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Billy Budd is without doubt Melville’s largest and most complex manuscript representing more phases of his creative and revision processes than any other Melville document. One goal in editing the manuscript is to transcribe its text as it exists, not as one might imagine Melville intended it. This effort—the products of primary and secondary editing—yields two editorial forms: a typographical simulation of each leaf or “diplomatic transcription” (including revision sequence narratives) and a “base version” of the manuscript’s text.  That said, these renderings of the Billy Budd manuscript are not readable in the conventional sense of the word. A second goal, then, is to provide a lightly edited “reading text”—the product of tertiary editing—that resembles the manuscript text as closely as possible yet offers a coherent and informative reading experience. MEL uses this Reading Text as a reliable digital platform suitable for classroom and critical reading and as a gateway to the scholarly features that enable the closer study of the versions of Billy Budd and Melville’s revision process.

MEL’s Reading Text of Billy Budd is a lightly-edited version of the “base version” of the manuscript.  The base version represents Melville’s last attempts at revision. To achieve this last version, MEL editors use TextLab to transcribe the Billy Budd manuscript from scratch, coding (among other features) all of Melville’s additions, deletions, over-writings, and restorations. With these manually-marked codes, TextLab automatically generates the diplomatic transcription as well as the base version text. The base version simply enacts our coding of Melville’s revision instructions. That is, it deletes all deletions, adds all insertions, and so on. Often enough, Melville’s revision instructions do not yield the expected grammar or content for a sentence: sometimes punctuation or words are dropped; unintended verbal gaps occur.  Nor is Melville’s spelling exemplary or consistent. Accordingly, we create the Reading Text by repairing unintended incoherencies and confusing solecisms that might impede conventional reading. To perform this kind of “tertiary editing,” we upload the TextLab-generated base version into Juxta Editions and use Juxta’s editorial functions to emend the base.  (For a fuller discussion of the integration of TextLab output and Juxta Editions reading text, see The Integration of TextLab output and Juxta Editions Reading Text.) For Juxta’s contextual editing features, see MELCat and Juxta Integration.

The Reading Text represents changes to the base version made in consideration of practical issues regarding Melville’s punctuation and capitalization, his paragraphing, and word choice as well as problems that arise when we confront irregularities derived from Melville’s unfinished creative process. The following discussions engage editorial problems of normalization and standardization, correction, modernization, regularization, and stabilization of texts confronted in our editing of Billy Budd.

Normalization and Standardization. Like many nineteenth-century writers, Melville would at times use commas not only structurally to clarify elements of a sentence (such as restrictive or nonrestrictive clauses) but also rhetorically to stress rhythms of speech, emotion, dramatic pauses, or moments in an argument. Notice in the passage below how the seven commas appearing in the following sentence about Billy as a “cynosure” and the object of his shipmates’ respect provide measured beats that help us navigate our way through the sentence and eventually to its period. 

Such a cynosure, at least in aspect, and something such too in nature, though with important variations made apparent as the story proceeds, was welkin-eyed Billy Budd, or Baby Budd as more familiarly under circumstances hereafter to be given he at last came to be called, aged twenty-one, a foretopman of the British fleet toward the close of the last decade of the eighteenth century.

Acting as a kind of copy-editor confronting the messiness of the Billy Budd manuscript, one might be tempted to assist the writer’s prose by adding conventional commas around “too” and comma after “Baby Budd” or by removing the comma after “Billy Budd.” The approach here would be to ask if further attention to punctuation might “help” the reading experience. And yet, Melville was proficient enough in handling punctuation, and readers come to Melville in part for challenges in their reading, so that the question in editing Melville’s punctuation often comes down to whether the manuscript text “as it exists” is so conventionally unreadable with or without a punctuation mark that an editorial emendation is required. 

With that in mind, we might ponder the odd irruption of “aged twenty-one,” an added bit of information concerning Billy’s near-baby status that both interrupts the sentence’s rhythm, and yet brilliantly extends it. No one would remove the necessary commas around it, but the positioning of the interruption might tempt you to consider surrounding them with dashes, though imagining such an emendation leads immediately to the dismissal of the idea. Melville was not shy of using the dash but did so with his own strategies in mind. What about putting a pair of dashes around the entire Baby Budd digression, including “aged twenty-one”? That would be an equally dismal intervention. The more one inspects this oddly punctuated, marginally difficult sentence, the more one begins to suspect that the pointing may be just the way Melville wants it. Indeed, a well-known feature of Melville’s published writing is that it seems to engage an aesthetics of difficulty that requires reiterative reading. In editing his writing in manuscript, we have to ask if a passage is difficult by intention or simply because of inattention to the unwanted consequences of revision.  Also at stake is whether an editorial intervention smooths out an intended difficulty thereby flattening Melville’s prose.

In editing the base version into a reading text, we seek a balance in rendering the roughness of the manuscript but tending to the smoothness of conventional reading.  Billy Budd is an unfinished text, and the editor’s job is to let the rough spots show while also enabling a smooth reading over them. In numerous manuscript sites, Melville inadvertently drops punctuation that, in a proofreading stage of preparation for publication, he would most certainly correct or want to correct.  For instance, in writing dialogue, Melville might drop a period at the end of a sentence—as in “Yes; I know. Sorry”—or drop a comma in the quoting of a speech—as in “‘Yes, I know’ rejoined the other.” In these cases, not supplying a period after “Sorry” and not supplying a comma after “know” would test the limits of convention and unnecessarily confuse readers. Such emendations are a useful “smoothing” of Melville’s text.

Similarly, Melville’s odd use of the apostrophe in some contractions (such as “do’nt” instead of “don’t”) strikes us as simply wrong, at best idiosyncratic, though it is not entirely unknown in the 19th century. Does the editor normalize such oddities? In this case, MEL does, if only because “do’nt" (which my spell-checker automatically corrects to “don’t”) is so alien to modern eyes that it would look like a typo and distract readers; furthermore, it makes no critically meaningful difference if we were to render it as “don’t.” Melville’s “conciet” and other grammar-school errors are also corrected.

But other punctuation quandaries test the limits of normalizing Melville’s manuscript text.  In describing the amusing ritual of Captain Graveling’s forced hospitality in having to offer a drink to Lieutenant Ratlcliffe, Melville leaves us with an ambiguous sentence structure: Graveling

silently placed tumbler and water-jug before the irrepressable guest. But excusing himself from partaking just then, dismally watched the unembarrassed officer. …

The sentence goes on, for another eight manuscript lines, held together by a series of six parallel participial phrases describing the officer’s partaking of drink.  The obvious problem is that what appears to be a second sentence—beginning with “But excusing himself…”—has no subject.  It is the kind of sentence fragment we discourage among freshmen writers, but find often enough in literary works.  Did Melville intend two sentences but inadvertently drop the subject for his predicate “dismally watched? or did he intend one long sentence and mis-punctuate? More to the point, if he were to have confronted the problem himself, would he have revised to one sentence or two? The 1962 Hayford / Sealts edition repairs the problem by emending the existing text to “he dismally watched,” thereby adding a subject and creating two full sentences. MEL emends by changing the existing conjunction “guest. But excusing” to “guest, but excusing,” thereby creating one long sentence.

Both emendations solve the problem; both take risks.  On the one hand, the HS editors must invent a word that Melville never inscribed, perhaps never considered, as a placeholder for the subject. On the other, while MEL’s editors’ emendation of Melville’s punctuation seems the easier intervention—it alters only what exists in manuscript rather than invent a subject not there—it also results in a longer single sentence that challenges reader attention. Arguments regarding Melville’s intentions can be made favoring both modes of emendation, but the point in both is not to second-guess Melville. The goal is to make the text conventionally readable and reduce reader confusion.

At the same time, the problem of normalizing raises questions about standardization of spelling, which is a common service provided by the copy-editor.  Generally speaking, MEL avoids standardization unless not doing so might confuse readers.  In one case, Melville typically spells “enforced” correctly; elsewhere he misspells it as “inforced.” Because Melville uses both spellings and because standardizing to the correct spelling is a smoothing of the text that does not obscure an intended roughness, we spare the reader this minor inconsistency by emending to the correct spelling, which, of course, we note on the reading text screen.

Emending to standardize other kinds of inconsistency is riskier. In referring to Lieutenant Ratcliffe, in the drinking scene quoted from above, Melville properly capitalizes lieutenant when the word is used as part of Ratcliffe’s name or as an honorific for him, as in “Lieutenant, you are going to take my best man from me, the jewel of ’em.” Melville also, both properly and fairly consistently, uses the lower-case spelling of the rank to designate the person, as in the quotation tag line “said the lieutenant.”  One exception in Chapter 1 is the phrase “to the Lieutenant’s satisfaction” in reference to Billy’s immediate acquiescence to his impressment. Standardizing to “the lieutenant’s satisfaction” risks losing the authority implied in the unconventional capitalization, and since retaining the capitalization does not confuse the reader, MEL keeps it.

Probably the most problematic case confronting us in the matter of standardization has to do with Melville’s inconsistent formatting of handsome sailor. An internet search of this phrase reveals no precursors and suggests that Melville invented it, or rather gave a name to a previously unnamed character type, as he composed Billy Budd.  In manuscript, handsome sailor is sometimes capitalized, sometimes not.  Sometimes it is underlined, sometimes put in quotation marks.  Does the editor leave Melville’s particular mark-up of each iteration alone, or standardize the inscription by capitalizing both words?

In preparing Melville’s text for publication, the copy-editor would likely standardize by capitalizing all occurrences of the phrase, and Melville would likely have accepted the capitalization.  But since our goal in documentary and fluid text editing is to render the manuscript as it exists, not as it might be for publication, MEL does not standardize handsome sailor and leaves each iteration as it appears in Melville’s hand. This approach is not meant to vex readers who will notice the inconsistencies. The critical advantage of keeping to the original is that capitalization, in Melville’s hand, represents a stage of development in which he recognizes the phrase as a character type, not just a descriptor for Billy.  Other stylings of the two-word phrase show Melville’s idea evolving from the descriptive (a sailor who is handsome) toward the categorical (The Handsome Sailor as a type), and detailed evidence of that evolution is worth preserving in the Reading Text; it is a roughness that encourages readers to dive through the reading text into the manuscript itself for a closer look at Melville’s process.  To standardize would risk masking Melville’s playing out of his idea.

Correction.  A related editorial concern addresses the problem of when the scholarly editor, acting as copy-editor, might “correct” a seemingly flawed text. The crux in question arose in the 2017 Northwestern-Newberry (NN) edition of Billy Budd and its decision to emend the pronoun “he” to “handsome sailor.” This editorial intervention has serious critical consequences.

The textual problem occurs on MEL leaf images 17 and 19 (Houghton leaves 7 and 8). (For an explanation of the differing leaf numbers, see Foliation.) When in a late stage of composition Melville added the African sailor example to his description of the handsome sailor type (See Tracking the Versions), he also added six leaves of content, ending with leaf image 17 and requiring him to revise the first lines of leaf image 19. (The intervening leaf image 18 is the blank verso of leaf image 17.) The six intervening leaves develop a further comparison of the African sailor to the now virtually extinct “Billy-be-Dam” type, a dandy still “vaporing” along the Erie Canal. Melville’s pronoun “he” in line 3 of leaf image 19 is the problematic text.  Originally, leaf image 19 was directly connected to now lost leaves that Melville discarded in favor of the six new leaves he composed concerning the African sailor.  Presumably the unrevised pronoun “he” (from the pre-African sailor stage) had a clearer antecedent, perhaps “handsome sailor,” but perhaps some other version of that phrase. As it stands, the pronoun is at worst ambiguous, seeming to refer to the Erie Canal boatman, a version of Billy-be-Dam and by extension the handsome sailor. “He” might also refer to other phrasings that Melville was in the process of revising, such as “forecastle hero” (deleted on leaf image 19) and “white forecastle-magnate” (deleted on the preceding leaf image 17). In short, at the last stage of revision, “he” could refer to a number of antecedents.

In their 1962 edition of Billy Budd, Hayford and Sealts let “he” stand. But in adopting this 1962 text, the 2017 NN edition makes several changes of its own, most notably removing the Hayford/Sealts modernizations and standardizations.  However, as reported in their textual note, Hershel Parker, in his 1990 critical study Reading Billy Budd, had earlier proposed emending “he” to “the handsome sailor.” Accordingly, as one of their emendations, the NN editors (Parker among them) adopted Parker’s suggestion, arguing that the antecedent problem “would presumably have been rectified by Melville if he had lived to make a final check” (NN Billy Budd 410).  However, in our Versions of Billy Budd reading text, MEL editors retain “he,” as it appears in manuscript. Our disagreement with the NN editors, on this textual matter, is rooted in our different editorial goals.

The NN Billy Budd edition follows an “intentionalist” approach.  That is, it creates a new text based on the manuscript so that it more closely approximates the editors’ conception of Melville’s final intentions.  In this case, the NN editors seek to clarify the text on Melville’s behalf. While documentary and fluid-text editors necessarily consider intentions, and shifting intentions, in their editions, the NN decision to emend “he” to “the handsome sailor” is flawed in four ways.

First, the NN editors classify the pronoun “he” as an “incomplete revision,” an important and very real category to be discussed below. However, the word “he” in manuscript shows no sign of revision. A better classification would be Harrison Hayford’s useful term “unemendable discrepancy,” deployed in his restrained emendation of Moby-Dick.  Second, the NN insertion of “handsome sailor” in a sentence that directly follows a sentence that also uses “handsome sailor” creates the kind of repetition that Melville sedulously avoided in his writing. As noted above, there is no telling what other solutions Melville might have considered in order to avoid a dull repetition, if he had lived, if he had noticed the ambiguous pronoun, and if he had wanted to change it. Third, the manuscript leaves in question are themselves a fascinating terrain of macro- and micro-revision. Though some appear neatly and carefully inscribed like fair-copy leaves, all leaves also show continued revision, especially regarding “handsome sailor,” a term added (apparently in two steps) on leaf image 17 as an insertion, replacing “white forecastle-magnate,” and one that has its own genesis, from “forecastle hero” (deleted in ink on leaf image 19) and the penciled word “magnate” (erased above the word “hero”). If Melville were at some point to repair the pronoun referring back to this phrase, he might have replaced “he” with “forecastle-magnate,” “forecastle hero,” or some other invention.  Fourth, because the manuscript reveals a text that is still in revision, the likelihood is that, if Melville had lived longer, he could have revised this section entirely, pronoun and all, and not necessarily to clarify the antecedent of “he” but to pursue further expansions or contractions. The NN emendation sacrifices the errant fluidity of a text in revision in order to represent an inadequately restrained notion of intentionality.

MEL’s fluid-text approach is to represent the manuscript as it exists. We emend MEL’s reading text only where not repairing it would impede a coherent, if not necessarily smooth, reading experience. In this case, the pronoun “he” is not a serious confusion.  Replacing it with “handsome sailor” also has deleterious critical consequences. As already noted, this term grew from an uncapitalized descriptor to a capitalized type, as Melville composed Billy Budd.  Editorially introducing another handsome sailor into the text adds a false iteration of the term and compromises the database for anyone seeking to study this genesis. That the NN editors note that their emendation is not capitalized underscores the futility of their presumption to “rectify” the text on Melville’s behalf. But which of the shifting Melvilles is to be represented? Because Melville’s manuscript shows that he had not settled on how to present the term handsome sailor, either as a pronoun, or as a phrase capitalized or not, or as some other phrase, or in a new sentence requiring no such phrasing at all.

Correction and Amnesia. This critique is not meant to dismiss all emendations that seek to correct a reading text, only to urge restraint. The documentary and fluid-text editor needs to be risk averse in representing the roughness of the manuscript “as it exists,” but also risk-taking in creating a smoother Reading Text that does not confuse. To be sure, attempts to normalize punctuation, standardize spelling, or clarify pronoun reference must be handled on a case-by-case basis.  Also at issue are matters of transparency and accountability in emendation. Happily, the technological advancements of digital editing enable the immediate graphic inspection of manuscript irregularities in side-by-side displays of leaf image and base version and on-screen explanations of editorial emendations in pop-up annotations. These features, not available to print editions, tend to lessen our anxiety over too-aggressive emendation.

Whether to correct Melville’s misstatements of fact is another mode of emendation that challenges our relation to the text as it exists, and as it is rendered digitally and in print. In Chapter 3, Melville quotes (inexactly) from the British naval historian William M. James but misidentifies him as British novelist and diplomat G. P. R. James. The parenthetical citation is itself complicated.  Melville first inserted “(James)” in pencil during a period of revision, which was then over-written in ink by Melville’s wife, and later revised when Melville added the confusing initials “G.P.R.” in pencil.

The confusion of “Jameses” is understandable. G.P.R. James had taken up residence in Stockbridge, MA, for a spell in 1851, and was an acquaintance of Melville and his wife when they lived at Arrowhead in nearby Pittsfield. An inveterate researcher, Melville would have certainly wanted to correct his apparent misattribution, and not correcting the error risks confusing readers. Obviously, some sort of textual intervention, involving emendation and/or annotation, is needed. Both the HS and NN editions emend what appears in manuscript as “G.P.R. (James)” to “(William James),” and offers an explanatory discussion in an Editorial Appendix.

The problem with such appendices in scholarly print editions is that they tend to disappear in popular reprints. The goal of the NN project, for instance, is to present “clear” reading texts of Melville’s works that are unencumbered by editorial footnotes on the page; such Textual Apparatus is placed in each volume’s appendix.  The admirable idea in this approach is to provide future publishers with a readily re-printable reliably-edited text up front for commercial distribution and give future scholars lists and discussions of emendations in the back.  In this way, scholarly editing improves literary study by putting standard texts into circulation. But there are two drawbacks to this approach.  One is that the standardized includes debatable emendations not visible on the reading text itself.  And two is that for popular editions, publishers invariably reprint the clear (unfootnoted) reading text but discard the invaluable textual apparatus that validates the text and informs readers about emendations, debatable or otherwise.  Therefore, the fact that “G. P. R. (James)” has been emended to “(William James)” may not be registered or discussed in reprints.  Despite decades of superb scholarship in rendering Billy Budd and other Melville works, those efforts are at serious risk of being unintegrated into popular and even academic reading.

Digital editing offers technical possibilities that lessen this kind of textual amnesia.  To begin with, a digital edition facilitates multiple interactions with the text, so that the manuscript image can be placed beside the reading text.  In addition, explanatory textual notes can “pop up” when the reader “mouses over” a highlighted text. But readers can also “filter out” some or all highlighted annotation, thus emulating the “clear” reading text format of the NN edition.  Given these features, the digital editor has more options regarding emendation.  MEL’s edition of Billy Budd does not emend the inked-over “(James)” and takes the penciled “G.P.R.” insertion, which is not placed within the parentheses, to be more of a compositional note than a revision. However, a substantial pop-up annotation in the Reading Text explains the textual conundrum and the variant HS and MEL emendations. Readers can also access the manuscript leaf image by clicking on the thumbnail next to the reading text. Because the pop-up note cannot be deleted in future digital circulation beyond the MEL platform, readers are less vulnerable to the publishing phenomenon of textual amnesia.

Modernization and Hyphenation. For all its admirable attention to detail in its “genetic” transcription of the Billy Budd manuscript, the 1962 Hayford and Sealts reading text is modernized. It updates certain mechanics in Melville’s 19th-century manuscript text to conform with 20th-century publishing formats in punctuation and spelling. The general editorial principle involved in modernization is that the editor seeks to familiarize the ancient text for contemporary readers.  The argument for modernizing Melville’s text is compelling, since the Billy Budd manuscript was never copy-edited in Melville’s lifetime, and since it did not reach professional editors until our modern time, and since the manuscript requires significant editing for any reading experience to occur.  However, given our commitment to a faithful rendering of the manuscript as it exists, MEL’s Billy Budd edition refrains from modernization, offering a reading text that preserves most of the idiosyncrasies of Melville’s inscription. 

For instance, Melville relished hyphenation in spelling compound words, in both nautical as well as regular language—such as war-ship, merchant-ship, and yard-arm-end as well as new-comer, game-cock, and tow-path—though he left the occasional compound unhyphenated (such as downhearted and peacemaker). Modern publishers generally minimize hyphenation, spelling compounds such as yardarm and newcomer without hyphens. But documentary and fluid-text editors, whose aim is to represent the manuscript as it exists, need not follow modern conventions. In fact, preserving Melville’s hyphenation, just as we preserve his distribution of commas in a challenging sentence, reminds us of a certain physicality of writing and the shaping of words like clay. Melville’s spelling of war-ship with a hyphen visually detaches the word war and induces a pause in our reading, giving a slight perhaps subconscious emphasis on the word war, in this novella set during a war.  The unhyphenated peacemaker, given as an unhyphenated compound, reads differently in comparison: Billy’s presence brings peace to bellicose shipmates, and as a one-word peacemaker he seems, again subconsciously, a unified embodiment of a maker of peace; hence, the lack of a hyphen underscores his identity, though ironically perhaps, in this novella set during war.  Whether Melville’s hyphenation is random or intentional, it needs to be recorded if only for future scholars to inquire if it is indeed accidental or patterned.

In service to these and other critical possibilities, MEL does not modernize and preserves Melville’s hyphenation, or lack thereof. But primarily, we do so to preserve the integrity of the manuscript itself.

Regularization and Stabilization. Other kinds of emendation pose further problems that require further interrogation of our commitment to manuscript integrity.

For instance, solid evidence shows that in a late stage of composition, Melville changed the name of the war-ship on which merchantman Billy is pressed into British naval service: he substituted the war-like word Bellipotent for his original name Indomitable.  However, in making this late revision in certain parts of his manuscript, Melville did not revise all instances of Indomitable to Bellipotent.  Should the editor finish Melville’s task of revision or ignore what seems his final intention?  Should the editor regularize the name one way or the other, or risk confusing readers by keeping both names: Indomitable at first, then Bellipotent later? Both the HS and NN editorial projects regularize, discuss the change in the appendix, and make the emendation “silently,” that is without a textual note on the reading text page.  MEL also makes the changes to Bellipotent, but highlights the emendation and provides a textual note. But once again, because digital editing permits MEL to place reading text and manuscript leaf side-by-side, users can see “Indomitable” as Melville left it unchanged while reading “Bellipotent” as we have edited it.

More challenging than this kind of “incomplete revision” is what might be called “oscillating revision,” in which Melville seems to waffle back and forth over two word options. In a frequent revision scenario, Melville would use pencil to delete an inked word and insert over it a substitute word in pencil. But he might also then strike through the penciled insertion in pencil and underline also in pencil the inked deletion to indicate its restoration.  He might also go on to use ink again to strike through the restored deletion, thereby leaving both words in some degree of rejection.  This oscillation of word options occurs, for instance, in Chapter 1, when Melville wavers between decorum and discipline in describing Billy’s innocent and inadvertent “good-bye” to his merchant ship The Rights of Man as a violation of some code of good behavior. His new British officer thinks but does not believe that the outburst, which sounds like a sly mocking of impressment, is an intended sarcasm.

The two words decorum and discipline are not synonyms and because we can see that Billy could be in violation of either one, though his violation would not be an actual infraction of naval rules, we can readily imagine Melville’s worrying over significantly different nuances of these two words. That Melville repeats both words in a parallel revision appearing a few words later in the following sentence, suggests that Melville wanted whatever word he settled on to be repeated and thereby supply another layer of irony regarding Billy’s innocent infraction. This double “oscillating revision” makes the target word all the more important, but no less determinate as to what it is. Which word might be more effectively used with ironic undertones in this already ironic scene? The HS editors determined that Melville’s final flip was “decorum,” but the radical indeterminacy of the revision site suggests that Melville might have flopped over to “discipline.”

If the editor’s goal is to represent the manuscript as it exists, how does she render the reading text at this indeterminate point? Does he stabilize an inherently unstable text by printing one word and burying the other in a footnote, as we do with other instances of “incomplete revision”?  Another option might be to create some kind of on-the-page print cue like “discipline ßàdecorum” that acknowledges both words in contention for the same space in the sentence. Another hi-tech solution would be to invent—at some expense and considerable aggravation—a Digital Text Oscillator that when applied to a set of words alternates each word in and out of the two places in the two sentences where it exists. This editorial intervention would be a remarkable bell-and-whistle of textual indeterminacy, but surely a development too far. A digital edition should not alienate readers with technology but rather use digital features to draw them, through recognizable and comfortable forms, into arenas where indeterminacies can be discussed, if not resolved. In this frame of mind, MEL’s editors accept “decorum” in its Reading Text for Billy Budd and adds a pop-up note explaining the futility of any editorial decision at this point in the text, reserving the right, of course, to change our mind.