The Angel Must Hang

Billy Budd, Sailor, Compulsory Homosociality, and the Handsome Sailor
  • David Greven


This chapter treats Billy Budd, Sailor, which Herman Melville left at his desk before his death on September 28, 1891, as not only the culmination of Melvillean treatments of fraternity and desire but also as a critique of antebellum sexual politics, at a dispirited postbellum remove. Though a late nineteenth-century work, Billy Budd demonstrates that the themes of antebellum literature that we have examined this far still powerfully inform literary art. If anything, Billy Budd provides a powerful coda to our discussion; with murderous clarity, it synthesizes the major themes of the nineteenth-century American construction of manhood, gender relations, fraternity, and violation. And desire.


Male Homosexuality Pleasant Word Homosexual Desire Moral Phenomenon Narrative Centrality 
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  1. 2.
    For interesting valences in the homosexual–homosocial relationship between Billy Budd’s nautical military world and that of the contemporary United States, see Steven Zeeland’s Sailors and Sexual Identity: Crossing the Line Between “Straight” and “Gay” in the U.S. Navy (Harrington Park, NJ: Harrington Park Press, 1995). Zeeland has written many books on related subjects.Google Scholar
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    In a recent study, Barry Werth demonstrates the ravaging effects the Cold War policing and punishment of homosexuals had on Arvin and other gay critics. See Werth’s The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2001).Google Scholar
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    Newton Arvin, perhaps the most eloquent and insightful of Melville critics, nevertheless offers an ephemeral treatment of Billy Budd. In a chapter in his (otherwise superb) study Melville titled “Trophies of Peace,” Arvin argues that Vere “has no choice but to administer, dutifully and grimly, the harsh terms of [the Mutiny Act]” (a point repeatedly disproved by many critics writing in Arvin’s day and afterwards of the juridical intricacies of the fictional case). Arvin salutes the story as a “completed” reenactment of the Abraham and Issac story. He hears in Vere’s comment after Billy has effectively killed Claggart—“Struck dead by an angel of God”—evidence of Vere’s “real,” positive feelings toward Billy. Yet, Arvin leaves out Vere’s crucial next line: “Yet, the angel must hang.” Arvin rhapsodizes over the quiet, steady, unflinching heroism of Vere: “Captain Vere is a man with a ‘marked leaning towards everything intellectual,’ a passion for books and learning, and a habit of abstracted meditation. Yet he is an image of the high virtue in which the sternest sense of severe and painful duty is united to a capacity for the purest and tenderest love, the love of father for son. And it was in the full imaginative realization of that love, given and received, that Melville brought his work as a writer to its serene conclusion.” Arvin concludes with a description of that ambivalent line of Billy’s, “God bless Captain Vere!” as a “rapturous surrender,” a term which more astutely characterizes Arvin’s strangely wan reading of the story and its particularities as well as his highly uncritical celebration of Vere’s virtuousness. See Arvin, Melville (New York: William Sloan Associates, Inc, 1950), 299.Google Scholar
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    Like many of the acceptance critics, F. O. Matthiessen, writes movingly of his own moved response to the power dynamics of the novel. Melville was able to make “his warmest affirmation of good through a common sailor’s act of holy forgiveness.” He rhapsodizes over the relationship between Billy and Vere and what this relationship signifies for America. “Vere obeys the law, yet understands the deeper reality of the spirit. Billy instinctively accepts the captain’s duty and forgives him. Melville affirms the rareness of such forgiveness” through allusions that Billy will ascend to heaven. Certainly this essay seems to assist the negative reconsiderations from the Arac–Pease–Tompkins school of the “American Renaissance” Matthiessen inaugurated in the text by that name. Matthiessen’s passionate novena to the obduracy, the unyielding and “inexorable logic” of Vere seems almost a willed self-sacrifice to the Law of the Father, and smacks of a covertly eroticized glorification of the masculinist rigidity of the ramrod rectitude of Vere. See Matthiessen, “Billy Budd, Foretopman,” Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Richard Chase and Richard Volney (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), 166–68.Google Scholar
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    Much has been made in Melville criticism about the uneven, imperfect qualities of Billy Budd, that they evince the struggles of the elderly, ailing author (who died shortly after the work was created) to make sense of a tale of which he himself was unsure. As even the famously loyal Melville scholar Hershel Parker writes, “In the first two chapters the reader has to watch the meaning seem to escape, then watch as Melville pulls it back within bounds. Melville writes as an old man with wonderful memories (his own and other people’s) of many times and places, a man with opinions which may challenge the reader (who, especially if young, will hardly relish being told that the writer remembers a more poetic age than the young can now hope to experience), and a man who is going to tell his story in his own good time. Fumbling may well be evident in the first two chapters, and even more evident if you look at the Genetic Text, but Melville, old, tired, and intermittently sick and gradually weakening, was still a great writer. Much of that greatness asserted itself as he worked his way into the material, before the end of the second chapter.” Parker, Reading Billy Budd (Evanston, WY: Northwestern UP, 1990), 108.Google Scholar
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    W. H. Auden quite explicitly, and randily, compares Billy (in a footnote) to a character from Genet, and ruminates thusly on the special appeal for gay men in sailors: “It is not an accident that many homosexuals should show a special preference for sailors, for the sailor on shore is symbolically the innocent god from the sea who is not bound by the law of the land and therefore can do anything without guilt… . Billy Budd [is] the beautiful god who feels neither guilt nor remorse, and whose very crimes, therefore, are proof of his divinity.” Auden was also far more explicit in his analysis of the “meanings or half-meanings” in Claggart’s possible motivations: “In Billy Budd the opposition is not strength/weakness but innocence/guilt-consciousness, i.e., Claggart wishes to annihilate the difference either by becoming innocent himself or by acquiring an accomplice in guilt. If this is expressed sexually, the magic act must necessarily be homosexual, for the wish is for identity in innocence or in guilt, and identity demands the same sex.” Auden, The Enchaféd Flood (New York: Vintage, 1950), 146.Google Scholar
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    Benson Bobrick, Knotted Tongues: Stuttering in History and the Quest for a Cure (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 23. This is the best study I have found of the alternately grueling and hilarious, heartrending and horrifying, history of stuttering (cultural and medical). The chapter on nineteenth-century medical/ surgical innovations in stuttering, involving grisly operations performed with great relish and without ether, is particularly fine (85–120).Google Scholar
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© David Greven 2005

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  • David Greven

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