Teaching Herman Melville’s Billy Budd

Thursday, November 21, 2013
7:00 pm - 8:30 pm (EST) Enter Classroom Enter Forum
Ship, Billy Budd


Andrew Delbanco
Mendelson Family Professor of American Studies
Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities
Columbia University
National Humanities Center Fellow

About the Seminar

Ever since its publication, Herman Melville’s story “Billy Budd” has been the subject of vigorous critical debate. Did Captain Vere, the commander who condemns Billy to death for killing the despicable Master-at-Arms John Claggart, impose a just sentence? Is Vere a tragic figure struggling with an agonizingly difficult decision or an oppressor upholding the authority of empire? And what of Billy? Is he an embodiment of virtue whose example can redeem a fallen world or a naïf whose failure to recognize evil gives it more power? And what of the story itself? How does it relate to the context of its creation, America in the 1880s, and that of its setting, a British warship during the Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century? Join our drumhead court as we judge “Billy Budd.”

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Assigned Readings

  1. Billy Budd, by Herman Melville (1924). (text and supplemental material)
  2. Additional resources:
  3. And of course:

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Seminar Recording