Melville Electronic Library

A Critical Archive

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Most of the 361 leaves of the Billy Budd manuscript, located at Harvard’s Houghton Library, are numbered and renumbered in Melville’s hand with multiple leaf numbers, inscribed in different colors, indicating different stages of composition. Foliations in different hands also appear: Raymond Weaver’s page numbers in the upper right hand corner of most leaves, and Houghton Library’s numbers in the lower left corner.

Foliation.  In their 1962 edition, titled Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), Hayford and Sealts provide a detailed explanation of Melville’s foliation, in different crayon colors and in pencil, which, depending on the stage of composition, appear in the upper corners, top margin, and left and right side margins. Some of these numbers are themselves sub-numbered.  For instance, a multi-leaf expansion of text occurring originally, let’s say, after a leaf designated “7” might be foliated with a “7” plus a circled 1, 2, … 8, 9, each numbered leaf inserted after leaf 7. These leaves—inscribed in the top margin in green as 71, 72, … 78, 79—would later receive a new, independent leaf number—78 becomes 24; 79 becomes 25—in red in the right corner.  (For evidence of this process, see leaf image 61.)  Sets of colored numbers appearing on single leaves enabled these scholars to designate eight stages of composition, which brought Melville’s text from his initial ballad and headnote to the thirty-chapter novella with its concluding ballad. 

In transcribing the manuscript, MEL editors use TEI’s <metamark> element to code all folios and their colors on each leaf and the <change> element to associate the stages and sub-stages associated with each colored number. In the HS configuration, a sub-stage may indicate the physical leaf (piece of paper) on which text is inscribed, or the inscription itself, or revisions in pencil or ink included with the inscription.  The sub-stages of all inscriptions and revision texts are also coded.

Our goal in coding Melville’s foliation and the HS stage and sub-stage designations is to provide data for anyone wishing to test, correct, or augment this monumental and indispensable work of textual scholarship. Future scholars will also be able to search MEL’s database by sub-stage to discern patterns of revision. A proposed project, titled How Billy Grew, will use this data to integrate the micro-revisions recorded in our TextLab transcriptions of each manuscript leaf into an animated, macro-revision visualization of the manuscript’s growth, stage by stage.

Manuscript Leaves.  In his analysis of the manuscript in preparing his 1924 edition of Billy Budd, Foretopman, Raymond Weaver foliated most leaves, typically with circled whole numbers in pencil, in the upper right hand corner of each leaf he foliated.  In their later analysis, Hayford and Sealts provided folio numbers that supersede Weavers, and Houghton Library staff registered those HS numbers in pencil in the lower left hand corner of each leaf. 

Many leaves also include one, two, or three cut-and-paste slips of paper originally straight-pinned to each other or to a single larger leaf that may or may not have text on it as well.  In conserving the manuscript, Houghton removed all straight pins and re-attached each slip of paper to the main leaf with thin strips of adhesive gauze to the left edge of the main leaf, permitting readers to turn the previously straight-pinned slips to the left to read the formerly obscured text on the underlying paper and to inspect any text on the verso of the slip. 

The inscribed versos of Melville’s insertion slips indicate that Melville routinely recycled salvageable paper that he had used in composing texts—either Billy Budd or other works, such as poems from Timoleon and Weeds & Wildings—that he had heavily revised beyond readability, copied afresh elsewhere, and then put aside. Drawing from his stack of used paper, he would select a sheet, turn it over and usually upside down, and compose or copy Billy Budd text on this other side. He would then scissor the written portion and attach the slip with a pin. As noted elsewhere, Melville also scissored away text from previously inscribed and currently composed leaves—called clips and patches, respectively—for his cut-and-paste collaging of a full leaf. The rectos of these slips of paper bearing Billy Budd revision texts and their versos bearing discarded versions of other texts were not assigned independent leaf numbers. Instead, in the HS numbering system, they are associated with the leaf number to which they are attached.

Leaf Images.  In digitizing the manuscript, Houghton Library created 831 images.  The more than doubling of the number of leaf images in relation to the 361 manuscript leaves in the HS foliation system has largely to do with the fact that the Houghton correctly digitized the versos of all leaves, almost all of which are blank.  Houghton also digitized multiple views of those single numbered leaves to which multiple slips are attached.  A leaf with three attached slips, some including verso text, may yield at least five leaf images: one for each slip, one for all three together, and one for the main leaf’s verso.  Images of the versos of slips were also digitized. Each slip and leaf, front and back, has a unique leaf image number, which MEL has adopted for TextLab transcription and all other manuscript referencing.  The discrepancy between these MEL leaf image numbers and the HS leaf numbers represents MEL’s fuller representation of the manuscript as a material, documentary object.

In the table of contents of the reading text in Versions of Billy Budd, we have placed Blank Versos and Inscribed Versos in separate folders.  Folders for each of the novella’s thirty chapters contain the leaf images associated with the designated chapter.  Because the Houghton / MEL leaf image numbers do not represent revision sequencing, some images for a leaf may appear out of order.

As part of their genetic edition, the Hayford and Sealts reading text positions the HS leaf numbers in appropriate places down the outer margin of each page, so that readers can consult the corresponding manuscript transcription of a given leaf, located in the edition’s appendix.  (In issuing its paperback version of Billy Budd, Sailor, the University of Chicago Press kept the marginal leaf numbers but eliminated the appendix and its corresponding leaf transcriptions.)

The genetic transcription mixes a reliable rendering of Melville’s inscription with an array of codes to indicate revisions, and in many cases brief editorial interjections indicating more complicated text placement information.  The leaf transcriptions are not accompanied by leaf images, a diplomatic transcription, or revision sequence and narratives. Instead, the heavily-coded genetic transcription attempts to mix a physical description of the leaf’s revision texts with too-confident assumptions of revision sequence.  For instance, the genetic transcription for Melville’s revision of “white forecastle-magnate” to “handsome sailor” is registered as a single step deletion of the former and insertion of the latter, whereas the manuscript shows two deletions and two insertions and the possibility of several multi-stepped revision scenarios. 

Despite this limitation, the HS genetic transcription was, for its time, a benchmark for scholars working within the strained economies of image reproduction and print technology to tackle the challenge of making Melville’s revision process available to more readers. Despite the inadequacies of this pioneering effort, the HS transcription has been indispensable to MEL editors in deciphering Melville’s handwriting, unearthing deletions obscured by ink and erasure, and identifying sub-stages.  

The NN edition of Billy Budd reproduces the HS genetic transcription, and does not report any revisions to it. MEL’s transcription of the manuscript differs from the HS transcription readings in a few places, and we anticipate producing a digital visualization that charts the alternate readings and links them to relevant manuscript leaf images. This project will also associate MEL’s leaf image numbers with the HS and NN leaf designations.

What is the text of Billy Budd