Melville, Billy Budd, and Digital: Death

Guest Post by John Bryant

Herman Melville died on September 28, 1891. That sullen fact might strike you as a morbid greeting for a blog posting, the first such posting for Leviathan, the official publication of The Melville Society. Since I am certain that our subscribers are among the living, I know they are very much alive in their pursuits of the new discoveries, readings, and arguments we like to publish in our journal—which, I am happy to say, has just completed its first year of publication under the aegis of Johns Hopkins University Press—and I rather imagine they would expect something less obituarial for a first post. But when the Press asked me to contribute a few words on Melville for its September blog, my thoughts turned to Melville’s final month and how that occasion might have meaning for us, not only regarding Melville’s creative life and reputation but also our own confrontation—as scholars and critics, readers, and seekers—with this curious end-of-it-all phenomenon.

Death is a “passing,” or so the current phrasing tends to have it, the implication being that this passing is an event leading us into an afterlife somewhere else. I am convinced that the life-long agnostic and putative blasphemer Herman Melville had serious doubts about this notion. Ishmael and Ahab, in their separate and distinctive voices, quarrel within themselves over just this “if” of a god and an afterlife. Ahab seems certain that beyond us exists a reasoning (not irrational), malignant force that rules our lives, and he aims his obsessive anger at striking through the pasteboard masks of our unreasoning life to destroy it. Even so, he admits, “Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough.” And it is his knee-jerk dismissal of the possibility of nothingness that separates Ahab from Ishmael, who, in due course, and through many meditative chapters (that readers too often ignore), reinvigorates himself from Ahab’s spell and finds new life in “trying out” his relationship to nothingness, the ultimate “if” manifested by “the whale.”

In his long life, Melville was an Ishmael—a survivor and a poet, and a survivor because he was a poet—with an Ahab of anger inside him to let out and let flourish. Writing to Hawthorne, on the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville tells his friend that he has already moved on to his next book (Pierre): “Lord,” he says, “when shall we be done growing?” And in fact, as he puts it in the next paragraph, he has grown into another person altogether. If Hawthorne were to write him back, he would be writing to someone else, “for the very fingers that now guide this pen are not precisely the same that just took it up and put it on this paper. Lord, when shall we be done changing” (17? November 1851; NN Corres 213)

What makes Melville “grow” and “change” is writing itself. The process triggers new ways of saying something, which in turn trigger new ideas that are, in the discovery of them, a discovery of a succession of new selves. But what makes this famous passage so playfully deep is the change from “growing” to “changing.” Melville cannot, it seems, quote himself, without changing his words.

I will leave it to you to figure out, for now, what meaning there is in Melville’s revision of himself and in the difference between the words grow and change. For me, the clarity of Melville’s message to Hawthorne lies in Melville’s delight in the way writing requires change, and how changing is a form of growth toward a deeper understanding of himself, which is in fact an evolution into another self.

Which brings us back to September 28, 1891, and Melville’s death: not a passing but a cessation of growth. Forty years after writing to Hawthorne, Melville was still writing himself out, even in his final year. And his changes had been monumental. He had grown from novelist to story-writer to lecturer and then, not surprisingly, to poet (the person he had always aspired to be from adolescence). Starting maybe as early as 1886, he had been working on a manuscript that we know as Billy Budd.

The full manuscript still exists—a rarity for its fullness among the surviving Melville documents—and scholars decades ago showed how Billy Budd must have grown. It began as a version of the poem “Billy in the Darbies” that now ends the novella, and the prose grew, through several discernible stages, out of the original short head note prefacing the poem. First Melville wrote more on his handsome sailor Billy, then added Claggart, then added Vere. It is a remarkable story of growing and changing from sea ballad to modern tragedy.

The Melville Electronic Library project is using the digital tool TextLab to transcribe Melville’s revision texts, to sequentialize them, and to tell the story of their evolution in a “revision narrative.”

As a scholar, I have been intrigued by this document, thinking that the numerous revisions on each page of Melville’s manuscript reveal the writing process that allowed Melville never to be “done growing or changing.” Though he seems to lament that process in his letter to Hawthorne, he knew that in fact it kept him alive. As it happens, Melville never finalized Billy Budd. The manuscript seems about as complete as it needs to be, but the text is riddled with revisions, and given Melville’s process, there is no telling that, given time, he might have further expanded his novella into a longer novel, or maybe cut it back to a tighter short story. Melville’s Billy Budd manuscript comes to us, then, as a kind of fossil representation of an evolutionary process.

I determined some years ago that I wanted to figure out a way to read Melville’s revision process as it appears in the “fluid text” of Billy Budd, but that was before the digital revolution, and little could be done in the way I imagined. Now technology has advanced so that it is possible to transcribe Melville’s revision texts, to sequentialize them, and to tell the story of their evolution in a “revision narrative.” The digital tool that allows this new kind of fluid text editing, TextLab, was developed by Hofstra University and Performant Software Solutions (Charlottesville, VA) as part of a larger digital archive, called the Melville Electronic Library (MEL), of which I am director.

A team of scholars is now using TextLab to put online the full text of Billy Budd—what Melville added, deleted, and kept up to the moment of his death. At MEL we are using digital technology not simply to emulate what we already know about Melville but also to show unexpected Melvilles hiding out in his manuscript revisions. Many scholars have joined MEL, and we are all growing and changing to keep up with the technology in order to provide evolving ways of reading these evolving Melvilles. I invite anyone with an interest in Melville or revision or digital transformations to join us as well.

With MEL, and I hope in other ways, I am not yet done growing and changing. In point of fact, Leviathan’s October 2013 issue marks a passing for me. After more than twenty years as editor of the Melville Society, and after having created Leviathan fifteen years ago and having had the pleasure of watching it grow and change, I will be retiring.

I am proud of this journal and equally proud to hand over the reins to Samuel Otter as our new Editor-in-Chief starting January 1, 2014. He will be joined by Associate Editor Brian Yothers, Extracts Editor Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, and Book Review Editor Dawn Coleman, all new to our staff, along with Web Editor Robert Sanderg. But I must admit that this “passing” is a little death for me. In particular, I will miss the hours, days, months spent working with colleagues and contributors to get each word of each sentence in an argument just right, to make sure each article works to the mutual satisfaction and edification of writer, editor, and reader, and to get it all out within budget and on time (well, mostly). But I have essays of my own to write, a book or two I hope, and MEL to keep me on my toes. And like Melville, I marvel and in fact am grateful for this gift of writing that all humans can share in, a process of constant revision and re-invention that seems to keep me growing and changing, much to my amazement and relief.

A journal like Leviathan is very much the product of a productive editorial staff, and the journal’s new editor and associates are impressively productive in their various fields. But Leviathan also has an independent life between its blue covers, and a perpetual life of its own, if readers will allow it. When shall we be done growing? I hope never.

John Bryant is the editor of Leviathan. He is Professor of English at Hofstra University and editor of the Melville Electronic Library.