Called the "Handsome Sailor" by the other sailors aboard the warship, Bellipotent, Billy Budd is admired by all men but Master-at-Arms Claggart, an envious man who plots to frame Billy for treason.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 11/21/1998 11:42:26 AM 56 0 "The
December Classics Corner selection is Herman Melville's novella BILLY BUDD.
Every attempt will be made to start the discussion on time. - G -
This is a short selection and you should be able to finish it in an evening or
two. Melville's "parable of innocence", in which a natural man is defeated by
an evil intellect has had enduring power. It has been the source for both a film
and an opera. It should pose some interesting questions for discussion.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 11/22/1998 9:39:27 PM 52 0 "Ann
I have just finished Billy Budd, and am looking looking forward to the
discussion. While it is a short story, Melville's style is somewhat difficult,
proceeding by indirection suggestion and allusion; despite this, it is an
interesting allegory and in my opinion, still worth serious consideration.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 11/28/1998 4:40:44 AM 52 0 "I've
been interested in Billy Budd since I ran the film adaptation of the
story at Berkeley's Northside Theater in the early '60s. Between watching
snippets through the projection room porthole and plunking myself down inside
the theater, I must have seen that film ten times. It exercised a mysterious
hold on me which I've never understood. It wasn't any latent religious feelings
I may have had, and I don't think it was sexual. (Terence Stamp's portrayal of
Budd has strong homoerotic undertones, but I'm about as straight as one can be
in a world in which I doubt that anyone is completely one thing or the
I think my interest in the story may have sprung from some kind of deep-seated
wish to be completely good. As I said, I wasn't then (and am not now) religious.
However, I was raised to be "good" and to be honest (which is certainly not to
say that I've turned out okay--but that's another story). Anyway, if this theory
is correct, I may have been drawn to Budd because the character
represents pure goodness. Budd is a complete innocent in a world filled with
evil, and the effect he has on those around him in the film is something fine to
I haven't seen that film in years, but vivid images from it are burned in my
memory: Budd sent aloft by the captain of a merchant ship who's trying to hide
him from a naval press crew; Budd watching a sailor being flogged in
bewilderment; Budd waving from aloft to the naval captain (Peter Ustinov), who
doesn't know what to make of something so innocent and harmless. But most of,
the final scene: After Budd cries out, "God bless Captain Vere!" there can't
be a dry eye in the house.
Why is that? Has that film had the same effect on anyone else?
Now to the bad news ... Despite my enthusiasm for Billy Budd so long ago,
it took me until a few years ago to read the actual book. And I'm sorry to
report that I found it a tedious drag. (By contrast, I found Moby Dick to
be just the opposite, despite my expectations to the contrary.) I fear that I
could never work up any enthusiasm for reading Billy Budd again. However,
I'll greatly welcome any contrary opinions on that subject. If there's something
wonderful in that book that I missed, I'd like to know about it.
I have the complete text of the book on my computer. It's in WordPerfect 5.1
(DOS), but it can easily be converted to other formats. If anyone is interested
in having a copy, send me a note and I'll email the book to you. It's not very
big (c. 200 kilobytes) as electronic texts of books go, so it won't take you
long to download it. Let me know in what form you want the text. Here are the
1. WP5.1 in individual chapters
2. WP5.1 in one big file
3. DOS (ASCII) text in one big file
If you want the book in individual chapters, I must insist on sending it to you
as a compressed file (uploading/downloading 31 separate files would be tedious).
If you're comfortable with unzipping compressed files, I'll send the book to you
that way, regardless of what form you want it in.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 11/28/1998 4:59:02 AM 57 0 "Just
for the heck of it, I've copied the credits of Billy Budd from the
Internet Movie Database to here. they seem to have come through okay.
Full Cast and Crew for Billy Budd (1962)
Directed by Peter Ustinov
Writing credits: DeWitt Bodeen, Robert H. Chapman, Louis O. Coxe, Herman
Melville(novel), Peter Ustinov
Cast (in credits order)
Robert Ryan .... Master-at-Arms John Claggart
Peter Ustinov .... Captain Edward Fairfax Vere
Paul Rogers .... Lieutenant Philip Ratcliffe
John Neville .... Lieutenant Ratcliffe
David McCallum (I) .... Lieutenant Wyatt
Ronald Lewis .... Jenkins
Lee Montague .... Squeak
Thomas Heathcote .... Payne
Ray McAnally .... O'Daniel
Robert Brown (I) .... Talbot
John Meillon .... Kincaid
Cyril Luckham .... Hallam
Niall MacGinnis .... Captain Graveling
Melvyn Douglas .... The Dansker
Victor Brooks .... Amos Leonard
Barry Keegan .... Charles Mathews
rest of cast listed alphabetically
Terence Stamp .... Billy Budd
Produced by Peter Ustinov
Original music by Anthony Hopkins (II)
Cinematography by Robert Krasker
Production Design by Donald M. Ashton
Film Editing by Jack Harris (I)
Fred Heather .... special effects
Garth Inns .... special effects
Curly Nelhams .... special effects
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 11/30/1998 4:36:07 PM 50 0 "Hi
It is interesting to me how we develop similar feelings toward this book. What
struck me last night while I read it was how Moby Dick makes for much easier and
smoother reading. When I first looked at this book I was negatively impressed
by the convoluted way of Melville's writing. He seemed to be off on another
tangent in almost every paragraph. But, when Melville quoted people talking he
is straight forward and to the point. Also there are repeated hints about what
the conflict will be about after the story develops. I become a bit
apprehensive about it. So I see the book as going back and forth Between a very
clear presentation and getting off on a tangent.
What impressed me a good deal is Melville's understanding of the good and bad in
human nature. Yes, he rendered fine descriptions and Explanations of the good
and evil in man. Some of it strikes me as very subtle and sophisticated.
As on previous occasions I became interested in the author and read a few short
pieces on his life in various source books. Ernie
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 11/30/1998 7:29:27 PM 50 0 "I
finished BILLY BUDD yesterday. I must admit that Melville’s tortured syntax at
times made this slow reading. I had to slow down and read some of it more than
once just to get the meaning. This story was published posthumously. Some of the
more obscure passages would probably have been cleaned up by a good editor. Yet,
in spite of these shortcomings (if such they be), this is a very dramatic
story, which made a big impression on me. It is a story of ideas, and it raises
important moral questions—qualities that are usually lacking in more
I would like to ask the following questions. I am still debating the answers in
my own mind.
Billy Budd is supposed to represent the "natural man" before man was corrupted
by civilization. Do you think such a man would ever actually exist in nature, or
is he just a literary construct, a kind of heroic prototype? Does civilization,
in fact, corrupt us?
Why is Billy’s physical perfection so constantly emphasized?
Is Claggart just the devil incarnate, or is there anything in the story to
explain his hatred of Billy? (And, don’t you just love this line: "But
Claggart’s conscience being but the lawyer to his will, made ogres of
Captain Vere was convinced that he had no choice but to condemn Billy. Did
Melville think that he acted morally? Do you?
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/01/1998 1:27:09 AM 54 0 "Ann, I
expect that Melville's "natural man" theme owes a lot to British philosophers,
such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, as well as the French philosopher
Rousseau, who had a lot to say on what it might mean to live in the hypothetical
"state of nature." Billy Budd is such an innocent that he appears to belong
more properly to that state. Moreover, as an innocent, he resembles the "noble
savage"--a physically perfect man who lives in a state of nature.
I'm no student of philosophy (or of literature for that matter), but I suspect
that these connections may account for Melville's emphasis on Budd's physical
appearance. Moreover, his (Budd's, not Melville's) mind seems to be undeveloped,
so Melville may be compensating for that deficiency by developing his body.
Another question that I've had about the story for many years is why Melville
set it in the British navy? Could it have had something to do with the
influence of the British philosophers he must have read? He could, after all,
have set virtually the same story in the American navy--which was known to hang
mutineers from the yardarm as late as the mid-19th century.
(And why isn't the name Melville in the spell-check dictionary of a
literary discussion group like this?)
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/01/1998 12:14:39 PM 52 0 "One
reason to set Billy Budd in the Royal Navy was that the British naval
mutinies of the Napoleonic Wars were far more well known, and dramatic, than
were their isolated, individual American counterparts.
Another reason, I think, is that one level of the story Melville is telling
involves a look at individual freedom and goodness as opposed to organizational
freedom and goodness. Budd was a fine and innocent individual; Captain Vere was
an equally fine and innocent person, in the context in which he existed,
which was of course, the organizational structure of the Royal Navy. The two
sets of values intersect and conflict, and ultimately results in the agonizing
resolution of the conflict. This grand theme needs a grand theater in which to
play -- and I think the Royal Navy, in its wars with Napolean, was an
appropriately broad stage. Moreover, the organizational imperative to execute
Budd is much clearer in the context of the RN of the time than it would have
been on the miniscule American fleet of the early 19th century, because of the
mutinies that had Occurred and because of the desperate nature of the struggle
Something I've never quite understood is this business of Budd's corpse not
twitching. Anyone read anything about what this might signify? All I can think
of is that it's some sort of sign that God came down and plucked Billy off to
heaven before the noose could get him, thus indicating Budd really was in tight
with the Big Guy. Of course, I don't recall Claggart twitching, either, so go
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/01/1998 12:53:32 PM 53 0 "In the
matter of Budd's not twitching when he died, I'm inclined to suspect that his
death scene has parallels with Christ's crucifixion (perhaps the ship's yardarm
subs for the cross). The Gospels of the Bible don't describe Christ's death in
anything like the clinical detail that Melville discusses Budd's death. However,
they give the impression that Christ's moment of death came quickly and was
followed by complete calm.
As for Claggart's death, I'm sure that one has to study the details of Judas's
hanging to find a parallel.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/01/1998 4:13:59 PM 55 0 "Its
been years since I read any commentary on Billy Budd but my recollection
is that the analysis was fairly evenly split between the homosexual school and
the Christ-figure school, with some overlap. I always wanted to write the fusion
essay: "Billy Budd: Deity or Drag-Queen?"
P.S. Considering what a twisted little sod he was, Claggart got off pretty easy.
One whack and lights out. If Clint Eastwood had been writing this, we'd have a
more satisfying conclusion to this particular scene.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/01/1998 4:32:24 PM 58 0 "Dick, I
don't see this as a vehicle for Eastwood. I see it more as a martial arts kind
of thing--perhaps with Chuck Norris playing Budd. It would be tempting to cast
an Asian as Claggart, but that probably wouln't fly because of the historical
context. The important thing, of course, would be to have a Claggart who fights
back. Instead of dying instantly and losing his audience, Claggart would put up
a fight for a good 10 minutes, wrecking Captain Vere's cabin in the process.
Then, after having beaten the bejeezus out of Claggart, Budd (Norris) would
finish him off with one mighty blow, turn to the captain, and stammer, "Don't
know what got into me ..."
In the court-martial scene, the officers would debate the wisdom of hanging Budd
when the prospects for a sequel appeared to be so bright. They would
nevertheless convict him; however, just as the noose is tightening around Budd's
neck, he would break the rope with a single karate chop, apologize to captain
again--for being uncooperative--and spring into action against the French ship
that is attacking them.
After single-handedly saving the ship, Budd would be pardoned, in the name of
King and country, and the closing credits would invite the audience back for the
sequel: Billy Budd II: Death to the French.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 2:16:25 AM 54 0
It's been a while since I read BILLY BUDD, but I remember it as a
retelling of the Christ story. At the end aren't the sailors saving splinters
from the yardarm? Just as splinters from the "True Cross filled the
European continent. Mark Twain might even had some remark on this subject.
As for corpse "twitching". Does this imply that rigormortis was not present.
Death and dead bodies were more in evidence in those days than now, when we
tend to keep everything with professionals who specialize in death, and the
presentation of death in a less personal aspect.
Not worded well, but the family used to take care of the body. And the
carpenter made the box. In between; no middle man.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 5:34:55 PM 52 0 "I was
wondering how many CCs' editions of BILLY BUDD have a cover illustration of the
subject. Mine does...it's a Signet paperback from 1961 when paperbacks were a
whopping 75 cents.(See attached .jpg)
To me, Billy looks part saint-like and part emperor-like here. Thought it might
be interesting to see the varying artists' conceptions from other folks' covers
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 5:39:57 PM 52 0 "I was
wondering how many CCs' editions of BILLY BUDD have a cover illustration of the
subject. Mine does...it's a Signet paperback from 1961 when paperbacks were a
whopping 75 cents.(See attached .jpg)
To me, Billy looks part saint-like and part emperor-like here. Thought it might
be interesting to see the varying artists' conceptions from other folks' covers
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 5:48:33 PM 55 0 "Well,
darn. I'll try attaching the Billy Budd .JPG one more time...
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 7:24:10 PM 53 0
I agree that it is easier to understand Billy Budd as the perfect "natural"
man when you consider this story in the context of philosophical ideas about
the noble savage. For myself, I sincerely doubt that primitive man was any
better than we are today. He may have been more naïve; I don’t know that he was
more "innocent." Melville’s stay among South Sea Islanders apparently
convinced him otherwise (although these folks were reputedly cannibals, so I’m
not sure how he worked this out in his own mind).
Yet, I also have to say that I sincerely liked Billy in this story. Perfect as
he was, I did not find him cloyingly sweet. I was even willing to accept his
perfect physical beauty, although in my own limited personal experience I have
rarely found external and internal beauty to be closely correlated.
Edd, there are certainly a lot of religious overtones to this story and I can
understand why many see Billy as a Christ figure. When he yelled out, "God
Bless Captain Vere", I immediately thought of Jesus’s words in the Gospel:
"Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." There is also that
apparent "fleece of the Lamb of God" seen in the sky after Billy died. As for
the lack of twitching, the text refers to possible "euthanasia." Apparently,
it is okay if God is responsible for it.
This story has also been interpreted to mean that civilization corrupts man, who
is naturally good. In this Melville was clearly out of touch with his 19th
century compatriots who saw man marching forth into a future of unlimited
progress. I have reservations about man being naturally good, but I think the
conflict between natural law (which may even be God’s law) and man’s law is
what makes this story so powerful. Billy is clearly innocent, as Captain Vere
immediately recognizes. When he sees that Billy has accidentally killed
Claggart, he exclaims: "Struck dead by the angel of God!" This is directly
followed by, "Yet the angel must hang!" Man’s rules require that Billy be
executed to maintain military discipline. Melville makes a pretty good case for
Captain Vere. I think he sees him as a moral man. Do agree?
At the same time, even if is necessary that "Baby "(how innocent can
you get?) Billy die, it is not right. War, and politics in general, often lead
people to do wrong in the name of the higher good. This is a great story
because it makes us question that.
Dale, I have a paperback edition from the Washington Square Press. Billy Budd is
wearing a kind of see through T shirt that shows every sinew of his body and
makes him look like either a body builder or a Greek god. Thanks for sharing
your picture. I think both the cover on your book and the one on mine make him
look too old. I see him more as a boy.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 7:35:33 PM 53 0 "Ann &
All: I'm far enough into BILLY BUDD to know that, merits of the story aside, the
author can make syntax cry "uncle" like nobody I've read in a while.
The preface to my edition says that this is one of the last things Melville
wrote before he died, and that it wasn't published until 32 years after his
death. I remember his earlier stuff, though of course not lightweight, to be
considerably more readable than this.
Seems almost counter-intuitive to me; don't writers generally start out
contorted and gradually mellow in style?
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 9:55:05 PM 57 0 "I'm
enjoying the comments on BB here, although, in deference to my first reading
experience with it several years ago, I've chosen not to read it again.
I don't remember enough about it to add much to the discussion, but I do
remember that Billy began to give me a pain. He was just too good and sweet.
Dale, that scan came in at life-size. It was weird to see Billy appear--first
the wiry golden hair, then the saintly blue eyes, lifted to the skies...
BTW, if you want your scans to pop up fast and fit on the screen, see if you can
reduce them to about 300 x 500 pixels.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 10:41:57 PM 60 0 "One
thing that strikes me as I near the end of BB is how Melville's style, so
cerebral and circuitous throughout, suddenly turns so beautifully visual when
describing Billy in irons before his execution.
The paragraph beginning, "On the starboard side of the Indomitable's upper gun
deck, behold Billy Budd under sentry..." was such a vivid picture it took my
Even down to the figure of speech that the chaplain's sermon was to Billy "like
a gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do not
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/02/1998 11:24:49 PM 62 0 "Dale,
My copy of Billy Budd is a 75¢ Signet edition, like yours, but its cover
ain't quite the same. I agree that the picture of Budd on the cover of your
edition has the look of an emperor (a Greek emperor, I should think); however,
the picture on the cover of my edition looks more like a Greek god.
Talk about perfection!
I'm attaching a scan I just made. Anyone else have this edition? Perhaps
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/03/1998 12:03:14 AM 64 0 "Wow,
Kent. That's the handsomest Billy yet.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/03/1998 8:41:36 AM 63 0 "Kent:
You rascal. Amazing! Now, THAT's a book cover.
Although, if this were the true Billy, methinks they would have done him in even
>>Dale, your Budd in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/03/1998 10:24:45 AM 62 0 "Just a
couple of observations/questions upon finishing BILLY BUDD...
At one point, Melville tries to make the case that the captain is mentally
unstable, and that this somehow affects the outcome of the incident, but for me
that's problematic. Nothing he does seems irrational to me--wrong-headed
perhaps, but very rational. It's one of history's oldest saws, "I don't make
the rules, I just etc." and it's done every day from battlefields to jails to
corporate boardrooms. Did anybody else have a problem with this?
(On a side note...William Bradford Huie wrote a nonfiction book called THE
EXECUTION OF PRIVATE SLOVIK, about the only American soldier to be killed for
dereliction of duty during peacetime. It was made into a powerful TV movie, 20
years or so ago, with Martin Sheen in the title role.)
Also, some scholars say that Claggart's actions were equal parts evil and
intellect. Evil, maybe, but I don't see intellect coming into play here. To me,
his motivation seemed twofold: personal antipathy, rooted in plain old-fashioned
envy; and what the 20th Century would call "ambivalent sexual feelings" for
Billy. Or am I reading too much modern psychology into that part?
And, in the ballad at the story's end, "darbies" are mentioned twice in
connection with Billy's death. What the heck are darbies? My dictionary hasn't a
And, at one point a character mentions a punishment that's grimly nicknamed
"kissing the gunner's daughter," which I first encountered in a Ruth Rendell
mystery of the same name. I know it involves a gun, but the descriptions are so
vague I don't know exactly what the punishment consists of. Can anybody
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/03/1998 12:39:05 PM 60 0 "Dale,
I'm glad you like the Billy Budd cover. I don't know about doing the
character in sooner because of his appearance, but I'd certainly give some
thought to making him shave.
"Kissing the gunner's daughter" refers to flogging. If I'm not mistaken it
alludes specifically to being stretched over a gun carriage and being whipped on
the back. However, I believe it may have also have been used figuratively for
Yr obedt. servant,
(Who was never flogged in the Coast Guard, even though he was observed, on
occasion, to mutter mutinously and have an odd glint in his eye.)
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/03/1998 5:03:37 PM 57 0
Darbies --"manacles or irons". My paper back has a "Visual Glossary." If I
had a scanner I would send you a picture. Basically, they look like leg or arm
irons with a chain attached.
I think that the surgeon questions if the Captain has lost it, but I think that
Melville's point is that he is acting according to the rules, and therefore
"rationally" according to society. Military or political "duty" is
frequently used as an excuse for behavior which we might otherwise consider
immoral.I was thinking about this the other night when I heard an NPR story
about the 4 church women (3 nuns and a lay missionary) who were murdered by the
Salvadoran military about 18 years ago. As long as Carter was in office, the U S
government vigorously investigated the murders. When Reagan took over, the
government tried to shove the whole incident under the rug because the
Salvadoran military was their ally against the boogie man of Communism.
Secretary of State Haig even suggested that maybe it was the nun's own fault
that they were murdered. It's almost enough to make you think that governments,
particularly when they have military objectives, are innately corrupt, isn't it?
In the past we have discussed the presence of outright evil in the world, Dale,
and I thought you might see Claggart as a good example of this. I think envy was
definitely a factor. Claggart is also very good looking, until you get to his
chin, and suddenly his whole appearance is flawed.
Also, there is more than a hint that he is sexually attracted to Billy. Chapter
"Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft
yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban." If
he were writing today, he might have developed this theme a lot more. As it is,
much is left to our imagination. I don't know if Claggart acted so much
"rationally" as "deliberately."
You mentioned the writing style.
Melville achieved his early success in the 1850's. Thereafter he didn't publish
much, and was considered a failure when he died in 1891. BILLY BUDD was written
shortly before his death. Maybe he had lost the writer's touch in between MOBY
DICK (which, to be honest, I really struggled through in high school) or maybe
he just didn't have time to polish some of the writing. I do think that the end
of the story (starting with Claggart's accusation) is very powerfully
Kent -- great picture of "Billy Budd." He so closely resembles a writer friend
of mine. I guess that hair is platinum, huh? (G)
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/04/1998 2:46:09 AM 52 0 "Dale
Regarding Private Slovak (Slovik?). I'm sure he was executed during war time.
He "got religion" after he was a soldier, and refused to enter combat. His
wife supported him and probably instigated his actions.
I think General Eisenhower says (somewhere) that he was just waiting for an
appeal on religious grounds, but Slovak never used that avenue of escape. Some
people have a martry complex. Slovak may have been one of them. I think he was
executed (firing squad; 12 guns; 11 bullets) about the time of the Battle of the
Bulge. It also served as an object lesson to the timid of heart. Or that is
what the military mind thought.
General George Washington had problems with desertions. His solution was the
most cruel I have ever read about. He took three deserters and put them
together. In an hour two of the men had to decide which one of them should die.
The two survivors then went back to their companies. When word got around,
EDD remembering the military
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/04/1998 4:34:17 AM 57 0 "I wrote
a squib on Edward Slovik for an article titled "10 People Made Famous by Their
Deaths" (in The Book of Lists 2). According to what I wrote some years
ago, of nearly 3,000 Americans court-martialed for desertion during World War
II, 49 were sentenced to death, but Slovik was the only one of actually shot.
His distinction is magnified by the fact that he was also the first American
executed for desertion since the Civil War.
Slovik was executed near Ste. Marie, France, on Jan. 31, 1945--about 6 weeks
after the Battle of the Bulge began, but only a few days before Roosevelt,
Churchill, and Stalin met at Yalta. The TV movie about Slovik starring Martin
Sheen aired in in 1974.
I don't suppose anyone picked up on my reference, but I appended a phrase to an
earlier note in this thread about not having been flogged for mutiny when I was
in the Coast Guard. (That's true, I was never flogged for mutiny--though I often
lusted after mutiny in my heart.) The other part of my note I stole from an
incident in U.S. naval history.
When I was in college I bought an illustrated history of ships off a remainder
table at the Univ. of Calif. bookstore (first remaindered book I can remember
buying). It has a picture in it that has always haunted me: A navy ship with two
men swinging from a yard-arm. This caption accompanies the picture:
A famous incident in American naval history: Midshipman Spencer was hanged
from the yard-arm of the U.S. brig Somers because he "muttered mutinously and
had an odd glint in his eye." Captain Mackenzie was tried for his murder in
1842 but acquitted.
That phrase, "muttered mutinously and had an odd glint in his eye," has stuck
with me all these years, and I've muttered it myself scores of times (especially
when I've been at work.)
That picture has also often come to my mind when I've thought about Billy
Budd. Spencer's hanging is doubtless one of the reasons I've wondered why
Melville didn't set his story in the U.S. Navy.
I'm attaching a scan of the picture. (The caption I quoted contains all the
information I have about the incident; I have no idea why it shows two
people hanging from the yard-arm. I do, however, seem to recall reading
elsewhere--but I've no idea where--that Spencer was the last American sailor
hanged at sea.)
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/04/1998 9:36:06 AM 50 0 "Edd &
Kent: Thanks for setting the record straight on Pvt. Slovik. I do seem to
remember, now, the martyrdom aspect but I wouldn't be surprised if it was
downplayed in a screen treatment. Still, it's one of a very few TV movies that
linger in my mind. Another was also on a military theme, this time Vietnam:
"Friendly Fire," starring Carol Burnett. I thought her performance was
BTW, I notice in the lithograph that the two naval hang-ees are directly
underneath Old Glory. Not an accident, I would presume?
Mutinous muttering and odd eye-glinting have also been ascribed to me, over the
years. Once I took part in a "Writers in the Schools" program, and after my
presentation the fifth-grade teacher asked the class to write me thank-you
notes. One boy's said, "I enjoyed Mr. Short's presentation very much. Does he
have a glass eye?"
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/04/1998 9:52:17 AM 50 0 "Ann:
Thanks for the clarification on "darbies." They sure had happy-sounding names
for grim stuff back then, didn't they? Kissing the gunner's daughter,
Good to know, too, I wasn't imagining the sexual undertones in this thing. I
know that we sometimes make the mistake of imputing contemporary sexual politics
to eras when the social landscape was completely different--i.e., "platonic"
friendships of Victorian women that sound by modern standards like explicit love
letters--but I don't think this is one of those cases.
And yes, I do think Claggart qualifies as one of what Scott Peck would call
"the people of the lie." He makes the point again and again (in his book by
that title) that the people he classifies as evil are generally not snarling
monsters, but rather ordinary individuals who are for all practical purposes
conscienceless, and never seem to grasp the full impact of their actions on
others. He also refers often to Hannah Arendt's book about the Nazi war-crime
tribunals, where she reports that the infamous men brought to trial seemed more
in person like "timid, bumbling bureaucrats" than the murderers of
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/07/1998 6:19:23 PM 40 0 "This
morning I finished BILLY BUDD and read the thread. I loved this story and cried
at the end. I know, I know, you think I love everything I read and cry at the
end of every book but its NOT true. Just almost true lately. Now it is
inevitable that I will have to read MOBY DICK and, therefore, will not have time
to do anything else in my life, but that is just too bad. Such is the power of
Excellent thread, too. Dick’s assessment of the individual good versus the
organizational good struck me as getting to the heart of the matter. The story
is exploring the divergence of morality and the law. The social statement seems
to be: just because someone has committed a crime doesn’t necessarily mean s(he)
has done anything wrong. In fact, the official record often gets it wrong, as
did the only printed report of the incident which paints Billy Budd as the
heinous villain and Claggart as the heroic patriot. Even the facts of the
killing are incorrectly reported, underscoring that what appears to be true
according to the letter of the law or the record thereof, is deserving of
Like the recent film, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, I was drawn into the contradictions
that war brings about without any easy answers. It was clear to me that Captain
Vere’s choice to hang Billy Budd was the “correct” one and yet how could
something so right be so wrong? In 1891, when BB was written, the social milieu
was such that a record of crime meant social ruin. The story seeks to drive a
wedge between conviction and culpability. Also, I think it ironic that when this
story was written Herman Melville was generally regarded as a failure; certainly
a prevailing social judgment worthy of reexamination. BILLY BUDD pleads: look
beyond the official explanation-- the far more interesting
story, indeed the truth of the matter may be something altogether different.
As to Billy Budd’s perfection: I got the impression that Billy was the
occasional fellow of great exception. He was on the magnificent pole of the
human spectrum. A beauty inside and out. His very presence bespoke of the
potential of all who knew him. And we have all met and known exceptional
people. Billy had it all, and in that sense, as Ann suggests, he could
represent a prototype of human greatness. And as the story makes clear, such a
person still comes with their vulnerabilities, perhaps all the more so.
As to the sexuality of the book: I’m sure you are all stunned to hear that I
concur that there is a homoerotic undercurrent to this voyage. Claggart’s
animosity was motivated as much from his thwarted desire to have Billy as his
desire to be like Billy. As to the feelings of the rest of the crew toward
Billy, it seems that on a warship of the day it was appropriate for the men to
express affection one for another, even a kiss on the cheek, without the
assumption of sexual overture. (Just as a side note: I have not seen the film,
but I can tell you that Peter Ustinov who played Captain Vere, produced the film
and co-wrote the screenplay and Terence Stamp who played Billy Budd are both
For me, Melville wrote powerfully from the Captain’s decision until Billy’s
execution. Billy’s clarion last words were never lost on the men who witnessed
it. Billy’s strength was from that moment forward the personal measurement of
each man there.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/07/1998 7:05:04 PM 40 0 "Robt: I
very much enjoyed your thoughtful and thought-provoking note. As to Billy's
human goodness, I was reminded today of a colloquialism my grandparents used
when I was growing up. They would say that somebody like Billy was "too good
for his own good," which I think puts it well. So often, the best among us are
too naive to protect themselves from the worst.
As for the truth differing from the historical record, I worked enough years in
the newspaper business to know that the two are often light-years apart.
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/07/1998 7:05:48 PM 41 0 "I've
read some on 18th century naval life and my recollection is that a bit of
recreational pederasty in the fo'castle was not at all uncommon, with ships
being at sea for months and years at a time. It was also the common practice for
the quarterdeck to turn a blind-eye to these practices, provided the miscreants
kept it below decks. This, notwithstanding that such conduct was punishable by
execution. There was an excellent subtheme/subplot on the subject, in one of
Patrick O'Brian's novels (I take POB as gospel on affairs, or perhaps I should
say, "matters", relating to the Royal Navy in the age of sail). Anyway, I
suspect Melville was 'suggesting' a sexual theme which most sophisticated
readers of the day would have well understood, even if it was presented in a
subtle and tasteful manner which our modern eyes find nearly incomprehensible
("Spit it out, Herman. Was Claggart guilty of doin' the dirty deed, or not? I
want ambiguity, I'll watch Ally McBeal fer crissakes.")
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/07/1998 10:50:56 PM 41 0
"Excellent observations, Robt. Your note was a perfect example of why I enjoy
discussing the classics here. Where else, but here and Constant Reader, could I
find such love of books and insights that so enrich my appreciation of a work of
Much as I may have quibbled about some awkward writing early in the story, I
must agree with you that once we get to the Captain's decision, both the writing
and the dramatic development of the plot are excellent. Fortunately (G), my
horrible memory had completely erased the climax of this story, so it once again
made a striking impression. This moral conflict between doing the "correct"
thing and the "right" thing is the heart of the story.
One thing that we haven't mentioned yet which I thought was very interesting was
the role of the chaplain in the story. I love this line: ..."since he felt that
innocence was even a better thing than religion wherewith to go to judgment, he
reluctantly withdrew." Quite a broadminded man for someone in his profession,
don't you think?
Of course, Melville does get in a final dig about the religion of the meek (i.e.
Christianity) sanctioning that (i.e. war) which "practically is the abrogation
of everything but brute force. I guess one mustn't think too much about the
hypocrisy and immorality of war or nobody would go to fight -- except the bad
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/08/1998 9:04:29 AM 42 0 "Ann:
The chaplain scene in BB got to me, too, as did Melville's line about war being
"the abrogation of everything but brute force." It's no place for Boy Scouts,
that's for sure.
Speaking of the sometimes broad difference between "the truth" and "the
facts," I'm reminded of a novel that takes that distinction as practically its
whole theme: IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS, by Tim O'Brien. No accident, I think,
that this one is military-related also. It's about a Vietnam vet whose run for
political office crashes and burns at the last minute when allegations surface
about his actions during the war.
Seems I remember gail, and some other CRs, enjoying it too...if "enjoy" is the
word for a book this unflinching.
This one should definitely have been on my Top 10 list. Three thumbs up, if I
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/09/1998 4:50:14 PM 37 0
I liked IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS, but the Tim O'Brien book that really blew me
away was THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. Part of what got to me, I'm sure, was that I
was actually wrapped up in a book about war. As a general rule, I can barely
stand to read about anything too violent. O'Brien has a lot of talent, but I
don't think his latest book got very good reviews. Have you read it?
p.s. I liked the 'extra-credit' suggestions for Fitzgerald.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/13/1998 2:36:29 PM 34 0 "In
retrospect Billy Budd reminds me a bit of a Greek drama. There is no exit for
the actors who are drawn into death by fate. The Greeks of course thought this
due to the gods. I suspect that Melville's original plan for the book was
responsible for casting doubt on the Captains mental state. As someone pointed
out the Captain was a fine, sane person. I agree with someone who said that the
book needed editing badly. I was also struck by the strange variation in
writing style. At time the writing was poor and convoluted and all of a sudden
it turned to being superb, clear and beautiful.
This book left a deep impression on me as it keeps coming back to my mind.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/13/1998 3:36:26 PM 37 0
I agree with your observation that BILLY BUDD resembles a Greek tragedy.
Melville really boxes in his characters, to the point where there seems to be no
escape from fate. I think it could be argued, however, that the captain could
have chosen to postpone Billy's trial and let the higher authorities take care
of him. I am somewhat surprised that no one has taken that position in our
discussion. That option was definitely suggested in the text.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/13/1998 9:00:14 PM 37 0
The only explanation I can come up with why the Captain did not delay was the
fact that he wanted Billy Budd to die while still in the proximity and control
of his own love or affection. Well Billy had to die, but he died in the
presence of a truly caring person.
Ann, I have a hard time getting away from psychobiological explanations. The
Master of Arms (can't find the book or remember his name) acted due to envy,
jealousy, competitiveness. These are very human, but not very desireable
hardwired impulses. Billy and the Captain had opposite types of
impulses,generosity, love of fellow man, etc. Unquestionably these impulses are
preferable to the opposite, but aspects of the human animal and the conflict can
be deadly when acted out. The sexual aspects may be there as well but I tend to
discount them somewhat.
The playing out of the competitiveness in the type of setting Melville has
chosen creates the type of drama which touches us. Ernie
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/13/1998 11:01:33 PM 38 0
That's a very interesting interpretation and not one I would have come to on my
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/14/1998 9:53:07 AM 41 0 "Ernie:
Good to see you online again. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments on this
Ann, I'm not sure how much leeway the Captain had as to saving Billy's case for
an on-land court. Melville goes on and on, beforehand, about the types of
conscripts they were getting (from jails, etc.), notorious mutinies and their
consequences, as if to suggest that these were tense times for the Navy in
Add to that a suggestion that the Captain might have been a little unstable,
i.e. paranoid, and he might well have been afraid that once discipline started
to slip, and sailors began taking sides on the issue, his command could well
have been in danger. He seems to me like a sane and relatively good man saving
his own skin.
On a more modern note, some sources say that in Vietnam combat, more field
officers were killed by their own troops (the nickname, "fragging," apparently
derived from fragmentary grenade) than by the Vietcong.
Just a thought.
>>Dale in Ala.
(PS: For a glimpse into the primordial mists of CR, check out the Salon
subject "CR: The Olden Days")
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/14/1998 6:24:47 PM 38 0 "Good
points, Dale. I guess when you rely on impressment (i.e. kidnapping) to fill the
ranks and you are in the midst of a long war, it is critical to maintain
discipline at all costs.
To be completely unfair about this, what do you think you would have done?
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/15/1998 10:14:34 AM 40 0 "Ann:
What would I have done, in the Captain's place? Whew.
As much as I'd like to blow some smoke about respecting the sanctity of life,
etc., etc., my time in the military (I was drafted in '69, went through Army
basic training, kept ending up in the hospital, and eventually got a medical
discharge because I'm essentially one-eyed and have asthma, facts the draft
board had, pardon the expression, turned a blind eye upon) taught me more about
myself than I wanted to know.
My most striking memory of those months is the image of myself in full battle
gear and helmet, literally stepping on, and over, people ahead of me in
formation who had fallen after passing out from exhaustion. It's hard to
reconcile that with the person I like to think I am. Self-preservation makes
people do some terrible things, and I don't think anybody can predict what
they'd do if faced with the situation.
The way I see it, military training is a combination of fear and self-
preservation, achieved through brainwashing, period. Sometimes, arguably, for a
worthy purpose (see WW II), but still an awful thing for a person to have to go
through. Somewhat the same goes for quasi-military organizations such as law
As much as I condemn police abuse and crimes of war, I get upset when people
seem shocked that this kind of thing occurs. We train people to kill, pay them
dirt, put them in situations where their lives are threatened daily, and then
act surprised when they don't always behave like good Boy Scouts.
Wow. You really got me on my soapbox, there... =G=
>>Dale, preserving himself in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/15/1998 5:07:59 PM 39 0 "Dale,
thanks for your honesty. I could never see myself in combat at all, but the
reason I liked Tim O'Brien's THE THINGS THEY CARRIED so much is that I could so
identify with the fear and confusion of his soldiers.
The narrator goes to Vietnam in the first place because he feels he doesn't
have the courage to buck social pressure and escape to Canada.
That brainwashing is really critical, isn't it? There are some who imagine
themselves invincible and want to "prove" themselves, but most of us just try
to survive. Once someone is actually firing at you or your buddies, the killing
becomes a lot easier. Of course, as a middle-aged female I count myself
fortunate that I never had to face these fears other than in my imagination.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/16/1998 8:29:33 AM 41 0 "Ann: I
think Tim O'Brien captures the fear and confusion of combat like nobody else.
The story you mention ("On the Rainy River?") was one of the most moving, to
me, in THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. Being in a war was unthinkable to me, but so was
living in a foreign country without my family.
A wonderful (and disturbing) novel about the Vietnam War is PACO'S STORY, by
Larry Heinemann. It was a dark-horse winner of the National Book Award 7 or 8
years ago. Pinned my ears back. Amazingly powerful stuff, and a distinctive
voice with the momentum of a freight train. I should have included it on my All-
Time Top 10 list. (How many books have I said that about, now?) [G]
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/19/1998 1:21:30 PM 41 0 "Dale,
I spent close to 4 years in the service during WW II as an enlisted man and
subsequently another 6 or more years as an officer in the army reserve. I was
an army psychologist during Korea and resigned during Viet Nam. I was
fascinated by the army routine, by their indoctrination, etc. One of the basic
principles was to first break a person down in basic training and then built him
up again by means of total identification with military routine. But the
military ceremonies played an important role, such as Retreat, etc. The things
I saw weren't always pleasant and the torture of a sick soldier got me very
upset. The non-coms thought he was lazy, but he had a serious disease and I met
him when i was hospitalized for rheumatic fever. I don't know if he
Just the same, blame it on my pathology, I found the military fascinating. Don't
forget I was a refugee from Austria and was accepted by the US and felt strongly
that I should do my part and show my appreciation of this country. So I always
was and still feel quite patriotic and am still an active member of the Coast
Guard Auxiliary Team. ( I have a sail boat in the S.F. bay).
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/19/1998 8:41:07 PM 43 0 "Ernie:
It's wonderful to hear your insightful comments, as a medical professional, on
this long and wide-ranging thread. Especially, your characterization of military
training as having to "break them down" before you can "build them up." And
even after that, the results are often triumphant but always both mixed and
"Breaking down" a person, mentally or physically or both, seems a harsh and
foreign--indeed, unimaginable--process to people who have never been in the
military, been trained there, or were prisoners of whatever faction.
But I submit, for your approval (As Rod Serling would phrase it, in the Twilight
Zone...[G]) that this process occurs every hour of every day, in any number of
professions, from law school to medical school (on-duty 48 hrs. at a time) to
the police academy to teaching K-12, to being parliamentary chairman of a
travesty in the House, and to any number of other professions. "Breaking down"
is just not given the same name, or the same prominence, as "building up".
It's only in a crisis, in any profession, that this build-up/break-down becomes
a subject of debate.
Break down, build up. It's the technique of leaders through the millennia. We do
what we can, and what we must.
I can, however, personally testify that Ernie and Pat are consummate hosts
wonderful people, par excellence, and that I still regret not getting to be a
passenger on Ernie's boat, a lack which I hope to repair as soon as
Dale in Ala., wishing the best of holidays to Ernie and Pat, and looking forward
to seeing you in Seattle!
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/20/1998 12:09:37 AM 49 0 "Dale,
, sounds somewhat akin to what I went through in graduate school.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/20/1998 7:45:37 AM 43 0 "I think
though that the techniques used for this breaking down and building up process
in the military and in police academies are more intense than what the rest of
us go through in professional training.
When my intelligent brother came back from basic training saying to me that
"war builds men", I knew that some very disturbing thing had been going on
with him. At the time, I felt like it was almost sinister (I was in my late
teens). Now, I understand that he had been mildly brainwashed. He still
doesn't remember saying that to me or even feeling like that. It does feel a
bit like The Twilight Zone, Dale.
And, I have another friend (a woman) who went through the police academy twice
and is now an excellent state police trooper. The first time, she went through
some pretty awful experiences with a commander who didn't like women at state
police posts and she was almost drowned in a water training activity. The
second time (after some intervention with a law suit), she merely had very
intense training. It didn't sound nearly as bad as my brother's basic training
in the brainwashing area, but still had some of those elements.
I honestly can't remember being affected like this by anything that happened to
me in undergraduate or graduate school or in my training at work.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/20/1998 5:54:12 PM 45 0 "Barb &
All: While the psychological process of "breaking down to build up"--with some
element of brainwashing and/or peer pressure, occurs in a lot of professional
spheres--I think that the military is really, and dramatically, a case
When a person becomes a soldier-in-training, whether voluntarily or
involuntarily, he/she in effect gives up nearly all rights of protection, under
law, against flagrant physical and mental abuse. The military is the equivalent
of an independent nation: it has its own rules, its own police force, even its
own legal system, which civilian courts very rarely question.
In my experience, the military--despite all the good people who serve in it--
seems to attract unbalanced and sadistic individuals as "drill sergeants,"
folks who would be in jail if they had to live in the outside world. They have--
and use--the power to do anything short of killing you, in the name of
"toughening," aka "building men."
The public only hears of this when a recruit they're torturing actually dies,
and the public expresses its shock and disbelief. (Oh, please.)
In my own case, when I was trapped at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in re-doing
the 12-week Basic Training as many times as it took me to quit getting sent to
the hospital, an old Army veteran my mother worked with told her she had nothing
to worry about. "A Boy Scout leader couldn't take any better care of those kids
than their drill sergeants do," he said. "You can rest easy."
At the exact moment he said that, I later learned, I was hospitalized (the
"hospital" being a barracks building from WW II which was long condemned) for
the third time in three months with a bronchial infection and a fever of 105,
and was hallucinating. There were dozens of us there, and all our treatments
were the same: Bayer aspirin and unlimited Kool-Aid. Antibiotics were strictly
forbidden, because they weakened our bodies' "natural resistance to disease."
This was a toughening process, after all.
I was let out of the hospital early, with the understanding that "inactive
duty" meant cleaning toilets. I had cleaned them all, and made the mistake of
going to sleep after the final one. My officer in charge started beating me with
a broom and cursing me for my laziness.
When at last I was given a chance to be discharged, the first people present
were a base legal officer and a notary public. I was told that I had to sign a
document saying I would never (a) seek judgment against the Army for wrongly
drafting me, and (b) never apply for veterans' benefits. Lacking this, they
said, my discharge could be held up for months or years. I signed. I went
In perspective, my experience (while already having a wife and a career) is a
piece of cake compared to those who actually went to combat. But it has
affected, and will affect me, until the day I die, and I haven't seen its
equivalent in any other organization. And, yes, I have a built-in resentment
toward young people who "can't quite decide" what to do with their lives, now
that the draft is ancient history.
End of diatribe.
>>Dale in Ala.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/20/1998 8:10:32 PM 43 0 "Knee
deep in the Big Muddy.
DECEMBER SELECTION--BILLY BUDD 12/21/1998 9:59:22 PM 38 0
I have no idea what the expression you used means. Trouble?
You mentioned experiences in grad school - did you? Well my problems in grad
school were not Exactly minor. I would say I suffered more in grad school than
in the army. I have not mentioned that my last three years in the service were
rather comfortable. I had a clerical jobs, personnel and intelligence work,
good friends, a nice boss, good hours and foremost lived in a wonderful part of
the country, i.e. the Pacific Northwest. Also took University Classes, played a
lot of chess during duty hours, you name it. There is another aspect to
military life. It can be manipulated to the point of being rather "Soft" and
there are many people who prefer to stay in since it is so comfortable for
someone who likes routine and avoids challenges.
As an army psychologist I had lots of contacts with the Long Timers, frequently
non ambitious types. Perhaps the best example was the guy who had the highest
IQ in my hospital group (including MDS) a Cpl. student from Stanford who ended
up shacking up with a trashy woman who had 6 kids. He was from an elitist
family but found his own level and was never as happy as working with me as a
psychology Assistant. I may add that many many of the long timers were
alcoholics, unstable etc. However 90% of my work consisted in Examining newly
inducted recruits who did not care for the service and were usually discharged
in a hurry. All this took place during the Korean conflict. Ernie