Billy Budd, 1888 (written), 1924 (published posthumously)

Author: Herman Melville

What do we know about the author?

We all wish we knew more about Herman Melville, and especially about the desires of his heart. Herman Melville wrote publicly with effusive praise about his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, leading some to believe that the two were lovers (Stein). However, Melville and Hawthorne were both married to women (Stein). There is no conclusive evidence that the two were indeed lovers (Stein). Admittedly, the letters that Melville wrote to Hawthorne reveal strong feelings for Hawthorne. Curiously, the letters from Hawthorne to Melville are mostly missing (Stein).

What is the plot of this book?

Billy Budd is an extremely handsome British sailor who is chosen to sail aboard a ship called the Indomitable as a foretopman. Billy is very popular among the other sailors. His only apparent flaw is a stutter that arises when Billy gets excited, anxious, or angry. Although the ship’s master-at-arms John Claggart is fairly attractive, he is jealous of Billy’s beauty. Because of his envy, Claggart falsely accuses Billy of trying to incite a mutiny on the ship.

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Captain Vere allows Claggart to confront Billy with the accusations, and Vere requests a response from Billy. Out of nervousness and rage, Billy stutters and then delivers a single deadly punch to Claggart. Although Claggart’s murder is an accident, Billy must nevertheless endure a trial aboard the ship. While the court-martial believes in Billy’s innocence, they still decide to hang him to prevent future instances of mutiny.

How is this book queer?

From the opening scenes of this book, Billy Budd vividly describes male beauty. Melville writes that passersby on the dock of the seaport were “arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war’s men or merchant sailors in holiday attire ashore on liberty.” This description exemplifies the stereotype of handsome sailors stopping at ports to party and to make love. As he describes the sailors on the dock, he describes a black sailor attired in a way that is stereotypically queer by today’s standards: “The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head.”

Despite these descriptions of male beauty, the novel focuses on the astounding handsomeness of Billy Budd and the admiring gazes of the men of the Indomitable. In awe of Billy, Lieutenant Ratcliff immediately recruits him without knowing much about him. In fact, Ratcliff is “[p]lump upon Billy at first sight.” Billy also attracts “the Captain’s attention from the first.” Indeed, Captain Vere congratulates, “Lieutenant Ratcliff upon his good fortune in lighting on such a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.”

In contrast, Claggart’s admiration of Billy’s beauty turns into jealousy and insecurity about his own appearance. Even as Billy’s appearance saddens Claggart, Claggart surreptitiously loves and perhaps desires Billy: “… the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.” Claggart may ultimately strive to ruin Billy because he thinks that he cannot have him. Alternatively, Claggart may want the male gaze to focus on him instead of Billy. Either way, Claggart seems to be a frustrated queer man.

Readers know more about the thoughts and desires of the men aboard the ship than they do about Billy’s state of mind. Billy accepts the adulation, but he does not seem to appreciate the intensity of the men’s admiration or Claggart’s envy. However, Billy’s façade crumbles when Vere’s tender empathy exposes Billy’s vulnerability. Vere tries to calm Billy when Billy stutters in his response to the accusations made against him. The empathy infuriates Billy because the “fatherly” tone touches Billy’s “heart to the quick.” Billy does not seem comfortable with the intimacy of Vere’s empathy. On the Indomitable one cannot conquer the masculine sailor culture of emotional stoicism, even as homoeroticism slyly pervades the gazes and banter. When Vere’s concern for Billy shows a desire for sincere emotional intimacy between men, Billy’s homophobia and assertion for masculine self-sufficiency emerge. As a result, these feelings lead Billy to tragic violence.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you are a patient reader, you may enjoy this book. The plot is simple, and most of the text addresses descriptions of setting and characters. In true Melville style, the pace is plodding, and the sentences are very long. You will definitely enjoy this book if you enjoy contemplating the psychology of men and homoerotic subtext.

Reference

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. Kindle ed., Plain Label Books, 2018.

Stein, Jordan A. “History’s Dick Jokes: On Melville and Hawthorne.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 15 Dec. 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/historys-dick-jokes-on-melville-and-hawthorne. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.

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Moby Dick (1851)

Author: Herman Melville

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

According to the Amazon Classics kindle version of this book, Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. He came from a modest background, and he had little formal education. In addition to working as a schoolteacher, he was a sailor on a whaling ship. Eventually, he began writing, but his novels were not popular when they were published. He managed to make money from his short stories, but he was not widely known during his life.

Melville dedicates Moby Dick to famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne: “In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The two authors wrote many letters to each other, and Melville even moved to Hawthorne’s neighborhood to be closer to him (McCrum). It is not known if Hawthorne and Melville were friends or lovers.

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Herman Melville

What is the plot of this book?

Ishmael is a sailor who seeks adventure on a whaling ship. The book follows his journey from New York to Massachusetts, where he boards the Pequod as a sailor. Before leaving, he meets Queequeg, a harpooneer from the Pacific Islands, who also boards the Pequod. Once on the ship, the crew discovers that Captain Ahab is on a mission for vengeance. Ahab is determined to hunt and kill Moby Dick. This great white whale ripped off Ahab’s leg on a previous voyage, and, as a result, Ahab walks on an ivory leg. Ahab offers a gold coin to the person that finds Moby Dick. For the rest of the book, the crew searches far and wide for the whale, encountering several ships along the way. As Ishmael recounts the events of the voyage, he goes into great detail about everything one could possibly want to know about whales.

Eventually, Captain Ahab finds Moby Dick, and he keeps his own gold coin. After several attempts, Ahab manages to stab Moby Dick, but the whale drags Ahab out of his boat and into the distance. Among the turmoil of hunting Moby Dick, the whale manages to demolish the Pequod and all of its boats. The only survivor is Ishmael. Ishmael floats away on a coffin that was originally constructed for Queequeg when he became very ill. Another ship finds and rescues Ishmael.

How is this book queer?

This book is queer in so many ways. The words “queer” and “gay” appear frequently throughout the novel, although these words had different meanings in the nineteenth century. The language itself is at many points extremely suggestive, but the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is overtly queer.

When Ishmael arrives in Massachusetts, Ishmael finds a bed in which to sleep at an inn. However, the landlord informs Ishmael that he must share a bed with another man, as the inn is completely booked. Initially, Ishmael objects vehemently to the idea of sharing a bed. Once he discovers that his bedmate is Queequeg, a menacing, huge, dark, tattooed “cannibal” who wields sharp weapons, Ishmael is intimidated.

However, Queequeg is surprisingly willing to share his bed. Ishmael suddenly sees Queequeg as a “clean, comely looking cannibal.” At first, the two bedmates keep their distance from each other. By the morning the situation is much different: “… I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Queequeg fascinates Ishmael: “… I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me.” Queequeg is the brooding bad boy, and Ishmael is the smitten schoolboy.

The following night Queequeg looks “pleased” that he will again share a bed with Ishmael. Queequeg touches Ishmael around the waist, and Ishmael concludes that they are “married.” Later, Ishmael kisses Queequeg’s nose, and they undress before going to bed again. Throwing caution to the wind, Queequeg comfortably tosses his leg over Ishmael’s leg.

However, their relationship is not just physical. They talk in bed like a married couple. When Queequeg fasts and maintains a vow of silence to honor his religion, Ishmael becomes very concerned about Queequeg’s wellbeing. Much later on the Pequod, Ishmael declares that Queequeg will be the executor of his will. When Queequeg attends to a whale carcass outside the ship, Ishmael remains in the ship tied to Queequeg with a rope. Ishmael is Queequeg’s literal anchor.

Nevertheless, after the Pequod sets sail, the narrative rarely mentions encounters between Ishmael and Queequeg. This is so frustrating! When Queequeg becomes ill, Ishmael seems mildly sad, but the details are scant. The reader yearns for Ishmael to prostrate before Queequeg’s ailing body with grief and melancholy. That did not happen. Moreover, Ishmael and Queequeg fade into the background as the obsession with whales and Captain Ahab’s lust for whale murder dominate the story.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you are miraculously patient and you have an intense interest in whales, this book is for you. Not much happens in this book, but the book is quite long. If that is fine for you, enjoy! Some people, including me, find this book frustrating to read because the pace is very plodding and Melville writes on many tangents, many involving minutiae about whales. Melville writes in long sentences, which can be difficult to follow. If you are only interested in the queer aspects of this book, stop reading after the Pequod sets sail.

Reference

McCrum, Robert. “Herman Melville, the Last Great Enigma of American Literature.” The Guardian, 30 Jan. 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jan/30/herman-melville-mark-twain-parini. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Kindle ed., AmazonClassics, 2018.