“Speak, man!”: <i>Billy Budd</i> in the Crucible of Reconstruction

Michael T. Gilmore

in The War on Words

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print July 2010 | ISBN: 9780226294131
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226294155 | DOI:
“Speak, man!”: Billy Budd in the Crucible of Reconstruction

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This chapter provides a speculative reading of Billy Budd in light of the historical currents shaping the culture after the Reconstruction. The interpretation can only be speculative because Herman Melville goes to great lengths to efface his own context, and because assertions of certainty would violate the tale's investment in the unsaid and the provisional. Melville tinkered endlessly with Billy Budd, which also abounds in reticences and mysteries, and because he never completed his manuscript, the text is a product of editorial guesswork. In Billy Budd, his agent of ideological fanaticism is the chaos across the Channel, and the threat of mutiny in the British fleet imposes the requirement of verbal reserve. Censorship pervades every aspect of Melville's text. The disturbances at Spithead and the Nore, taking inspiration from events in France and fanned by the presence of so many impressed men in the king's navy, have created a state of constant vigilance that radiates out from the Bellipotent to the narrative voice. Billy Budd might almost be said to perfect the condition of verbal inhibition.

Keywords: Billy Budd; Reconstruction; Herman Melville; mutiny; verbal inhibition

Chapter.  8674 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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