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Herman Melville's 'Billy Budd' Manuscript at Harvard Library

August 1, 2013—Herman Melville began Billy Budd in 1888. Unfinished at the time of his death in 1891, it was finally published in 1924, and it quickly was recognized as a literary masterpiece.
Melville’s handwritten manuscript of Billy Budd is held by Harvard’s Houghton Library. A penciled notation at the top of a page indicates he began writing on November 16, 1888 and revising it on March 2, 1889. Melville’s many revisions—corrections, cancellations, annotations—can be seen throughout the manuscript. He frequently pinned revisions over earlier text or constructed a new page by cutting apart text and rearranging the pieces. Harvard’s digital facsimile of the manuscript shows both the overlays and the text underneath.
Melville was born on August 1, 1819. Following high school, he worked as a teacher, then on several ships, sailing to Liverpool, the South Pacific and Hawaii, inspiring much of his writing. His first book, Typee, was a bestseller, followed by Omoo, Redburn, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick, among others.
Interest in Melville’s literary efforts waned following his early success, and he lectured and published travelogues. He took a position as a customs inspector in 1866, and all of Melville’s books were out of print by 1876. He continued to write, and a small number of copies of John Marr and Timoleon were published in 1888 and 1891, respectively. Melville died on September 28, 1891.