Friday, August 26, 2011

Adventure classics -- The case of Captain Vere

Billy Budd

by Herman Melville


When Herman Melville died, almost forgotten, in 1891, he left behind a tin box containing an almost-finished prose piece. The box lay unopened for more than three decades, until literary scholar Raymond Weaver completed its contents in 1924 -- the novella first known as Billy Budd, Sailor. It proved to be Melville’s greatest work since Moby-Dick (first published in England as The Whale in 1851).

In Moby-Dick, as virtually every American schoolchild knows, the obsessed Captain Ahab occupies a greater place than the novel’s narrator. So, also, in Billy Budd, Captain Vere, the man who condemns Billy to death, knowing he is innocent of the accusations brought against him, is at the heart of the book bearing the young sailor’s name.

Billy, newly impressed into the crew of the British warship Bellipotent, has excited the envy of the ship’s master-at-arms, John Claggart. Although not stated explicitly in the novella, it becomes apparent that Billy has, in fact, excited Claggart’s lust.

When young, handsome, naïve Billy fails to recognize the nature of the master-at-arms attentions, the end can only be tragic. And can only be brought about by the Bellipotent's commander, Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, the only man on board who can order Billy’s death.

As Melville scholar Milton R. Sterne notes in his introduction to the 1975 edition of Billy Budd, Sailor, “the role of Captain Vere is the central factor determining the responses of readers. If he is seen sympathetically, the tale is read one way. If he is seen as totalitarian oppressor . . . quite another way.”

Although set in the British Navy near the end of the eighteenth century -- the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the outer events of the story were actually drawn from a situation close to Melville’s own family, the Somers Affair of 1842, involving Melville’s first cousin, Guert Gansevoort, as an aide to Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie of the USS brig-of-war Somers.

Despite the ship’s peacetime mission, during the voyage Mackenzie hanged three men, including a son of the U.S. secretary of war, for supposedly plotting to take over the ship. (Mackenzie was exonerated at a trial and a subsequent court martial. His son, Ranald Mackenzie, would later become one of the U.S. Army’s greatest Indian fighters.)

Was Vere innocent?

English composer Benjamin Britten made his own decision by writing Captain Vere’s part in his opera Billy Budd for his long time companion, tenor Peter Pears. Unusually for the part of a younger man, Billy is sung not by a tenor, but by a baritone. But in operas, of course, the tenor is the hero.

(Next Friday -- In honor of the new school year, Adventure classics will look at adventures with young protagonists, beginning with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.)


Fun stuff I learned too late for this morning's edition:

Hot news tip from a homeless person -- the street paper she sold me front-paged canine-themed murals -- some painted by homeless artists -- at Bark Park Central.  The dog park on Good-Latimer Expressway in Dallas, near Deep Ellum, features them in tonight's (Friday, August 26) unveiling from 7 to 10 p.m.   Food & entertainment.  And bring your dog.  See the Deep Ellum Foundation's Facebook page for more information.

Tulisoma 2011 -- South Dallas's Book Fair and Art Festival -- runs Friday through Sunday (August 26-28)  at various South Dallas locations.   It's free.  See for a complete schedule.

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