Mendelson Family Professor of American Studies
Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities
National Humanities Center Fellow
About the SeminarEver 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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- Billy Budd, by Herman Melville (1924). (text and supplemental material)
- Additional resources:
- And of course:
- Melville: His World and His Work., by Andrew Delbanco. Random House; paper. (September 2006)