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  • How Billy Budd Grew Black and Beautiful: Versions of Melville in the Digital Age
  • John Bryant

The American Civil War is a nightmare from which we have yet to awaken.What social good that emerged from it—Emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment—remains the brighter side of a dark continuum of resentment and ethnophobia left in that war’s wake. Despite these political challenges, those who are poets and those who read poems can take from this divisive war some measure of compensation in two volumes of poetry: Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Whitman’s Drum-Taps. But given my focus on Melville’s revisions to Billy Budd, composed twenty years after that war, and on the use of digital technology to access those revisions, my words here may seem far afield.

Melville’s and Whitman’s war poems brilliantly evoke the immediacy of battle. Few lines register the chill of hot war more succinctly than Whitman’s vision of carnage in a church turned hospital as “a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made” (Whitman 218) or Melville’s sardonic parenthetical on dead youths: “(What like a bullet can undeceive!)” (Tales, Poems 344). But their churches, hospitals, and Shilohs are so vivid—so rooted in time and place—we forget how their remembrance of war, if not The War, bled into their final years.

In his 1891 “Preface Note” to the Second Annex of Leaves of Grass, including his valedictory poems in Good-Bye My Fancy, Whitman attributed the causes of his paralyzing stroke to the “too over-zealous, over-continued bodily and emotional excitement and action” that he experienced nursing soldiers during the Civil War years (Whitman 371). He wonders, “will this vast rich Union ever realize what itself cost, back there after all?” And he concludes, unexpectedly, by calling the entirety of Leaves of Grass—“this whole book”—a “reminiscent memorial” of the war (371). What failures in postbellum America inspired the poet to rededicate his life’s work to the war’s still unredeemed costs are not specified in Whitman’s Good-Bye My Fancy.

Even more deeply obscured are Melville’s personal and political motives for writing, and ceaselessly rewriting, Billy Budd, and yet this narrative is Melville’s most profound reflection on the cost of war to which Whitman alludes. True, the novella, set during the Napoleonic wars “in the time before [End Page 60] steamships,” makes no direct reference to the Civil War (Tales, Poems 449). And yet, like Whitman’s “reminiscent memorial,” Billy Budd exposes the instinctual roots of war: not just violence in men but the masculine reflex to destroy; not only the power of Billy’s beauty but also the mystery of iniquity in Claggart’s homosexual self-loathing; not only Vere’s tragedy of authority and the failure of his “forms, measured forms” (517) but also the betrayal of loving fathers who send devoted sons to fight their wars and who, for the sake of order not love, kill them when they resist or are too paralyzed to protest.

These thematics are readily perceived in the neatly arrayed words on each clearly printed page of your copy of Billy Budd. But Melville died before finishing his novel, and the book we call Billy Budd is something Melville had not prepared for publication. Rather, it is a fluid text that has been brought into print by differing generations of twentieth-century scholars and adaptors. Moreover, when we read Billy Budd in manuscript, an aura of incompletion suffuses the text. The myriad revision sites found on its more than 350 leaves are a patchwork of Melville’s cut and paste technique, a patchwork that gives new meaning to Melville’s familiar remark that “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges” (Tales, Poems 517).

In his 1850 review essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville had earlier identified truth as a “scared white doe” always forced in “this world of lies” to run away, so that seeing the truth requires “cunning glimpses,” and the “great Art of Telling the Truth” can be performed only “covertly, and by snatches” (Tales, Poems 53). Forty years later, Melville’s metaphorics had shifted...


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pp. 60-86
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