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The War on WordsSlavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature$
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Michael T. Gilmore

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780226294131

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: February 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226294155.001.0001

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“Speak, man!”: Billy Budd in the Crucible of Reconstruction

“Speak, man!”: Billy Budd in the Crucible of Reconstruction

(p.172) “Speak, man!”: Billy Budd in the Crucible of Reconstruction
The War on Words

Michael T. Gilmore

University of Chicago Press

This chapter provides a speculative reading of Billy Budd in light of the historical currents shaping the culture after the Reconstruction. The interpretation can only be speculative because Herman Melville goes to great lengths to efface his own context, and because assertions of certainty would violate the tale's investment in the unsaid and the provisional. Melville tinkered endlessly with Billy Budd, which also abounds in reticences and mysteries, and because he never completed his manuscript, the text is a product of editorial guesswork. In Billy Budd, his agent of ideological fanaticism is the chaos across the Channel, and the threat of mutiny in the British fleet imposes the requirement of verbal reserve. Censorship pervades every aspect of Melville's text. The disturbances at Spithead and the Nore, taking inspiration from events in France and fanned by the presence of so many impressed men in the king's navy, have created a state of constant vigilance that radiates out from the Bellipotent to the narrative voice. Billy Budd might almost be said to perfect the condition of verbal inhibition.

Keywords:   Billy Budd, Reconstruction, Herman Melville, mutiny, verbal inhibition

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