Melville's Billy Budd and the Dis­guises of Au­thor­ship

New England Review - - Table of Contents - In­ves­ti­ga­tions Roger Strit­mat­ter, Mark K. An­der­son, and El­liott Stone

No ut­ter sur­prise can come to him Who reaches Shake­speare's core; That which we seek and shun is

There—man's fi­nal lore. — Her­man Melville, Bat­tle-pieces and As­pects of the War,

Dur­ing his ear­li­est days as an au­thor, be­fore his dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the idea of lit­er­ary fame, Her­man Melville first en­coun­tered the sub­ject that not only haunts Billy Budd but also sup­plies the novella with its sub­lim­i­nal co­her­ence of form, con­nect­ing the his­tor­i­cal shell of the al­le­gory— the 1797 re­bel­lions of the Nore and Sp­it­head and naval dis­ci­pline on board the Ge­or­gian “man o' war”—with the lit­er­ary and philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions that had ab­sorbed him for many decades. The novella, on which he worked from 1888 un­til the year of his death, 1891, was not pub­lished un­til 1924; the seeds were planted in 1848 when his Wi­ley & Put­nam ed­i­tor Evert A. Duy­ck­inck, re­cently in­stalled as ed­i­tor of the Lit­er­ary World, sent him a re­view copy of Joseph C. Hart's The Ro­mance of Yacht­ing: Voy­age the First (1848). Hart's ram­bling trav­el­ogue takes ex­ten­sive de­tours on sub­jects com­pletely un­re­lated to sea­man­ship, in­clud­ing an early at­tack on Shake­speare as a “fraud upon the world” and a call for in­quiry into the iden­ti­ties of “the able lit­er­ary men who wrote the dra­mas im­puted to him.” Melville was unim­pressed. He hated Hart's book with such an abid­ing pas­sion that he un­con­di­tion­ally re­fused Duy­ck­inck's re­quest:

What the deuce does it mean? . . . Here's a book pos­i­tively turned wrong side out, the ti­tle page on the cover, an in­dex to the whole in more ways than one. . . . then I'm set down to a di­gest of all the com­men­ta­tors on Shake­speare, who, ac­cord­ing to `our au­thor' was a dunce and a black­guard—vide pas­sim. . . . Se­ri­ously, Mr. Duy­ck­inck, on my bended knees, & with tears in my eyes, de­liver me from writ­ing ought upon this cru­ci­fy­ing Ro­mance of Yacht­ing. What has Mr. Hart done that I should pub­licly de­vour him? I bear the hap­less man no mal­ice . . . the book is an abor­tion . . . take it back, I be­seech, & get some one to cart it back to the au­thor.

At first glance, Melville's sple­netic re­ac­tion to Hart's book might seem to

ex­on­er­ate him from any ac­cu­sa­tion of dab­bling in un­con­ven­tional the­o­ries about Shake­speare. But with Her­man Melville, noth­ing was ever so sim­ple. In an 1851 let­ter to Nathaniel Hawthorne he was soon re­mark­ing on his own un­re­stricted ca­pac­ity for end­lessly re­mod­el­ing his whole con­cep­tual uni­verse, the very sort of ca­pa­cious re­think­ing that would soon es­trange him from con­tem­po­rary in­tel­lec­tu­als un­able or un­will­ing to fol­low his in­trepid mind:

I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyp­tian Pyra­mids, which, af­ter be­ing three thou­sand years a seed and noth­ing but a seed, be­ing planted in English soil, it de­vel­oped it­self, grew to green­ness, and then fell to mould. So I. Un­til I was twenty-five, I had no de­vel­op­ment at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time be­tween then and now, that I have not un­folded within my­self.

Only three months af­ter his en­counter with The Ro­mance of Yacht­ing, ap­par­ently still vexed by Hart's at­tack on the learn­ing and tal­ent—not to men­tion the iden­tity—of Shake­speare, Melville “un­folded” him­self again, em­bark­ing on an earnest quest to read the Bard's col­lected works. In a space of days, as if struck by light­ning, he blazed through a copy of Hil­liard and Gray's 1837 edi­tion of the col­lected works, dash­ing off a let­ter to his con­fi­dant Duy­ck­inck:

Dolt and ass that I am I have lived more than 29 years, and un­til a few days ago never made ac­quain­tance with the Divine Wil­liam . . . Ah, he's full of ser­mon­son-the-mount, and gen­tle, aye, al­most as Je­sus. I take such men to be in­spired. I fancy that this mo­ment Shake­speare in heaven ranks with Gabriel, Raphael and Michael. And if an­other mes­siah ever comes, 'twill be in Shake­speare's per­son.

Melville's New Eng­land irony had taken root in fer­tile Old World soil, in­au­gu­rat­ing a life­long ob­ses­sion that in­spired his great­est lit­er­ary art. As F. O. Matthiessen ob­served, Melville had “just be­gun to med­i­tate on Shake­speare

1 more cre­atively than any other Amer­i­can writer ever has,” and the en­counter “brought him to his first pro­found com­pre­hen­sion of the na­ture of tragedy,” stok­ing the charge which “re­leased Moby-dick, and . . . car­ried him in Pierre to the un­bear­able des­per­a­tion of a Ham­let.”

Melville soon qual­i­fied his re­ac­tion to the “Divine Wil­liam”: “Do not think, my boy, that be­cause I im­pul­sively broke forth in ju­bi­la­tions over Shake­speare, that, there­fore I am of the num­ber of the snobs who burn their tuns of ran­cid fat at his shrine.” The ironic al­lu­sion to the idol­a­try of “snobs” at the Strat­ford “shrine” hints at sub­ter­ranean cur­rents in Melville's think­ing, ideas that would not be­gin to ap­pear in ex­plicit form un­til three years later, and then only un­der the cloak of anonymity, in his 1850 re­view of Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse. Al­though he re­jected Hart's for­mu­laic Bard-bash­ing, Melville's own close read­ing had launched him on a pri­vate in­quiry that would last—as his own words abun­dantly at­test—un­til his death forty years later.

In ret­ro­spect, the col­li­sion be­tween Melville's aes­thetic prin­ci­ples and the 1 F. O. Matthiessen, Amer­i­can Re­nais­sance: Art and Ex­pres­sion in the Age of Emer­son and Whit­man, Ox­ford: The Univer­sity Press, 1941, 189.

Bar­num & Bai­ley mythos of the emerg­ing Shake­spearean in­dus­try may seem in­evitable. By Melville's day, the life of Shake­speare may have been a “fine mys­tery,” to quote Charles Dick­ens, but the el­e­ments of what was to be­come a pow­er­ful ortho­dox tra­di­tion was al­ready as­sum­ing in­sti­tu­tional shape in Strat­ford-upon-avon. As early as 1769, when the ac­tor-im­pre­sario David Gar­rick founded the Strat­ford Ju­bilee, the town­ship had given birth to a dy­namic—not to men­tion prof­itable—in­dus­try. Like whal­ing, “Shake­speare” was big busi­ness; tourists flocked to the bard's “shrine” to man­i­fest their de­vo­tion.

Sus­pi­cion that “the birth­place” was the em­bod­i­ment of a prof­itable hoax proved im­pos­si­ble to ex­tin­guish, es­pe­cially in Amer­ica where skep­ti­cism ran deep. By the time Wash­ing­ton Irv­ing in the Sketch-book of Ge­of­frey Crayon, Gent. had trained his self-dep­re­cat­ing wit on the Strat­ford shrine—in 1820, just a year af­ter Melville's birth—the Shake­spearean in­dus­try was al­ready suf­fer­ing from the ex­po­sure of a se­ries of forg­eries by Wil­liam Henry Ire­land. De­spite their crude­ness, Ire­land's forg­eries had hornswog­gled such giants of the Lon­don lit­er­ary scene as John­son's ed­i­tor James Boswell, also a Shake­spearean ed­i­tor. Ul­ti­mately, these forg­eries not only failed to sat­isfy the hunger for bi­og­ra­phy, but—to the em­bar­rass­ment of Boswell & Co.—were also ex­posed as frauds. Af­ter his de­bunk­ing by Ed­mund Malone in 1795, Ire­land even pub­lished a con­fes­sion. Fifty years later, a faint but un­mis­tak­able air of fak­ery still hov­ered over any­thing “Shake­spearean,” giv­ing fre­quent rise, es­pe­cially in Amer­ica, to such expressions of resistance to un­re­flec­tive cul­tural fash­ion as Melville's ironic des­ig­na­tion of Shake­speare as the “Divine Wil­liam.”

Back in Amer­ica—now sup­plied with the Shake­speare read­ing that he had lacked when he was first ex­posed to The Ro­mance of Yacht­ing— Melville was as­sem­bling notes for his leg­endary re­view of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), which ap­peared in the Au­gust 17, 1850, is­sue of the Lit­er­ary World as the work of “A Vir­ginian Spend­ing July in Ver­mont.” Os­ten­si­bly a re­view of Hawthorne's col­lec­tion of sto­ries, the es­say, as Lau­rie Robert­son-lau­rent has em­pha­sized, is in essence Melville's man­i­festo for Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. At a time when Amer­i­can English pro­fes­sors still scoffed at the idea of an Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, the young Melville is al­ready pon­der­ing the na­tion's ris­ing lit­er­ary great­ness and con­tem­plat­ing the very prob­lem an­nounced in Hart's Ro­mance of Yacht­ing. The anx­i­ety of Shake­speare's in­flu­ence in­stills a sin­gu­lar awe in the twenty-nine-year-old Melville, and raises a per­plex­ing doubt: can great lit­er­a­ture ex­ist af­ter Shake­speare? Melville is op­ti­mistic. Joseph Hart's rhetor­i­cal query—“are there no more fish, no more Kraken in that won­drous sea from which thou [Shake­speare] wert taken?”—re­ceives a thun­der­ing af­fir­ma­tive re­sponse from “the Vir­ginian”: more “Shake­speares are this day be­ing born on the banks of the Ohio.” But the more en­thu­si­as­tic he be­comes about “new Shake­speares,” the less Melville seems able to tol­er­ate the mer­chan­dis­ing of lit­er­a­ture to self-in­fat­u­ated tourists. In his re­view of Hawthorne, Melville now man­i­fests an in­creas­ingly un­apolo­getic skep­ti­cism over the pop­u­larly-ac­cepted story of Shake­speare. He seems al­ready aware, as Mark Twain would later de­clare

in Is Shake­speare Dead?, that the fig­ure of Shake­speare is a Bron­tosaur—“nine bones and six hun­dred bar­rels of plas­ter of Paris.” Anonymity fur­nishes Melville “sea room” to muse pro­duc­tively on the lit­er­ary is­sue that Hart had han­dled so clum­sily in his at­tack on Shake­speare as a pla­gia­rist:

Would that all ex­cel­lent books were foundlings, without fa­ther or mother, that so it might be we could glo­rify them, without in­clud­ing their os­ten­si­ble authors . . . I know not what would be the right name to put on the ti­tlepage of an ex­cel­lent book, but this I feel, that the names of all fine authors are fic­ti­tious ones, far more so than that of Ju­nius—sim­ply stand­ing, as they do, for the mys­ti­cal, ever-elud­ing Spirit of all Beauty, which ubiq­ui­tously pos­sesses men of ge­nius.

Melville was then half­way through writ­ing Moby-dick, the book in which

2 Shake­speare man­i­fests him­self as an “im­mense, un­named pres­ence,” and in which, as Wal­ter Bezan­son has noted, “Kalei­do­scopic vari­a­tions” on Shake­speare's

3 lan­guage, im­agery, and dic­tion per­vade “ev­ery page.” More im­por­tant than mere ver­bal in­flu­ence, how­ever, is Melville's learn­ing from Shake­speare tech­niques that pos­sessed the power to “ex­press the hid­den life of men,” which—in Matthiessen's es­ti­ma­tion—“had be­come [Melville's] com­pelling

4 ab­sorp­tion” even be­fore he dis­cov­ered Shake­speare's mas­tery of the writer's art. A dis­trust of lit­er­ary idol­a­try still per­co­lates in the deep well of Melville's fer­tile imag­i­na­tion: ru­mi­nat­ing on those acolytes ea­ger to of­fer their “tuns of ran­cid fat” at the Strat­ford shrine, Melville now sus­pects that an “ab­so­lute and un­con­di­tional ado­ra­tion of Shake­speare has grown to be a part of our An­glo

5 Saxon su­per­sti­tions.” Most trou­bling of all, he sug­gests, these su­per­sti­tions are in fact a se­ri­ous im­ped­i­ment to com­pre­hend­ing the sub­ter­ranean traces of mean­ing in the plays, which can come only through “deep read­ing”: “few who ex­tol him, have ever read him deeply, or, per­haps, only have seen him on the tricky stage.”

It was through Hawthorne him­self that Melville's next—more re­veal­ing— en­counter with Shake­speare would come. Al­though their friend­ship waxed and waned over the years, no other liv­ing writer would ever touch Melville as deeply as the au­thor of Mosses from an Old Manse. The ded­i­ca­tion to Moby-dick, writ­ten dur­ing this pe­riod when the two authors lived six coun­try miles apart, tes­ti­fies to the pro­fun­dity of Melville's feel­ing for his lit­er­ary com­pan­ion: “In to­ken of my ad­mi­ra­tion for his ge­nius, this book is in­scribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Hawthorne's wife, Sophia, ob­served the spe­cial rap­port be­tween the two men with ten­der per­cep­tive­ness: “Mr. Melville, gen­er­ally silent and un­com­mu­nica­tive, pours out the rich floods of his mind and ex­pe­ri­ence to [Hawthorne], so sure 2 Wal­ter E. Bezan­son, “Moby Dick: Doc­u­ment, Drama, Dream,” in A Com­pan­ion to Melville Stud­ies, ed. John Bryant, West­port, CT, Green­wood Press, 1986, 172. 3 Matthiessen, 452–53. 4 Matthiessen, 423. 5 Melville, “Hawthorne,” 245.

of ap­pre­hen­sion, so sure of a large and gen­er­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tion, and of the most

6 del­i­cate and fine judg­ment.”

For­tune and tem­per­a­ment drew them apart but also fur­nished an un­ex­pected larger con­text for their con­tin­ued as­so­ci­a­tion. When his Bow­doin Col­lege friend Franklin Pierce be­came US Pres­i­dent Pierce, Hawthorne re­ceived an of­fer of lu­cra­tive em­ploy­ment, with plenty of spare time for writ­ing, at the Amer­i­can Con­sulate in Liver­pool. Here, in July 1856, he en­ter­tained Delia Ba­con (1811–1859), the Amer­i­can in­tel­lec­tual whose work on Shake­speare was then be­com­ing a cause célèbre among New Eng­land in­tel­lec­tu­als. To this day Ba­con re­mains a con­tro­ver­sial and pro­foundly mis­un­der­stood woman. To the gen­eral pub­lic she was first a star, and then a mad­woman. Walt Whit­man de­scribed her trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with a fickle pub­lic with per­haps greater pre­ci­sion than any other con­tem­po­rary ob­server: she was “the sweet­est, elo­quentest, grand­est woman . . . that Amer­ica has so far pro­duced. . . . and, of course, very un­worldly, just in all ways such a woman as was cal­cu­lated to bring the whole lit­er­ary pack down on her, the ortho­dox, cruel, stately, dainty, over-fed lit­er­ary pack—wor­ship­ping tra­di­tion, un­con­scious of this day's hon­est sun­light.” “For too long,” add Warren Hope and Kim Hol­ston in one re­cent re­assess­ment of her sig­nif­i­cance,

Crit­ics have de­picted [her] as a tragi­comic fig­ure, blindly pur­su­ing a fan­tas­tic mis­sion in ob­scu­rity and iso­la­tion, only to end in si­lence and mad­ness. . . . This is not to say that the stereo­type is without ba­sis. On the con­trary, her sad story es­tab­lished an archetype for the story of the Shake­speare au­thor­ship at large—or at least one el­e­ment of it: an oth­er­worldly pur­suit of

7 truth that pro­duces gifts for a world that is in­dif­fer­ent or hos­tile to them.

De­spite a tem­per­a­ment sus­cep­ti­ble to the mono­ma­ni­a­cal and a dif­fi­cult, even con­vo­luted, prose style, Ba­con was in her bet­ter mo­ments a force­ful, charis­matic, and eru­dite scholar and racon­teur. In an era when women rarely set foot on the stage of pub­lic dis­course, her or­a­tor­i­cal fi­nesse and broad knowl­edge—in lec­tures that ran the gamut from world his­tory to Shake­speare—earned her the ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion of Ralph Waldo Emer­son and the cu­ri­ous re­spect of many other lead­ing New Eng­land in­tel­lec­tu­als, both men and women. She was also swiftly be­com­ing the lead­ing pub­lic ad­vo­cate for a no­tion to­wards which Her­man Melville had al­ready been mov­ing in his re­view of Hawthorne's Mosses: the no­tion that the very name of the fine au­thor “Shake­speare” was—to use Melville's de­scrip­tion of all authors from his “Vir­ginian” es­say—ul­ti­mately just a “po­lite fic­tion.”

The “deep-div­ing” Tran­scen­den­tal­ist Emer­son, as Melville af­fec­tion­ately

6 Cited in Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, “My Fa­ther's Lit­er­ary Meth­ods,” Ladies Home Jour­nal (11:4), March 1894, 1–2, p. 2. The pas­sage is from a let­ter, dated Au­gust 13, 1581 to Sophia's mother. 7 Warren Hope and Kim Hol­ston, The Shake­speare Con­tro­versy: An Anal­y­sis of the Claimants to Au­thor­ship, and Their Champions and De­trac­tors, Jef­fer­son, NC: Mcfar­land & Co, 1992, 1.

dubbed him, had pre­pared the way for Ba­con's ca­reer. He not only ar­ranged for pub­li­ca­tion of her first es­say in the Jan­uary 1856 is­sue of Put­nam's Monthly Magazine8— then New Eng­land's lead­ing lit­er­ary jour­nal—but he soon be­came an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate for her project to re­dis­cover Shake­speare through the ap­pli­ca­tion of “com­mon rea­son.” An ag­nos­tic on the au­thor­ship ques­tion, Emer­son nev­er­the­less be­lieved that the topic de­served se­ri­ous in­quiry:

The pub­lic are dis­tressed be­cause Ba­con and Judge Holmes9 are en­gaged or en­raged to show that Shake­speare did not write the plays. But the pub­lic is no loser. Some­body wrote them, and we shall still en­joy our fill of won­der and delight, if we must spell the name dif­fer­ently. Con­fu­cius says, `a soldier of the King­dom of Ci has lost his buck­ler. What then? A soldier of the King­dom of Ci

10 has found the buck­ler.'

Emer­son would later as­sert, in a let­ter to Caro­line Sturgis Tap­pan, that Amer­ica had only two “pro­duc­ers” dur­ing the 1850s, “Our wild Whit­man, with real in­spi­ra­tion but choked by [a] Ti­tanic ab­domen; and Delia Ba­con, with

11 ge­nius, but mad and cling­ing like a tor­toise to English soil.”

“How can we un­der­take to ac­count for the lit­er­ary mir­a­cles of an­tiq­uity,” won­dered Ba­con in her Put­nam's ar­ti­cle, “while this great myth of the mod­ern ages still lies at our own door, un­ques­tioned?”

This vast, mag­i­cal, un­ex­plained phe­nom­e­non which our own times have pro­duced un­der our own eyes, ap­pears to be, in­deed, the only thing which our mod­ern ra­tio­nal­ism is not to be per­mit­ted to med­dle with. For, here the crit­ics them­selves still veil their faces, fill­ing the air with mys­tic ut­ter­ances which seem to say, that to this shrine at least, for the foot­step of the com­mon rea­son and the

12 com­mon sense, there is yet no ad­mit­tance.

Al­though he sup­ported her in­quiry, Emer­son found the man­u­script of Ba­con's book, in which she en­larged upon on her Put­nam's the­sis, ob­tuse, con­fus­ing, and ul­ti­mately un­suit­able for an Amer­i­can read­er­ship. In des­per­a­tion, the pen­ni­less Ba­con—then al­ready liv­ing in Eng­land—jour­neyed to Liver­pool to so­licit Hawthorne's aid. Over­come with a mix­ture of pity and ad­mi­ra­tion for this ec­cen­tric yet strangely charis­matic woman, the Amer­i­can con­sul agreed to write the pref­ace to her mon­u­men­tal Phi­los­o­phy of the Plays of Shakspere [sic] Un­folded (1857), and went on, like Emer­son, to be­come an equiv­o­cal sup­porter of Ba­con's hereti­cal views. Al­though urg­ing re­spect for the book's philo­soph­i­cal

8 “Wil­liam Shake­speare and His Plays: An In­quiry Con­cern­ing Them,” Put­nam's Monthly ( Jan­uary 1856): 1–19. Vol. VII, No. xxxvii 9 Nathaniel Holmes, au­thor of The Au­thor­ship of Shake­speare, New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1867. 10 The Later Lec­tures of Ralph Waldo Emer­son, 1843–1871, Vol. 2: 1855–1871, ed. Ron­ald A. Bosco and Joel My­er­son. Athens, GA: The Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia Press, 385. 11 Ralph Les­lie Rusk, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emer­son (Oc­to­ber 13, 1857), Vol. V, New York: Columbia Univer­sity Press, 1966, 86–87. 12 “Wil­liam Shake­speare and His Plays: An In­quiry Con­cern­ing Them,” Put­nam's Monthly, Vol. VII, No. xxxvii ( Jan­uary 1856): 1–19.

eru­di­tion and “rich­ness of in­ner mean­ing,” he also recorded his reser­va­tions over

13 Delia Ba­con's iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Francis Ba­con as the pri­mary au­thor of the plays. Still, Delia Ba­con (no re­la­tion to the sub­ject of her in­quiry) had done some­thing Joseph Hart could never have done; she had se­cured the en­dorse­ment of two of the great­est lit­er­ary fig­ures of her day to pro­mote her con­clu­sion that some­one other than the Strat­ford bour­geois was the true au­thor of the Shake­spearean oeu­vre.

Ba­con was not alone, of course, in en­ter­tain­ing this rad­i­cal idea, rooted in the am­bi­gu­i­ties of the orig­i­nal doc­u­ments of the 1590s. On the con­trary, this gen­eral sense was very much “in the air” for the bet­ter part of the nine­teenth cen­tury. Emer­son's “Wild Whit­man” had led the charge. By the 1880s, a

14 se­ries of es­says pub­lished by that poet in the North Amer­i­can Re­view, the

15 Critic, and Novem­ber Boughs16 had el­e­vated the Shake­spearean ques­tion to a re­mark­able pub­lic promi­nence among the nine­teenth-cen­tury Amer­i­can lit­er­ary in­tel­li­gentsia17—a promi­nence that it would come to lose dur­ing the next cen­tury, un­der the in­flu­ence of the thor­ough pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion and in­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of Shake­spearean stud­ies. One 1884 es­say by Whit­man in­voked the enigma posed by the his­tory plays and un­am­bigu­ously ex­pressed the poet's long-en­dur­ing skep­ti­cism re­gard­ing the of­fi­cial Shake­speare:

Con­ceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of Euro­pean feu­dal­ism—per­son­i­fy­ing in un­par­al­lel'd ways the me­dieval aris­toc­racy, its tow­er­ing spirit of ruth­less and gi­gan­tic caste, with its own pe­cu­liar air and ar­ro­gance (no mere imi­ta­tion)—only one of the “wolfish earls” so plen­teous in the plays them­selves, or some born knower and de­scen­dant, would seem to be the true au­thor of these amaz­ing works.

De­spite his re­spect for Delia Ba­con and his con­vic­tion that the tra­di­tional ac­count of Shake­spearean au­thor­ship was a species of mod­ern idol­a­try, Whit­man de­clined to en­dorse the most pop­u­lar con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous al­ter­na­tive. In­stead of Francis Ba­con as au­thor of the plays, he pre­ferred an uniden­ti­fied mem­ber of the higher no­bil­ity, a “de­scen­dent and knower” of one of the “wolfish earls” who pop­u­late the Shake­spearean his­tory plays. “I am firm against Shaksper—i mean

13 Delia Ba­con, The Phi­los­o­phy of the Plays of Shakespere Un­folded, with a Pref­ace by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lon­don. Groom­bridge & Sons, 1857. AMS Reprint 1970: lv. Ba­con, strictly speak­ing, was a groupist, who be­lieved the works were the prod­uct of a se­cret ca­bal of writ­ers with Ba­con as the ring­leader. 14 “The Po­etry of the Fu­ture,” North Amer­i­can Re­view, 132 (1881); Amer­i­cans on Shake­speare, ed. Peter Rawl­ings, Alder­shot: Ash­gate, 1999, 319. 15 “What Lurks Be­hind Shakspere's His­tor­i­cal Plays,” The Critic, (Septem­ber 27, 1884): 357–59; “A Thought on Shakspere,” The Critic (Au­gust 14, 1886). 16 “The come­dies, ex­quis­ite as they cer­tainly are, bring­ing in ad­mirably por­trayed com­mon char­ac­ters, have the un­mis­tak­able hue of plays, por­traits, made for the di­ver­tisse­ment only of the elite of the cas­tle, and from its point of view. The come­dies are al­to­gether non-ac­cept­able to Amer­ica and Democ­racy,” Walt Whit­man, Novem­ber Boughs, Philadel­phia, 1888, 56. 17 For mod­ern re­prints of most of these es­says, see Rawl­ings.

the Strat­ford man, the ac­tor,” he told his ta­ble talk com­pan­ion Ho­race Traubel:

18 “As for Ba­con, we shall, we shall see. . . .”

Whit­man was a for­mi­da­ble ad­vo­cate for Delia Ba­con's gen­eral po­si­tion but by no means the only one. Within a year of her death in 1859, the at­tempt to dis­credit her as a lu­natic was al­ready gath­er­ing head. The fiery abo­li­tion­ist Wil­liam Dou­glas O'con­nor was among those who sprang to her de­fense: “I wish it were in my power,” wrote O'con­nor in re­sponse, “to do even the small­est jus­tice to that mighty and elo­quent vol­ume . . . the can­did and in­gen­u­ous reader Miss Ba­con wishes for, will find it more to his profit to be in­sane with her, on the

19 sub­ject of Shake­speare, than to be sane with Dr. John­son.” Delia Ba­con's im­por­tance as an in­spi­ra­tion for Melville's think­ing about Shake­speare, and ul­ti­mately the bear­ing of her views on the ori­gins of Billy Budd, has been un­der­es­ti­mated by a tra­di­tion of schol­ar­ship that has ne­glected to con­sider the long shadow that the Shake­spearean ques­tion cast over nine­teen­thcen­tury Amer­i­can in­tel­lec­tual life. It was a ques­tion that seems to have had the power to di­vide fam­i­lies. Iron­i­cally, an­other pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual ready to be counted “in­sane” with Delia Ba­con was the well-known New Eng­land Uni­tar­ian the­olo­gian W. W. Fur­ness, fa­ther of Var­i­o­rum Shake­speare ed­i­tor W. H. Fur­ness. Much to his son's dis­may, no doubt, Fur­ness counted him­self as

one of the many who has never been able to bring the life of Wil­liam Shake­speare within plan­e­tary space of the plays. Are there any two things in the world more

20 in­con­gru­ous?

As for Melville, we have seen that as early as 1851 the ques­tion of Shake­speare had prompted his imag­i­na­tion to pon­der the re­la­tion­ship be­tween fame and anonymity from a rel­a­tively unique van­tage point. Shortly af­ter her July 1856 stay with Hawthorne, Delia Ba­con en­tered into a heated cor­re­spon­dence with her pa­tron which might well have planted a crit­i­cal seed that would in time flower in Melville's 1888 novella and in­spire its cryptic al­le­gor­i­cal struc­ture as an “in­side nar­ra­tive.” Then liv­ing in emo­tional and in­tel­lec­tual iso­la­tion in Strat­ford, Ba­con was ad­vised in a Septem­ber 12, 1856 let­ter from her so­lic­i­tous brother Leonard, to ad­vance her con­tro­ver­sial the­sis in the form of fic­tion:

As I have re­turned to this sub­ject, I will make an­other sug­ges­tion. Your the­ory about the au­thor of Shake­speare's plays may af­ter all be worth some­thing

18 Ho­race Traubel, With Walt Whit­man in Cam­den. Vol. 1 March 28– July 14, 1888, New York: D. Ap­ple­ton & Co., 1908, 1. 19 Harrington: A Story of True Love, Bos­ton: Thayer & Eldridge, 1860, quoted in Ig­natius Don­nelly, The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacn's co­pher in the so-called Shake­speare Plays, Chicago: R. S. Peale, 1888, 1887, 924. On Dou­glass's anti-strat­for­dian con­vic­tion, see Hope and Hol­ston, 22–38. 20 Let­ter to Nathaniel Holmes, Oc­to­ber 29, 1866.

if pub­lished as a fic­tion. You might in­tro­duce such things into a Ro­mance, as a work of the imag­i­na­tion, and be grat­i­fied with it, and find read­ers who would ac­cept it re­spect­fully, when if the same things are brought for­ward with grave ar­gu­ment, as facts to be be­lieved, they will re­ject the whole work with

21 con­tempt.

Dis­mayed by her brother's sug­ges­tion, Ba­con even went so far as to sup­pose that her pa­tron Hawthorne had con­sented to—or, worse still, was the au­thor of— this undig­ni­fied plan to ca­pit­u­late to pub­lic bias and tra­di­tional dogma by pre­sent­ing her ar­gu­ment as sheer fan­tasy. She was not a dime store nov­el­ist, pan­der­ing to pass­ing whims in ro­man­tic fic­tion, but a New Eng­land philoso­pher, proto-fem­i­nist, and lit­er­ary critic. The dif­fer­ence was not just a mat­ter of method or of honor, but of epis­te­mol­ogy. Fic­tion com­pli­cates, es­tab­lish­ing a pol­y­se­mous rep­re­sen­ta­tion of in­de­ter­mi­nate re­al­ity that achieves mean­ing only through the ac­tive en­gage­ment of a reader's imag­i­na­tion. Ba­con's search to iden­tify a first cause, on the other hand, be­longed to the mod­ern re­duc­tion­ist hermeneu­tic of Darwin, Freud, or Marx; like Je­sus among the money-chang­ers, she would dis­rupt the wor­ship of the “snobs” burn­ing “their tuns of ran­cid fat” at Shake­speare's shrine, and rip the veil from the face of the Shake­speare de­ceit, re­veal­ing the true au­thor and his mean­ing in their full apoc­a­lyp­tic glory.

In­stead of an­swer­ing her brother di­rectly, Ba­con wrote to Hawthorne to de­nounce not only the plan but the per­son she took to be merely its mes­sen­ger. Her brother's can­dor, she de­clared, had for­ever robbed him of “this power to hurt . . . I shall never com­plain to him again.” Hawthorne's re­ply is a study in tact­ful di­plo­macy: con­firm­ing his un­wa­ver­ing sup­port for her orig­i­nal project to treat the au­thor­ship ques­tion as a mat­ter of sys­tem­atic phi­los­o­phy, not as a ro­mance, he as­sured her that “my opin­ion of the book [i.e., The Phi­los­o­phy of the Plays . . .] has never var­ied; nor have I, up to this mo­ment, spared any ef­fort to bring it be­fore the pub­lic, nor re­lin­quished any hope of do­ing so.” Hawthorne's post­script asks, ap­par­ently in vain: “Can you pos­si­bly have thought that I sug­gested your brother's ad­vice to turn the book into a novel? I am afraid

22 you did.”

Hawthorne's ret­ro­spec­tive “Rec­ol­lec­tions of a Gifted Woman” (1863), pub­lished four years af­ter Delia's death, tells a more com­pli­cated story. Here Hawthorne reveals the rea­son he could be so sure in 1856 that Delia had come to con­sider him as the source. He was, in­deed, the source—a fact which his own post­script con­ve­niently omit­ted to ac­knowl­edge. By 1863, how­ever, he seems pre­pared to ac­knowl­edge some­what more openly his au­thor­ship of the of­fend­ing idea, de­liv­ered via the in­no­cent brother: it was, he says, “in con­se­quence of some ad­vice which I fan­cied it my duty to ten­der” that “. . . I fell un­der Miss Ba­con's most se­vere and pas­sion­ate dis­plea­sure, and was cast off by her in the twin­kling of an 21 Theodore Ba­con, Delia Ba­con: A Bi­o­graph­i­cal Sketch, Bos­ton, Houghton Mif­flin, 1888, 250. 22 Cited in Ba­con, 271.

23 eye.” Ba­con's biographer Vi­vian Hop­kins con­curs that the idea com­mu­ni­cated to Delia through her brother was in fact orig­i­nally Hawthorne's: “there was just enough truth” in Delia's ac­cu­sa­tion “that Hawthorne too looked on her book as a ro­mance to make it hit home. Whereas Leonard spoke of `con­vert­ing' the book into fic­tion, Hawthorne saw it, in its ex­ist­ing state as crit­i­cism, sur­rounded

24 by a ro­man­tic aura.” Hawthorne's cau­tious 1856 pref­ace to the pub­lished book fur­ther sup­ports the con­clu­sion that the ac­cu­sa­tion against which his let­ter protests may not have been en­tirely mis­placed—he was, af­ter all, not only one of the great­est Amer­i­can nov­el­ists of his age, but a US diplo­matic con­sul to Eng­land:

I am not the ed­i­tor of this work; nor can I con­sider my­self fairly en­ti­tled to the honor (which, if I de­served it, I should feel to be a very high as well as per­ilous one) of see­ing my name as­so­ci­ated with the au­thor's on the ti­tle page. My ob­ject has been merely to speak a few words, which might, per­haps, serve the pur­pose of plac­ing my coun­try­woman upon a ground of am­i­ca­ble un­der­stand­ing with

25 the pub­lic.

In ex­press­ing his en­dorse­ment so war­ily, Hawthorne had washed his hands of any of­fense to­wards Ba­con and could safely re­treat into the Tran­scen­den­tal­ist tru­ism that “there is no ex­haust­ing the var­i­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tions of [Shake­speare's] sym­bols, and a thou­sand years hence, a world of new read­ers will pos­sess a whole

26 li­brary of new books, as we our­selves do, in these vol­umes old al­ready.” And yet, how­ever care­ful Hawthorne was in sig­nal­ing his mis­giv­ings, it can­not be de­nied that Ba­con had no small effect on him and on his lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion. That said, per­haps the most pro­found im­pact Delia Ba­con had on any lit­er­ary fig­ure of her age was—via Hawthorne—on the per­plexed Her­man Melville. The au­thor of Moby-dick and Pierre, or The Am­bi­gu­i­ties en­tered this lit­er­ary drama a mere fort­night af­ter the cli­max of Ba­con's con­tentious ex­change with her pa­tient ally. In Novem­ber 1856, he vis­ited Hawthorne and for nine days toured the English coun­try­side with his ad­mired host. Of course one can­not help but won­der if dur­ing this time Hawthorne and Melville ever dis­cussed Ba­con and her brother's “dread­ful” no­tion of fic­tion­al­iz­ing the Shake­speare ques­tion. Given the in­tel­lec­tual in­ti­macy of the two men, and their com­mon fas­ci­na­tion with Shake­speare, it would seem most sur­pris­ing if they did not. 23 “Rec­ol­lec­tions of a Gifted Woman,” Our Old Home: A Se­ries of English Sketches, The Cen­te­nary Edi­tion of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Vol. 5, Colum­bus, OH: Ohio State Univer­sity Press (90–119), 1970, 114, em­pha­sis ours. 24 Vi­vian C. Hop­kins, Prodi­gal Pu­ri­tan: The Life of Delia Ba­con, Cam­bridge, MA: The Belk­nap Press of Har­vard Univer­sity, 1959, 234. 25 Delia Ba­con, The Phi­los­o­phy of the Plays of Shakespere Un­folded, Lon­don: Groom­bridge and Sons, 1857, xiv. 26 “Rec­ol­lec­tions,” 106.

Who Is Vere? If Shake­speare seemed a per­plex­ing mys­tery in the nine­teenth cen­tury, Billy Budd re­mains one today: why does the book's in­no­cent hero bless a cap­tain who has just con­demned him, against the wishes of the other of­fi­cers of the drum­head court, for a crime he did not in­tend to com­mit against a su­pe­rior who is de­scribed as an em­bod­i­ment of evil? The ques­tion lives on, sur­fac­ing dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tury as per­haps the most ir­rec­on­cil­able of the novel's many psy­cho­log­i­cal and lit­er­ary cruxes. Subti­tled an “in­side nar­ra­tive,” Billy Budd is of­ten sus­pected of con­ceal­ing, in the words of E. L. Grant Wat­son's sem­i­nal

27 1933 es­say, “a deep and solemn pur­pose,” as­cer­tain­able only by un­tan­gling the man­i­fold im­pli­ca­tions of Melville's in­sin­u­at­ing sub­ti­tle. More re­cently, crit­ics have been di­vided about whether to read the novella in a bi­o­graph­i­cal or a con­cep­tual reg­is­ter. To Her­shel Parker, Billy Budd en­acts a memo­rial con­so­la­tion for an older au­thor liv­ing with the om­nipresent re­minder of hu­man loss, rep­re­sent­ing a “fic­tional anal­ogy to the lost true his­to­ries of ship­mates who had died un­known to fame or had lived out long lives more ob­scurely even than

28 Melville.” In con­trast, Gail Cof­fler as­serts that Billy Budd is “less a sea story

29 than an al­le­gor­i­cal fa­ble about re­la­tions of truth to art.” Viewed from the per­spec­tive of Melville's en­gage­ment with the Shake­speare ques­tion, it might be ar­gued that the ac­counts of Parker and Cof­fler are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive, but com­ple­men­tary. The “lost ship­mates” whom Melville re­mem­bers in Billy Budd are not only lit­eral friends, but imag­i­nary lit­er­ary com­rades, in­clud­ing the ex­alted fig­ure whose own med­i­ta­tion on the “re­la­tions of truth to art” Melville had him­self dubbed “man's fi­nal lore.”

In­ter­pre­ta­tion—whether of law or lit­er­a­ture—lies at the heart of Billy Budd's artis­tic de­sign. Melville's nar­ra­tor fore­grounds the ques­tion of mean­ing early in the novella when Billy's farewell to his for­mer ship—“and good-bye to you, old Rights-of-man”— is taken by the Bel­lipo­tent's lieu­tenant as lit­er­ary irony, “a ter­ri­ble breach of naval deco­rum . . . meant to con­vey a covert sally . . . a sly slur at im­press­ment.” Im­press­ment was the prac­tice, com­mon in eigh­teenth-cen­tury Eng­land, of dra­goon­ing un­em­ployed or im­pris­oned men into ser­vice. Melville ob­jected to the prac­tice, on which the Bri­tish Navy nev­er­the­less de­pended, and to which Billy, like so many oth­ers in real life, was sub­ject by virtue of his birth as a foundling. The nar­ra­tor, how­ever, de­nies any sub­lim­i­nal trace of re­bel­lion in Billy's ut­ter­ance, in­stead as­sur­ing us that the hand­some sailor was “by no means of a satir­i­cal turn,” and that “to deal in dou­ble mean­ings and in­sin­u­a­tions of any sort was quite for­eign to his na­ture.” On the con­trary, Budd him­self is pre­sented by the nar­ra­tor as the em­bod­i­ment of in­no­cent beauty, one who “like

27 Wat­son, 319. 28 Her­shel Parker, Her­man Melville: A Bi­og­ra­phy, Vol­ume 2, 1851–1891. Bal­ti­more, MD: The Johns Hop­kins Press, 2002, 883. 29 Gail Cof­fler, “Re­li­gion, Myth, and Mean­ing in the Art of Billy Budd, Sailor,” New Es­says on Billy Budd, ed. Don­ald Yanella, ed. Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press, 2002.

the il­lit­er­ate nightin­gale was some­times the com­poser of his own song.”

Con­firm­ing the mythic un­der­cur­rents that flow freely be­neath the sur­face of Melville's novella, the com­par­i­son of Budd to the nightin­gale con­tra­dicts the nar­ra­tor's breezy as­sur­ances of Budd's uni­vo­cal­ity and draws us to­ward a deeper and more com­pre­hen­sive in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Melville's the­ory of “the re­la­tions of truth to art.” Ul­ti­mately Ovid­ian in ori­gin, the nightin­gale evoked is not only a singer, but one in­ti­mately as­so­ci­ated with the very hu­man prob­lems—of art, agency, vi­o­lence, cen­sor­ship, and law—that man­i­fest them­selves in Melville's novella. In Ovid's fa­ble, Philomela is a woman raped by her brother-in-law, who cuts out her tongue to pre­vent the rev­e­la­tion of his crime. Be­fore be­ing trans­formed into the plain­tive nightin­gale, Philomela reveals her rapist's iden­tity by weav­ing his name into a tapestry. As Leonard Barkan ob­serves in his pathfind­ing study of the re­cep­tion of Ovid in Western lit­er­a­ture, The God Made Flesh, the Philomela mo­tif “is cen­trally con­cerned with com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” More­over, Philomela's is only the most ex­tended and pro­found of Ovid's many sto­ries con­cern­ing char­ac­ters that “de­fine them­selves by their strug­gle to in­vent new

30 lan­guages . . . to dis­cover a lan­guage of para­dox” fit­ted to their des­per­ate cir­cum­stances.

When he is ac­cused by Clag­gart of con­spir­ing in mutiny, find­ing the lan­guage fit­ted to his cir­cum­stance is pre­cisely what Billy Budd can­not, quite lit­er­ally, do. Un­able on ac­count of his speech im­ped­i­ment to re­spond ver­bally to Clag­gart's ac­cu­sa­tion, Budd is re­duced to ar­tic­u­lat­ing his out­rage phys­i­cally, by strik­ing— and, as it hap­pens, killing—the op­pres­sive master at arms. This phys­i­cal­iza­tion of an im­pulse in its ori­gin purely ver­bal brings into fo­cus the prob­lem that re­mains today the es­sen­tial rid­dle of the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween law and lit­er­a­ture as well as a canon­i­cal co­nun­drum of twenty-first-cen­tury speech act the­ory: when do words be­come acts (and there­fore ac­tion­able at law)?

In­ter­est­ingly, this dis­tinc­tion is a pri­mary the­matic el­e­ment in the Shake­spearean play most of­ten and most read­ily de­tected as a per­va­sive and in­ti­mate in­flu­ence on Melville's text. John Hennedy31 as­tutely con­nects the sit­u­a­tion de­picted in Billy Budd with that of Shake­speare's Duke in Mea­sure for Mea­sure, a play (like The Mer­chant of Venice) treat­ing the philo­soph­i­cal con­flict be­tween prin­ci­ples of law and eq­uity. As I have ar­gued else­where, Shake­speare's play re­volves around “the ten­sion be­tween the strict ap­pli­ca­tion of the so-called `let­ter' of the law and the mer­ci­ful ap­pli­ca­tion of the so-called `spirit' of the

32 law.” Billy's case, like­wise, is one that in­volves “the clash of mil­i­tary duty with

30 Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Me­ta­mor­pho­sis & the Pur­suit of Pa­gan­ism, New Haven, CT: Yale Univer­sity Press, 1986, 247. 31 In his 1989 study of Shake­spearean in­flu­ences on the novella, Hennedy calls the im­pact of the bard on Melville “both an ed­i­fy­ing and a mys­te­ri­ous in­stance of lit­er­ary in­flu­ence.” Ac­cord­ing to Hennedy, the most cer­tain and con­se­quen­tial man­i­fes­ta­tion of this “ed­i­fy­ing and mys­te­ri­ous” in­flu­ence on Melville's fi­nal book is Mea­sure for Mea­sure, a play that Melville knew well be­fore his 1848 pur­chase of the Bard's col­lected works. 32 Roger Strit­mat­ter, “Small­est Things in Mea­sure for Mea­sure,” The Margina­lia of Ed­ward De Vere's Geneva Bi­ble, Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts PHD dis­ser­ta­tion, 2001, 163.

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