MEL's edition of Herman Melville's Billy Budd is the product of ten years of textual, digital, and scholarly work (2009-2019) performed by the team of editors and specialists listed at the end of this note. The edition, with others like it in the Editions section of the Melville Electronic Library website, follows protocols developed by John Bryant in The Fluid Text (Michigan 2002). A fluid text is any work that exists in multiple versions due to authorial, editorial, or adaptive revision. In MEL's Billy Budd edition, our goal is to give readers access to a range of revisions related to the work. When fully realized, the edition will give readers digital access to the novella's layered versions in manuscript and its twentieth-century print, stage, film, and musical versions. At present, the edition's reading text—the central textual core of the project—represents Melville's authorial revisions and MEL's editorial alterations.
Because Billy Budd was not published until thirty years after Melville's death and because Melville did not leave a polished "fair copy" manuscript, the major print and digital versions of the work necessarily derive from independent analyses of the unpolished, 362 leaf manuscript, located at Harvard's Houghton Library. Given the speculative nature of manuscript transcription, the 3 twentieth-century and 2 twenty-first century transcriptions of Billy Budd vary considerably from each other. MEL's digital transcription is derived from the editors' direct inspection of magnifiable, digitized leaf images. The transcription text is coded in the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) set of XML, which features standardized elements and attributes regarding composition and revision.
To edit Melville's manuscript, we created TextLab, a digital tool that (among other things) enables editors to transcribe directly from digitized images of each leaf, code both original and revision texts easily in TEI, link transcription to each image, and generate a "diplomatic transcription" and base version of each leaf. With TextLab editors also created "revision sequences" and "revision narrative," which help readers to navigate and interpret selected "revision sites." TextLab was built with NEH funding. Bryant and Brian Ferris (Hofstra University) developed TextLab's initial design and code; Nick Laiacona (Performant Software) then augmented TextLab's functionality and integrated it into Juxta Editions, a digital platform for critical editing. In Juxta Editions, we performed further editing of TextLab's base version (formating, textual emendation, contextual annotation) to generate MEL's central reading text of Billy Budd,.
MEL's principal editors — Bryant, Kelley, and Ohge — directed the project, vetted all TextLab transcriptions for accuracy and uniformity of coding, provided textual and contextual annotation in Juxta Editions, and established and proofed the entire reading text. They were assisted by colleagues, graduate students, and undergraduates listed below.
Readers enter the edition through MEL's reading text, to which all textual, contextual, and revision annotations are appended via digital pop-ups and links. The reading text is a lightly edited version of the aforementioned "base text" derived from a digital transcription of each leaf of the Billy Budd manuscript. More specifically, to achieve the base version, TextLab reads the TEI-encoded transcription, removes all deleted words and inserts all added words. Because revision is never perfect and often generates dropped or doubled words and other incoherencies, the resulting base version requires further editing to format paragraphs, modify problem areas, discuss emendations (that is, substantive changes that affect meaning), and add contextual annotations.
Shaping the reading text is not an automatic or mechanical affair but involves judgments that both reflect the editors' critical thinking and affect interpretation of Billy Budd as a narrative and material object. Because Melville did not complete this work, and because evidence of late-stage composition suggests he was making not only local but also larger structural changes, it is possible that, had he lived longer, he might have expanded the novella into a novel or reduced it to a short story. In response to this radically unstable textual condition, past editors of Billy Budd were inclined to smooth out the text's rough spots, standardize spelling, regularize inconsistencies, modernize punctuation, and even correct errors of fact in the text, thereby giving readers the false impression of a more stable text than actually exists in manuscript. An equally extreme editorial option is to give readers the unvarnished, unedited base text as our version of Billy Budd, which would bear all of the manuscript's ragged edges, thus sacrificing readability for the sake of textual hyper-accuracy, thereby denying readers access to the pleasures of Melville's narrative.
MEL's Billy Budd strikes a balance between rough and smooth approaches. Our goal is to render a readable text that is "rough" enough to signal the manuscript's unpolished state and yet "smooth" enough for pleasurable reading.
To a large degree, digital technology facilitates the balance. Previous editions of Billy Budd, which were bound by print technologies, opted for a "clear" reading text with little or no footnoting on the page to register editorial changes. Granted, the Billy Budd manuscript is so complex that trying to squeeze manuscript information at the foot of a page would severely detract from the reading experience. As a result, such information was generally relegated to the back of the print edition. All well and good for a scholarly volume, but when publishers wanted to reprint Billy Budd, they invariably reprinted the clear reading text only, and left the editorial apparatus explaining Melville's revisions out of the picture. The result has been that the roughness of Melville's creative process was smoothed out of existence.
Because digital technology permits us to integrate manuscript materials and reading text, directly but without cumbersome footnoting, MEL's edition of Billy Budd gives readers unprecedented access to Melville's manuscript leaves and the revisions on them. The MEL edition offers different levels of interaction with Melville fluid text.
In MEL's digital reading text, annotations explaining textual problems and editorial emendations appear in pop-up format. Routine editorial changes, for whatever reason, are explained concisely, and, where applicable, the note draws comparisons to corresponding emendations in the 1962 Hayford-Sealts (HS) and Northwestern-Newberry (NN) editions of Billy Budd. Selected words or phrases in the reading text that are the result of revision are similarly highlighted, with each pop-up annotation providing a brief description of the revisions at that site.
But if readers want to go deeper into Melville's revision process, they can mouse over the leaf image thumbnail in the margin. Doing so highlights the portion of the reading text that corresponds to text on tht manuscript leaf. By double-clicking the thumbnail, readers are taken into TextLab's side-by-side display of the selected leaf and its "diplomatic transcription," which is a line-by-line typographical simulation of Melville's initial and revision texts in manuscript. Because Melville's handwriting can be challenging and because his revisions are invariably obscured due to cross-outs and squeezing texts into small spaces, the diplomatic transcription is a useful way to "read" Melville's inscriptions. And, mousing over a given revision site in the diplomatic transcription highlights its position in the MS leaf. Readers can also view the unemended "base version" for that leaf's text when they select the base version tab next to the diplomatic transcription tab. Readers can move from leaf to leaf, without returning to the reading text thumbnails, by clicking on the back and forward arrows above each leaf.
Another innovative feature in this display is TextLab's set of "revision sequences" and "revision narratives." While the diplomatic transcription provides a readable form of each revision site in each leaf of Melville's manuscript, it does not tell you how Melville might have revised or why. Further revision annotation is required. A Revision Sequence enumerates the revision steps at a given set of revision sites, and a Revision Narrative provides an explanation of each step. Because we can only speculate on how a revision unfolded, we rely on sequencing to clarify the possibilities and on revision narration to give the reasoning for each step. Together they offer an argument for how a revision might have happened. But editors will want to offer alternative theories. TextLab permits multiple revision sequences and narratives for each site, and readers have access to each option. In this way, MEL's editorial approach encourages discourse on revision and interpretation. It also permits the kind of balance between rough and smooth approaches in displaying the reading text. That is, the evidence of Melville's ragged edges are visible via the marginal thumbnails, which do not interrupt the smoother experience of the reading text itself.
To return from the rough domain of MEL's manuscript displays to MEL's smoother reading text from the TextLab displays, click your browser's return arrow.
Suffice it to say, MEL's reading text is itself a balance of rough and smooth editorial approaches. For instance, we have not modernized or regularized most of Melville's idiosyncratic punctuation and wordings. Close readers will enjoy these "rough spots," even finding patterns in the apparent inconsistencies. That said, we do alter some irregularities that would be too rough and glaringly disruptive, such as Melville's peculiar (though not entirely unheard of) spelling of "do'nt"; in this case, we emend (that is, change or, rather, "fix") this rough spot to the conventional "don't."
To enhance smoother reading, the MEL text of Billy Budd supplies conventional versions of many of Melville's routine misspellings and inconsistent dialogue punctuation. For instance, we emend Melville's "beleif" to "belief" and we add quotation marks for dialog where Melville has inadvertently omitted them. We do not, however, intervene in order to clarify ambiguous pronouns, as the NN edition of Billy Budd has done, assuming that readers can make out the ambiguity. Nor does MEL correct misstatements of fact, such as Melville's misidentification of an author. Here, the question is whether an editor's role is to smooth over an error by "fixing" it, or to let such ragged edges stand in all their roughness. Either way—whether for correction or error—the editor will supply an explanatory note. But the larger issue has to do with the editor's duty, either to the fact intended or to the fact of an error on the manuscript leaf. Surely, the author intended to write the right word, and surely an editor can act like a publisher's professional copy-editor hired to bring a writer's text into conformity with house style and factual accuracy, though in this case the editorial aims is to bring the text into closer conformity with the writer's presumed intentions. On the other hand, the textual editor's duty is also to represent the facts of the writing process, which never did run smooth. Surely, then, the editor must preserve such errors—with, of course, appropriate explanatory annotation—if only to allow readers to pursue the logic of a writer's error. We cannot know if there is a meaning in such mistakes unless we give readers access to them and a chance to interpret them. In doing so, editing brings the reader more fully into the writer's process and, for that matter, the editor's dilemma.
Having said this much about factual error, editors are also obliged to emend inscription errors that result in incoherent readings, which, if left as they appear in manuscript, would unnecessarily confuse readers. Here the editors' loyalties shift from rendering a precise transcription of the text as it exists on the manuscript leaf to helping the reader read. Such ragged bits of text generally arise from Melville's uncompleted revisions. They include dropped, doubled, or misplaced words. Another sign of Melville's indecision during the composition of Billy Budd is what we call "oscillating revisions." These are multiple word options in a particular revision site vying for final placement in a sentence. For instance, Melville might delete a word, add a substitute word, delete that addition, but not restore the first deletion. The result is two deleted options but no survivor text. Both deleted words "work" but neither has been re-authorized. In such cases, the editor is obliged to choose one option for the sake of smooth reading but provide a "revision narrative" in the form of an interruptive note that explains the oscillation and the editorial choice.
Perhaps the most consequential oscillation in Billy Budd is all the more complicated because the revision itself does not occur at a single revision site and is inferable only by inspecting separate leaves. The case involves the naming the British warship on which Billy has been pressed into service. Melville's original name for the ship is Indomitable, but late in his compositional process, he changed the name to Bellipotent. If left as it is, the manuscript seems to give one ship two names. However, unlike other word oscillations that appear together in one revision site, Melville's word "Bellipotent" appears independently in its own section of the manuscript. Nowhere in manuscript do we see Melville crossing out "Indomitable" in order to add "Bellipotent" in one revision site. Nor is it at all certain that Melville had made up his mind about the shift to "Bellipotent." He might have returned to "Indomitable," or, for that matter, settled on a third option. In this case, Melville seems to be in a state of flux or indecision. In efforts to smooth out this anomaly, editors have chosen to decide on Melville's behalf, one name over the other, so that Weaver's 1924 edition has all Indomitables and the 1962 Hayford-Sealts edition has all Bellipotents. However, assuming that readers can withstand the anomaly of one ship with two names, MEL retains the ship names as they appear in their separate sections of the novella, supplying readers with appropriately placed explanatory notes.
With MEL's reading text of Billy Budd now completed, our goal is to collate it against the four other scholarly print editions of the novella to register all editorial differences. We will also devise digital means for comparing these editorial versions against the textual components of twentieth-century adaptations.
MEL's reading text of Billy Budd has been established and will not be altered unless a second MEL edition is mounted. MEL editors continue to add new annotations, and current annotations may be subject to change. MEL's reading text and annotations are available for print publication; please contact MEL's director for details.
John Bryant, Wyn Kelley, and Christopher Ohge
Nick Laiacona and Brian Ferris (programming), and Kevin Pechin (web management)
Dawn Coleman, Les Harrison, Kristen Mattern, Tony McGowan, Joseph Meyer, Steven Olsen-Smith, Wes Raabe, Stephen Sill, Haskell Springer, and John Wenke
David Kaminski, Steven Olsen-Smith, Wes Raabe, Haskell Springer, Lewis Ulman, and John Wenke