a scholarly assessment of Melville’s compositional process: “With regard to the Billy Budd manuscript itself, both scholars and critics have too often neglected to go behind any and all reading texts of the story; there is still a need to acknowledge and assimilate what the Chicago Genetic Text and the accompanying editorial analysis have to tell them about Melville’s art and Melville’s thought as his story gradually took form.”3In his provocative Reading Billy Budd Hershel Parker decries this neglect and summarizes its effect: “In not using this evidence they [negligent critics] have often proceeded with analyses which were simply not worth doing, wrong from the start; but...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 83-88
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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