Melville's Billy Budd and the Disguises of Authorship
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
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
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.