Billy Budd, Sailor

Part of The Art of the Novella

Herman Melville’s career as a bestselling author collapsed after he wrote Moby-Dick and Bartleby the Scriviner (and essentially created American modernism). Dropped by his publishers and reduced to a life of poverty, he toiled in obscurity for thirty years before passing away … and leaving this unpublished book in manuscript behind. Finally published in 1924, Billy Budd, Sailor is Melville’s final masterpiece.

In it, Melville returns to the sea to tell the story of Billy, a cheerful, hard working, and handsome young sailor, conscripted to work against his will on another ship, where he soon finds himself persecuted by Claggart, the paranoid master-at-arms. As things escalate beyond the naive Billy’s control, tragedy looms on the horizon like Melville’s great white whale, and the story become Melville’s final, sublime plunge into the classic tussle between civilization and chaos, between oppression and freedom, as well as the book in which he discusses homosexuality most openly.

A major work of American literature.

HERMAN MELVILLE was born in New York City in 1819. At eighteen, he set sail on a whaler, and upon his return, wrote a series of bestselling adventure novels based on his travels, including Typee and Omoo, which made him famous. Starting with Moby-Dick in 1851, however, his increasingly complex and challenging work drew more and more negative criticism, until 1857 when, after his collection Piazza Tales (which included “Bartleby the Scrivener”), and the novel The Confidence Man, Melville stopped publishing fiction. He drifted into obscurity, writing poetry and working for the Customs House in New York City, until his death in 1891.

“The most studied and admired of Melville’s works except for Moby-Dick.” —John Updike

“[A] late-life masterpiece.” —The New York Review of Books