BILLY BUDD, SAILOR
BY HERMAN MELVILLE
In December 1885, Herman Melville finally retired from his job at the New York Custom House. Unable to support himself through his writing, he had been working there for 19 years as a customs inspector. He was 66 years old, and he had not written fiction in almost 30 years, though he had been writing and publishing poetry steadily. At some point during the following two years, he began to work on a poem that would eventually be called "Billy in the Darbies," about a mutinous sailor, shackled aboard ship, awaiting his execution. The poem was intended for inclusion in a volume of poetry to be called John Marr and other Sailors (1888), and Melville wrote a prose headnote to accompany it. Then the story began to grow and change in Melville's imagination, and he returned to it, expanding the headnote into a novella that he would revise throughout the remaining years of his life.
At the time of Melville's death in 1891, the manuscript of the novella was sequentially complete, but Melville was still revising its language and thematic emphases. In addition, the manuscript itself was found in a condition of such physical disarray that the presentation of an authoritative version became difficult, if not impossible. The novella was finally published in 1924, its text edited by Raymond Weaver and given the title Billy Bud, Foretopman; a subsequent edition was produced for Harvard University Press by F. Barron Freeman in 1948. Critical dissatisfaction with the choices made by both of these editors led to the production of a new "reading text" by Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. in 1962, which they presented with a lengthy commentary explaining their editorial decisions and a "genetic text," a literal transcription of the surviving leaves...