Herman Melville, today renowned for his masterpiece Moby-Dick, died in relative obscurity while revising Billy Budd, the story of a charismatic young sailor unjustly put to death by a captain who feared he was plotting a mutiny. The short novel takes its cues from the real-life story of Philip Spencer, who left Geneva College without a diploma in 1841 and, after another attempt at higher education at Union College, joined the U.S. Navy. It was aboard the U.S.S. Somers that Spencer reportedly made an off-hand remark about seizing command of the ship and was hanged days later alongside two crewmates, alleged coconspirators, without a customary court martial. Evidence consisted of that overheard remark and a passage in his diary written in Greek. Spencer was just two months shy of his 20th birthday.
After Melville’s death, the Billy Budd manuscript was lost for nearly 30 years. When it was finally rediscovered and published in 1919, the book helped revive the author’s reputation and cement his legacy as one of the most important novelists in U.S. history, says Associate Professor of History Matthew Crow.
In Crow’s current book project, he details the lasting resonance of Melville’s novels and how they reveal the dilemmas of discretionary judicial power in American culture. Crow, whose scholarship explores the intersections between American legal, political and cultural history, is the author of Thomas Jefferson, Legal History, and the Art of Recollection and is the faculty athletic fellow for the Hobart crew team. Here he illuminates the indelible connection between Spencer and Melville.
Q: Who was Philip Spencer?
A: “Spencer was a dynamic, brilliant young guy, which makes the story and substance of his life like a great classical tragedy. He was born in Canandaigua. His father was an active politician who sent him to Geneva College, where he spent a couple years without ever graduating. The story goes, he was brilliant but lazy, spent a lot of time partying, didn’t devote himself to his studies, so his father pulled him out and sent him to Union, where he spent a year before he enlisted in the Navy.
He was executed in 1842 aboard the U.S.S. Somers. Melville’s cousin, Guert Gansevoort, was first officer on the Somers who initially reported rumors of mutinous speech coming from Spencer. The captain tried him at sea and hung him and two other people, and while the Articles of War technically give captains the authority to do that, it isn’t clear there was evidence in this case. At the time, Spencer’s father was the Secretary of War, so the hanging was a scandal of epic proportions. Melville later said, the innocence of these sailors is still discussed in social circles.
Even though the captain was eventually found not guilty in the court martial, this event leads to lots of discussions that lead to reforms in the military.”
Q: How and why did Melville fictionalize this story in Billy Budd? What was it that drew his artistic interest?
A: “The accusation of mutiny, the power of capital punishment, the power that gives to captains — Melville gets it all from the story of Philip Spencer. Melville calls Billy “the handsome sailor,” which people said about Spencer. He had a charisma that flirted with a kind of leadership, an embodiment of convivial youth. Billy is this type of character, a figure that reminds everybody of youth and possibility, which is part of what makes him so attractive and part of what gets him killed. The first officer starts whispering about Billy starting a mutiny because he resents Billy’s charisma and his own attraction to Billy. The captain asks Billy to answer this charge, and Billy is so furious he punches the first officer and kills him with a single punch. He is then tried by the captain, found guilty and hung.
Spencer’s life forms the core of Melville’s last, and arguably, greatest work — a sailor who’s hung at sea — but I think Melville was also drawing on his cousin’s experience, as well as his own. Melville was in the Navy for a while and had insight into that power, and how it’s used and can be abused to exercise cruelty and judgment over other people. Part of what Melville wants us to look at is the human cost of things. The story of Philip Spencer allows him to see and play with what a single life means in the scheme of things. In that one life, you get to look at all the things that are at stake: what it means to have power over somebody’s body, to punish somebody, what war powers mean, who is free and who is not, what it means when you are attracted to somebody and there’s no socially acceptable way to express it — all these aspects that Melville can illuminate with one story. He is paying close attention to dramatic changes across society and what they mean for human beings. He is perceiving history on a grand scale, always looking for the flipside of the coin, trying to illuminate an aspect of the present that people are ignoring or trying not to look at.”
Q: How does your current scholarship approach the themes of Billy Budd and Melville’s other work? What do his novels and stories tell us about the American legal system, history and politics?
A: “Melville pays attention to discretionary power. After the American Revolution, he sees that we’ve replaced discretionary power — the arbitrary whims of men — with the law. The law is king — that’s what Thomas Paine would say. Melville says, oh really? He looks at all the ways discretionary power survives the Revolutionary Era and exists in the U.S., the ways people come into power over others, the legal authority over people’s bodies and souls. What rights do you have? How secure are you? What are the possibilities of justice? What does it mean to be judged?
Part of what I hope Melville does is prepare us for how to be human and humane, to make us aware. We see it in the ways the perspective of Melville’s narrator is always shifting. He’s a writer of the romantic era but he anticipates modern and postmodern techniques. There are moments in Billy Budd when it almost reads like a drama, then it goes psychologically internal, then at times seems like straight reporting. On the one hand, he allows you to read this as something that’s happening on the other side of the world, but when the narrative perspective shifts it becomes very present. It’s part of his way of connecting you to something you didn’t think you were connected to.
There’s also something instructive and important for us to take away from this story as a school. For me, a big part of the story is about the ethics of teaching and learning, because there’s a sense in which the school failed Philip Spencer, even as he failed himself. What a liberal arts college can do is connect a student to their own intelligence and help them discover it — not just to know a bunch of stuff but provide a space and setting where a person discovers something about themselves and is given tools to do something with it. That’s what makes a small liberal arts college a bit of a miracle. How do you create a setting where the value of a life and mind is nurtured, regardless of its relative abilities? How do you create an intellectual environment where a potential Philip Spencer feels like they’ve been invited, where their sense of self matters? That’s the constant challenge that the story leaves me with.”