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Melville Electronic Library - a critical archive

Versions of Billy Budd

What is the text of Billy Budd

Billy Budd, Melville’s last work of fiction, was never published in his lifetime, and the surviving manuscript—which is complete in terms of plot, character, and narration—is not is not a polished “fair copy” ready for publication but instead a working draft riddled with revisions.  Soon after its discovery among Melville’s papers in 1919, a transcription was published by Raymond Weaver (1924).  F. Barron Freeman published his 1948 transcription based on a fuller analysis of the manuscript.  Adding to his work and settling on a different transcription, Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. published a third version in their “genetic text” edition of 1962.  Melville’s text, then, exists in multiple versions, in manuscript and print, none of which Melville finalized or saw through the press.

The Melville Revival of the 1920s, which retrieved Moby-Dick, also brought Billy Budd before the public for the first time.  By the late 1940s it had captured the attention of critics and artists alike.  It has been the center of controversies regarding resistance and Christian acceptance, authority and the law at sea, masculinity and beauty, fathers and sons, Melville biography, and the nature of writing as romance and irony.  It has been adapted for stage, film, and opera, and its story has been transformed in Claire Denis’s 1999 film, Beau Travail.

The goal of MEL’s Versions of Billy Budd edition is to create a digital space that will assemble all manuscript, print, and adaptive versions of Melville’s last novella and to provide users with the tools to navigate from version to version.

With TextLab, we are building the edition so that users can inspect Melville’s revision process on the novella’s more than 350 manuscript leaves and also compare the manuscript text to the three twentieth-century scholarly editions.  In the future, we plan to create Melville ReMix, an adaption of MIT’s Annotation Studio, so that users will be able to compare the literary texts of Billy Budd to its stage, film, and operatic versions.

To access Versions of Billy Budd in its current state, click on the links below for MEL’s manuscript transcription and our collations of the print versions.

The Billy Budd manuscript is located in the Melville Collection of the Modern Books and Manuscript Department at Houghton Library of the Harvard College Library, Harvard University.  MEL is grateful for Houghton Library’s generous donation of its digitized images of its Melville manuscript holdings, created through a generous donation by the Robert G. Newman Library Leaders Fund—in this case the Billy Budd manuscript, call number bMS 188 (363)—and for its permission to display those images in Versions of Billy Budd.  Members of MEL’s editorial team used TextLab to transcribe the base text of the Billy Budd manuscript from the Houghton leaf images.  The print texts of Billy Budd transcribed by Raymond Weaver (1924, 1928), F. Barron Freeman (1948), and Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (1962) were transcribed for MEL by Aptara, Inc. from digital images derived from copies in the Melville Society Archive of the Research Library of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.