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Billy Budd is Melville's last and perhaps his second most familiar work of fiction.  As with Moby-Dick, the novella has devoted readerships in academe, the arts, and the popular culture.  It has been the center of critical controversies regarding political resistance and Christian acceptance, authority and duty, masculinity and beauty, fathers and sons, romance and irony, and Melville biography. It continues to be a seminal text in fields of literary study worldwide, including law, war, gender, sexuality, and the editing of manuscripts.

Unlike Moby-Dick, which emerged in 1851 in two radically different first editions, Billy Budd was never published in Melville's lifetime.  It exists fundamentally as a manuscript. At the time of his death in 1891, Melville had "completed" his novella to the extent that its plot, characters, and narration had been developed into a coherent whole. But the manuscript is far from polished, and its many leaves and leaf fragments reveal a complex revision history through numerous versions of the tale. Billy Budd is perhaps Melville's most remarkable fluid text, as our Tracking the Versions link attests.

MEL's Versions of Billy Budd is a digital space containing various edited units that give the reader unprecedented access to the Billy Budd manuscript. On view are MEL's edition, with its textual, contextual, and revision annotations, links to collations of MEL's base version and reading text and projected collations of the 20th-century versions of Billy Budd, and a display of all leaf images of the Billy Budd manuscript.  Introductions explaining these features and our coding and emendation approaches can also be reached by the links to the right.

For ideas about how readers might use Versions of Billy Budd, please visit MEL's Projects section. To contribute a Use Case of your own, or if you would like to join MEL, Contact US.

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.

What is the text of Billy Budd


How to Use the Edition Enter the Edition Tracking the Versions: Billy Budd How Billy Grew

Digital Editing

Modes of Digital Editing Transcription Coding Foliation, Leaves, and Leaf Images Emending the Reading Text


  • Billy Budd: Manuscript Base Version v. MEL Reading Text
  • Billy Budd: 20th-century Reading Texts
Project Ideas