Emending The Reading Text

The Reading Text is a lightly-edited version of the “base version” of the Billy Budd manuscript. This base version represents Melville’s “final” reading of each leaf; that is, it is the text that results when Melville’s revision instructions are followed: We delete his deletions and add his insertions. The process is performed automatically in TextLab and proofed, by humans, against the leaf images. Often enough, Melville’s revision instructions do not yield the intended grammar or content for a sentence: sometimes words or punctuation are dropped; gaps occur. Nor is Melville’s spelling exemplary or consistent. Accordingly, the base version must be edited to repair unintended incoherencies and confusing solecisms, if they seriously impede reading. This light editing of TextLab’s base version to create the reading text was performed through the “tertiary editing” functions in Juxta Editions and will be updated in the transition to the platform’s upgrade to FairCopy. Click here, for a fuller discussion of the integration of TextLab output and Juxta Editions reading text; and here, for Juxta’s contextual editing features.

The reading text of the manuscript base version also represents our consideration of practical issues regarding Melville’s punctuation and capitalization, his paragraphing, and word choice as well as the already mentioned irregularities resulting from the revision process. Essentially, editors, regardless of approach, stabilize texts to some degree; that is, they impose protocols and formats to facilitate a desired reading experience. As discussed in Modes of Digital Editing, this process of stabilization is particularly evident in the editing of revisions in manuscript because the desired reading text should be “smooth enough” to provide a coherent reading experience and yet “rough enough” to expose readers to underlying moments of revision. To what degree, then, might a fluid-text editor aiming to create a platform for the study of versions and revision engage the problems of normalization, standardization, correction, modernization, and regularization.

Normalization and Standardization.

Generally speaking, like many nineteenth-century writers, Melville would at times use commas not only structurally to clarify elements of a sentence (such as restrictive or nonrestrictive clauses) but also rhetorically to stress rhythms of speech, emotion, dramatic pauses, or steps in an argument. Notice how the seven commas appearing in the following sentence about Billy as the object of his shipmates’ respect provide measured beats that help us navigate our way through and to the period.

  • Such a cynosure, at least in aspect, and something such too in nature, though with important variations made apparent as the story proceeds, was welkin-eyed Billy Budd, or Baby Budd as more familiarly under circumstances hereafter to be given he at last came to be called, aged twenty-one, a foretopman of the British fleet toward the close of the last decade of the eighteenth century.

The editor can act as a publisher’s copy-editor working to help the writer achieve higher degrees of clarity. Given the messy status of the manuscript, such a copy-editor might be tempted to assist the writer in cleaning up the text a bit by adding commas around “too” or after “Baby Budd” or by removing the comma after “Billy Budd.” And what about the commas around “aged twenty-one”? The apposition, which might be better placed after “he” or “foretopman,” seems an odd interruption, making the long sentence all the more difficult to read.

Generally speaking, a copy-editor’s aim is to facilitate smooth reading and prevent readers having to re-read. But many of Melville’s longer sentences famously encourage reiterative reading: They change rhythms mid-sentence, waking up the reader to the peculiarity of a 21-year-old “baby” manning the foretop. Perhaps Melville wanted these commas. Perhaps the textual editor should not smooth over roughnesses that a copy-editor is obliged to address. On the other hand, if Melville were to have left off the comma after “twenty-one,” the text’s roughness would verge perilously on incoherency, in which case an editorial intervention would be needed to normalize the punctuation.

The problem of normalization seems less of a problem in other matters. Melville’s odd use of the apostrophe in some contractions (such as “do’nt” instead of “don’t”) strikes us as simply wrong, at best idiosyncratic, though it is not entirely unknown in the nineteenth century. Does the editor retain such oddities, or normalize them to conform to today’s conventions? In this case, MEL does normalize, if only because “do’nt” (which my spell-checker always wants to correct) is so alien to modern eyes that it would look like a typo, distract readers, and make no critically meaningful difference if it were rendered as “don’t.”

At the same time, the problem of normalizing raises questions about standardization. As Melville composed Billy Budd, he invented a character type—the Handsome Sailor—that he uses, to some extent at first, to classify Billy. Sometimes, in manuscript, the phrase is capitalized, sometimes not. Sometimes handsome sailor is underlined, sometimes put in quotation marks. Does the editor leave Melville’s particular mark-up of each iteration alone, or standardize the inscription by capitalizing both words, printing them in roman not italic. In preparing Melville’s text for publication, the copy-editor would surely standardize for the sake of consistent format or house style. But our goal in fluid-text editing is to provide readers openings into Melville’s revision process and stages of composition, and the inconsistencies in the formatting of handsome sailor evident in manuscript are clues to Melville’s development of the phrase, from a description of a single sailor who is handsome to a Handsome Sailor Type that includes beautiful men both white and black. Evidence of this evolution from individual to type is a textual roughness worth preserving. To standardize would risk masking Melville’s playing out of his idea.


A related editorial crux addresses the problem of when the scholarly editor, acting as copy-editor, might “correct” a seemingly flawed text. In the 2017 NN edition of Billy Budd, editors emended the pronoun “he” to “handsome sailor,” but, as indicated in the previous paragraph, this editorial intervention would have serious critical consequences.

The textual problem occurs on leaves 7 and 8 (leaf images 17 and 19). In adding the African sailor example, Melville expanded on his description of the handsome sailor as a type by adding six leaves of material, ending with leaf 7 and requiring him to revise the first lines of leaf 8. The text on the six added leaves develops a further comparison of the African sailor to the now virtually nonexistent “Billy-be-Dam” type, a dandy still “vaporing” along the Erie Canal. Melville’s pronoun “he” in line 3 of leaf image 8 is the problematic text. Originally, leaf 8 was directly connected to now lost text that Melville discarded in favor of the six new leaves he composed concerning the African sailor. Presumably the unrevised pronoun “he” (from the pre-African sailor stage) had a clearer antecedent, perhaps “handsome sailor,” or some version of that phrase that Melville was in the process of revising, such as “forecastle hero” (deleted on leaf 8) or “white forecastle-magnate” (deleted on the preceding leaf 7). But as it now stands, the pronoun seems to refer to the Erie Canal boatman, and only by extension to the handsome sailor. At worst, “he” is merely an ambiguous pronoun.

In their 1962 edition of Billy Budd, Hayford and Sealts let “he” stand. But the 2017 NN version of Billy Budd, which is a revision of the 1962 edition, “he” has been emended to “handsome sailor.” According to the editors’ textual note, one of the editors, Hershel Parker, had, in his critical study Reading Billy Budd (1990), proposed this very emendation. The problem, however, is that in “correcting” a minor stylistic infelicity, the emendation also adds a non-authorial instance of “handsome sailor” into the text of Billy Budd. The NN editors justify adopting Parker’s suggested emendation because the antecedent-pronoun matter “would presumably have been rectified by Melville if he had lived to make a final check” (NN Billy Budd and Other Uncompleted Writings 410). MEL avoids this presumption by retaining “he,” as it appears in manuscript.

Our disagreement with the NN editors on this textual matter is rooted in our different editorial goals. The NN edition of Billy Budd follows an “intentionalist” approach. That is, it emends the manuscript text so that it more closely approximates the editors’ conception of Melville’s final intentions. MEL’s fluid-text approach aims to preserve the authenticity of discernible versions of a work in its variant versions and to provide a reading text “smooth” enough for an engaging reading experience yet “rough” enough to expose readers to Melville’s revision process. On the one hand, it is presumed Melville would have intended to change “he”; on the other, it is noted that he left the word unchanged.

In our view, the NN decision to emend is problematic for several reasons. Acting in the role of copy-editor, the NN editors “presume” an intended act of self-correction based only on the twin beliefs that Melville would have become aware of the solecism and, once made conscious of it, would have corrected it. Accordingly, the NN editors classify the pronoun “he” as the consequence of an “incomplete revision”—an important and very real category to be discussed below—but a better classification would be something like Harrison Hayford’s useful term “unemendable discrepancy,” deployed in his thinking about “unnecessary duplicates” in Moby-Dick. That is, without evidence of Melville’s intent to correct, the pronoun “he” remains a textual discrepancy that we cannot emend without damaging Melville’s text. For example, the NN changing of “he” to “handsome sailor” occurs in a sentence that directly follows a sentence that also uses “handsome sailor,” thereby creating the kind of repetition that Melville sedulously avoided in his writing. In fact, there is no telling what other solution to the pronoun problem Melville might have considered in order to avoid a dull repetition, if he had lived, if he had noticed the ambiguous pronoun, and if he had even wanted to change it.

Other problems derive from the NN’s hypercorrection. The manuscript, at this point, is a fascinating terrain of macro- and micro-revision, revealing Melville’s continued revision regarding the “handsome sailor” as a descriptor for Billy as a person and as a type. The term appears on leaf 7 as an insertion, replacing “white forecastle-magnate,” a term that has its own genesis. It derives from “forecastle hero” (deleted in ink on leaf 8) and the penciled word “magnate” (erased above the word “hero”). If Melville were at some point to repair the pronoun referring back to this phrase, he might have more likely replaced “he” with “forecastle hero,” or some other invention. The further reality to consider then is the likelihood that, if Melville had indeed lived longer, he could have continued to revise this section entirely, pronoun and all, not to clarify an antecedent but to pursue further ideas, types, and wordings.

By changing “he” to “handsome sailor,” the NN emendation smooths over the errant fluidity of a text in revision for the sake of hyper-correctness and in the process chooses the least likely revision option. Whereas, by preserving “he” (with a note explaining the problem), MEL avoids presume to act on Melville’s behalf and uses the opportunity to expose readers to the roughness of the Billy Budd text. Finally, the unintended consequence of the NN emendation is that it adds a false instance of handsome sailor into the novella’s textual database, one more iteration than actually exists in manuscript, thereby skewing the evidence for anyone studying Melville’s development of the concept of the “handsome sailor.”

The primary aim MEL’s fluid-text approach is to represent the manuscript as it exists. We emend problematic moments in our reading text only where not emending would result in serious impediments to a coherent, if not necessarily smooth, reading experience.

Correction and Textual Amnesia.

The problem of whether and how to correct inadvertent errors of historical fact in a reading text requires careful consideration, and the format and degree to which editors inform readers of their emendation should enter into the decision. One example of a historical error clarifies the complications.

In Chapter 3, Melville quotes from the British naval historian William M. James and, in a later attempt to acknowledge his source, refers to him parenthetically in an insertion as simply “(James).” Still later, in reviewing the manuscript, Melville had his wife Elizabeth Shaw Melville inscribe a hastily considered clarification by adding the initials “G.P.R” to the left of the “(James)” insertion thus misidentifying the source as British novelist and diplomat G.P.R. James. Confusing the two was understandable. G.P.R. James had taken up residence for a spell in Stockbridge, MA, in 1851, and befriended Melville and his wife when they lived at Arrowhead in nearby Pittsfield. An inveterate researcher who also knew one “James” from another, Melville would have corrected this slip-up if it had been brought to his attention.

How, then, does the scholarly editor address this revision scenario? As with the attempt to correct the ambiguous pronoun reference discussed above, one must proceed with caution. On the one hand, “fixing” Melville’s error, on his behalf, by emending, that is, by changing the manuscript text, risks denying readers a glimpse into the logic of Melville’s mis-step. On the other, leaving the error alone risks confusing perhaps misleading readers. The editor’s options, then, are to emend “(James)”—that is, to change the wording to specify the proper person—or to annotate “(James)”—supplying the proper name in an explanatory note—or both. The HS and NN editions of Billy Budd take the third option; they silently emend “(James)” in their reading texts to “William James” and record the emendation along with an explanatory note tucked away in the textual apparatus of their editions’ appendices.

But this seemingly reasonable approach is itself problematic. To begin with, the editors’ emendation (“William James”) is itself no less misleading than Melville’s “James”; it risks confusion with, say, novelist Henry James’s psychologist brother William. More importantly, placing the evidence of the silent emendation and the note explaining it in an appendix is even riskier business because, unfortunately, the fate of editorial appendices is that they tend to disappear.

To explain: the goal of both the HS and NN projects is to present a “clear” reading text of Billy Budd that is unencumbered by on-the-page textual and contextual notes. The admirable idea is to provide future publishers with a readily re-printable text for wider distribution. In this way, scholarly projects aim to improve literary study by putting reliable though standardized (and, in this case, overly “smooth”) reading texts into circulation. There are two drawbacks to this approach. One is that the standardized edition includes debatable emendations, and yet the “clear” reading text gives readers no on-the-page cues to seek out the debates. A second drawback is that publishers invariably reprint the clear reading text only and abandon the textual apparatus in the appendices that inform readers about emendations. Therefore, the fact that “(James)” or “G.P.R (James)” has been emended to “(William James)” or who these people are or how the logic of Melville’s mistakes operates is lost in popular and even academic reprints of the Billy Budd text. In short, a certain textual amnesia sets in.

Digital fluid-text editing offers theoretical and technical alternatives designed to augment reader involvement in the editorial process and minimize textual amnesia in the marketplace. To begin with, a digital edition provides multiple interactions with the text, including the placement of the manuscript text beside the reading text. In addition, both reading text and annotations are digitally linked so that explanatory textual notes “pop up” on the page when the reader “mouses over” a highlighted text. Annotations are not relegated to readily disappearing appendices. Moreover, print versions of an electronic reading text, stripped of its digital coding, can serve as “gateway” print texts to the digital text online containing the editions fuller scholarship and more readily accessible and navigable online features, available through the websites of public and academic libraries.

With these online strategies in mind, MEL’s digital edition of Billy Budd retains Melville’s inserted parenthetical “(James)” and does not emend that text. Instead, MEL annotates “(James)” in a pop-up that explains its insertion and the later (erroneous) modification to “G.P.R”; it also identifies Melville’s actual source as William M. James.

Modernization and Hyphenation.

For all its admirable attention to detail in its “genetic” transcription of the Billy Budd manuscript, the 1962 Hayford and Sealts reading text is modernized. It updates the mechanics of the nineteenth-century text to conform with twentieth-century formats in punctuation and spelling. The general editorial principle involved in modernization is that the editor seeks to familiarize the older text for contemporary readers by removing its peculiarities in the newer text. Since Melville never had his Billy Budd manuscript copy-edited, and since it did not reach professional editors until the 1920s, and since the manuscript requires significant editing for any reading experience to occur, the argument for modernizing Melville’s text as well is logical if not entirely compelling. Given our commitment to a faithful rendering of the manuscript as it exists, MEL’s Versions of Billy Budd edition restrains its modernizations, offering a reading text that preserves many though not all of the idiosyncrasies of Melville’s inscription.

For instance, Melville relished hyphenation in spelling compound words, in both nautical as well as regular language—such as war-ship, merchant-ship, and yard-arm-end as well as new-comer, game-cock, and tow-path—though he left the occasional compound unhyphenated (such as downhearted and peacemaker). Modern publishers generally minimize hyphenation, spelling compounds such as yardarm and newcomer without hyphens. As with Melville’s distribution of commas in a challenging sentence, his use of hyphens affects our reading experience and can have critical consequences. For example, his spelling of war-ship with a hyphen visually detaches the word war and induces a pause in our experience of the word, arguably giving a slight perhaps subconscious emphasis on the word war, in this novella about war. The unhyphenated peacemaker, given as an unhyphenated compound, reads differently in comparison: Billy’s presence brings peace to bellicose shipmates, and as a one-word peacemaker he seems, again subconsciously, an embodiment of peace; hence, the lack of a hyphen underscores his identity, though ironically, in this novella about war. If only to prevent losing the possibility of these and other reflections, MEL does not modernize but preserves Melville’s hyphenation, or lack thereof.

Regularization and Stabilization.

The question of whether to regularize internal inconsistencies in Melville’s manuscript base version brings us again to the problem of balancing rough and smooth in the experience of our reading text. In the section on Tertiary Editing in Modes of Digital Editing, we noted the inconsistency of Melville’s naming of Billy’s “war-ship,” called Indomitable in 22 places and Bellipotent in six. Other editions of Billy Budd have regularized by emending to one name or the other. MEL’s decision to retain both names as they appear in manuscript is based on the idea that the name discrepancy is an endurable textual roughness that opens readers to an important moment in Melville’s revision process and is worth the risk of instability.

The Indomitable / Bellipotent problem is one of many examples of “incomplete revision” in the Billy Budd manuscript. A sub-category of this condition is the “oscillating revision.” In most cases, incomplete revisions in manuscript are obvious flukes and easily addressed editorially. As explained above, TextLab automatically generates a base version of the manuscript text by deleting Melville’s deletions and adding his insertions. Often enough, this automated base version reveals minor imperfections in Melville’s revision process in which a word or punctuation mark is inadvertently dropped or doubled, and such “incomplete revisions” are easy to emend—not on the basis of intentionality but simply because the language requires it—and we record the emendation in a pop-up note.

“Oscillating revisions” are more complicated; they are concrete evidence of Melville’s waffling between word options. In a common revision scenario, Melville would use pencil tentatively to delete an inked word and insert over it an alternative word also in pencil. He might then strike through the penciled insertion in pencil (or erase it) and underline the pencil deleted ink word, again in pencil, to indicate its restoration. Melville might go on to use ink again to strike through the restored deletion, thereby leaving both words rejected. This oscillation of word options occurs, for instance, in Chapter 1, when Melville wavers in describing Billy’s innocent and inadvertent “farewell” to his merchant ship The Rights of Man. Billy’s new British officer thinks but finally does not believe that the outburst, which sounds like a sly mocking of impressment, is an intended sarcasm. He perceives the improper behavior to be a violation of decorum in one version and of discipline in the other.

Decorum and discipline are not synonyms, and because we can see that Billy could be in violation of either one or perhaps both, though neither would be an actual naval infraction, we can readily imagine Melville’s worrying over the significantly different nuances of these two words. That Melville repeats whichever word he wants in the following sentence, which also shows parallel oscillations of the same two words, suggests that he had a sly sarcasm of his own to layer into his narration. Which word might be more effectively used with ironic undertones in this already ironic scene? Melville’s oscillation suggests that Melville’s intention for the word he wanted at this place in his text was shifting back and forth.

The goal to represent the manuscript as it exists is easily achieved in MEL’s diplomatic transcription in TextLab, accessed through the thumbnail leaf image representing the decorum/discipline oscillation. But conventional reading practice conditions us to expect only one word in its proper place in the British officer’s sentence: Which word, then, do we render in the reading text at this indeterminate point? Do we stabilize an inherently unstable text by printing one word and burying the other in a pop-up note, as we do with other instances of “incomplete revision”? Or might we create some kind of on-the-page bidirectional cue like “discipline<–>decorum” that acknowledges both words in contention for the same space in the sentence? Might we invent—at some expense—a “digital-text-oscillator” that alternates each word in and out of the places in the two sentences where they exist. This slightly mad editorial intervention would be a remarkable visualization of textual instability, but so much bells-and-whistles would seriously risk destabilizing the reader as well. Should editors make it easy on readers, or take the risk of alienating readers? Lamentably, MEL is no Bertolt Brecht. Our solution in this case is merely conventional: we retain the initial inked word “decorum” in both places, with a pop-up note explaining its oscillation with “discipline.”

Regardless of editorial approach, an editor’s intervention through emendation is inherently controversial because editing itself is a critical act based on theory and interpretation and therefore a matter for debate and discourse. Scholarly editing is committed to transparency in the processes by which the “text as it is” is altered to the “text as emended,” whether in print or digital formats. In giving readers fuller digital access to versions and revision, MEL minimizes emendation and engages readers directly in our reasoning and process, recognizing that the very act of emendation is itself a form of revision and a further iteration of Melville’s fluid text.