Versions of Billy Budd: A Fluid–Text Edition

A sailor's uniform Billy Budd, Melville’s last fiction, is his second most familiar work. As with Moby-Dick, the novella has devoted readerships in academe, the arts, and the popular culture. It has been the center of critical controversies regarding political resistance and Christian acceptance, authority and duty, masculinity and beauty, fathers and sons, romance and irony, and Melville biography. It continues to be a seminal text in fields of literary study worldwide, including law, war, gender, sexuality, and the editing of manuscripts.

But unlike Moby-Dick, which emerged in 1851 in two radically different first editions, Billy Budd was never published in Melville’s lifetime. It exists as a manuscript that different generations of scholars have transcribed into significantly different print versions. At the time of his death in 1891, Melville had “completed” his novella to the extent that its plot and characters had been developed into a coherent whole. But the manuscript is far from polished, and its many leaves and leaf fragments reveal a complex revision history in which the narrative evolved through at least three versions and eight stages of composition. These layered manuscript versions along with the variant scholarly transcriptions make Billy Budd Melville’s most complex fluid text.

MEL’s Versions of Billy Budd gives the reader unprecedented access to the Billy Budd manuscript. The edition’s Reading Text, with its textual and contextual annotations, also links readers to MEL’s TextLab platform, its display of all manuscript leaves, a diplomatic transcription of each leaf identifying all revision sites, a base version representing Melville’s final revised version, and a set of revision annotations that sequence selected revisions and narrate the how and why of each revision sequence. Introductions explaining these features in more detail, our coding of revisions, and emendations of the base version into the reading text are reached by the links to the right.

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The Billy Budd manuscript is located in the Melville Collection of the Modern Books and Manuscript Department at Houghton Library of the Harvard College Library, Harvard University. MEL is grateful for Houghton Library’s generous donation of its digitized images of its Melville manuscript holdings, created through a generous donation by the Robert G. Newman Library Leaders Fund—in this case the Billy Budd manuscript, call number bMS 188 (363)—and for its permission to display those images in Versions of Billy Budd.


Tracking the Versions: Billy Budd How to Use the Edition


Billy Budd: Reading Text
  • Collation: MS Base and Reading Text
  • Collation: Reading Text and Print Versions


Modes of Digital Editing Transcription Coding Foliation, Leaves, and Leaf Images Emending the Reading Text


How Billy Grew