While I write on a (fairly) disciplined schedule, my reading is…all over the map. I’m always reading four books at once, and I’m usually reading whatever other people tell me to read. (Which, if you have a book you want reviewed, you should take as a very large hint.) 😉
Today: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.
Yes. I am *mumblecough* years old and only just now reading Billy Budd. I have read Moby-Dick four times, Benito Cereno twice, and “Bartleby the Scrivener” more often than I can count, but I am only just now reading Billy Budd. You can read Billy Budd for the first time too, no matter how many *mumblecough* years old you are. You’re never too old for new Melville.
Billy Budd is Melville at his most distilled Melvillian. It’s 180 proof Melville. It contains everything you’d expect to see in a Melville work: extended pontification on historical events and sailing ship minutiae that feel boring as heck but are actually integral to the plot, detailed psychological profiles of the central characters, action moments so understated you’re pretty sure Melville is being passive-aggressive on purpose just to prove that he can make you read anything.
Oh, and gayness. Like most of Melville’s other works, Billy Budd is relentlessly gay.
What makes it relentlessly gay is how utterly understated the gayness is. Billy Budd isn’t pride literature; there’s absolutely no indication that Melville even knows what that would look like. It’s not “being gay is an identity shaped by a world that knows what queerness is and is still trying to decide how it feels about that, sometimes with horrifying results.” That sort of gayness in literature is a modern thing, and while it’s worthwhile and meaningful, it’s also refreshing not to see it for once.
Billy Budd is men just…loving men. Thinking other men are beautiful. Idealizing other men, not to aggrandize the gender but just because, hey, men have got it goin’ on. It’s understated (there’s no overt romance or porn here), but it’s not subtle.
It is really not subtle. If, like me, your knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars is somewhat nonexistent, you’re going to find yourself Googling things like “Trafalgar” and “Spithead Mutiny” in order to understand exactly why messing around on a British warship, even innocently, gets sailors like Billy one hell of a sideeye. And you’re going to find yourself wondering why the history books aren’t absolutely saturated with the man-love. After all, this story is.
A world full of discrimination, hate crimes, suicide hotlines, and toxic masculinity needs Billy Budd now more than ever. It’s refreshingly free of “hey is it gay….” anxieties while actually being gay as gay gets. 11/10 rereading right now.
You know what makes gay sea adventures even better? Coffee. You can share the love and buy me one.