It’s the book club selection for this month—meeting tonight. Have you
read it? Back in high school? I had never read it.
This was Herman Melville’s last? late work after a series of failures and
never published while he was alive. But he’s best known for Moby Dick
and this, Billy Budd.
Members were saying it was hard getting into—one reading a John Grisham
concurrently–no fair! And I, too, had to read at a snail’s pace to get used to
the earlier form of writing and the frequent citing of past mythology and
But, hey–it’s only about 75 pages and very short chapters and here we go:
Billy Budd was a 21 year old sailor who was blessed with being handsome,
with dimples in his cheeks, and yellow curls. He was “welkin-eyed” and that
had me scurrying toward the dictionary. (It means his eyes were blue, like
the sky.) He was nicknamed the Handsome Sailor and “Baby Budd” by his
shipmates. On ship he was a peacemaker.
He was an orphan and had what Hawthorne described as a “vocal defect”–
a stutter when he speaks.
Gosh, what’s not to like? But you might see trouble ahead with human nature.
For there is something evil in the hearts of some who resent a perfect specimen–
Billy so handsome, so agreeable, so happy.
You won’t care for John Claggart, the Master-in-Arms who has this propensity
for envy. He keeps his antagonism secret, but you and I know that . . . well,
you and I can guess . . .
When I was reading some of the opening scenes of this novel, Melville described
the way a crew of a ship was sometimes cobbled together by hook or by crook–
drawing men from seedy barrooms or even jail–anything to get the required
number of men to man a ship. And he mentions the nature of sailors in general,
engaging their mates in rough humor. (Sailors are fun!)
I began to see the footprints of another book I read about sailing ships–that of
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. I’ll bet you a nickel Unsworth had a thorough
read-thru of Billy Budd to extend some flavor for his own book. I remember
laughing out loud at some lines in the Unsworth novel. And by the way, I heartily
recommend Sacred Hunger which is a great read, starting out with the actual
plank by plank building of the ship! And the recruitment of the crew . . .
In the background at this time of Melville’s writing is a recent event of mutiny
on another English ship. It has made a deep impression on the leaders of the fleet
and they are wary of any activity which might look suspicious.
An incident aboard ship initiates the action of sabotaging Billy Budd. Claggart
goes to Captain Vere essentially to cast a bad viewpoint of Billy to him. These
three characters are the nub of the plot: Billy Budd, Claggart and the captain.
You’ll find Captain Vere interesting I think—-his name, Vere–get it?
(the goddess Veritas–truth)
The ship surgeon is called to the scene –without giving away too much here–and
is confused. Is Captain Vere sane? But he is a subordinate to the captain. So,
“To argue his order to him would be insolence. To resist him would be mutiny.”
In the introduction of the copy that I read, John Updike says “Whenever Melville
ventures onto the shipboard, the reader feels the deck beneath his feet.”
Good line. Good story. A classic with things to think about after the book is closed.
Will add book club’s comments here tonight: It was a tough sell for most of the
book club. Eight members were there. Five of us had read the book. One, to her
credit, had read the book in college and couldn’t face the ending again. The best
comment of the night was the member who pointed out that Melville defined
the tough decision of what is legal, and what is right.
The five who read it, admitted it was a little difficult, but rewarding to read. Probably not
a good choice for your own book club!
Next month Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmund Rostand!