by Herman Melville
Herman Melville is the colossus of nineteenth century American letters. Moby Dick is his great (largely unread) masterpiece, but the novella Billy Budd affords an introduction to Melville’s work. It is a late piece, written more than thirty years after Moby Dick and not published until 1924, but like much of Melville’s work, it is seagoing allegory.
Billy Budd is a handsome young sailor with a speech impediment, who is constantly tormented by Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms. When Billy strikes Claggart and inadvertently kills him, he is tried for murder and hung—but his execution is described as a moment of transformation, and Billy is treated as a Christ-figure. (So much so that, years later, the spar from which he was hung, acquired the status of a relic.) The Christian imagery in the story will capture the discerning reader’s attention. Some have tried to read Billy Budd as Melville’s reconciliation with the faith, but there are clues in the allegory that suggest otherwise.
Like his friend and contemporary Hawthorne, Melville was reacting against his Christian intellectual inheritance. The result, in this case, is a morally and theologically rich story that should be read with discernment and is sure to spark interesting conversations.
by J. Mark Bertrand