Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, by Herman Melville, Limited Editions Club (1965)

{Ed. Note: The next post will likely be 2-3 weeks from now as I focus on the annual ‘Support the Fine/Private Press Eco-System‘ article. In the meantime, please make extensive use of the Index of Book Reviews to catch up or re-acquaint yourself with the hundreds or reviews on Books and Vines.}

Herman Melville (1819-1891) was a novelist, poet and short story writer that many consider to be the greatest of all American writers. He is, of course, most known for Moby Dick, one of the preeminent works in all of the history of literature (a work which is also amongst the greatest private press editions of all time, as seen here). His fame originally came from two novels Typee and Omoo first published in 1846 and 1847, respectively (see here and here for reviews of Limited Editions Club editions of those two novels). After that, fame alluded him during his lifetime. Even Moby Dick was not well thought of or popular when released; in fact, not attaining such distinction until well after his death. According to Andrew Delbanco‘s Melville, His World and Work (2005) Melville only made about $10,000 during his lifetime from his writing and all of his works were out of print by 1876. He survived by being an inspector for the United States Customs Service and made some money by lectures “to audiences who figured he must be important or they would not have had to pay to hear him” (as humourously stated in the Limited Editions Club Monthly Letter). It seemed he was to be a minor and forgotten American author.

Twenty-six years after Melville’s death, Carl Van Doren wrote an article on Melville that was contained in a standard history of American literature; this was followed four years later (in 1921) with the first full-length biography on Melville, Raymond Weaver‘s Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic. This began what was to be a revival of Melville that now puts him in the esteemed and lofty levels mentioned above.  It is not only his novels on which his reputation now rests. His poetry and short stories are also critically acclaimed and popular. A couple of Melville’s short stories have been highlighted in Books and Vines, see the review of Bartleby, the Scrivener from the Indulgence Press and Norfolk Isle & the Cholla Widow from Nawakum Press. This current article looks at the 1965 Limited Editions Club (LEC) publication of two of his stories in one edition: Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno.

Billy Budd was the last work of Melville and was unfinished at his death in 1891. It had been three decades since Melville had written a prose story, a period in which all his focus was poetry. The state of the manuscript at his death, now at the Houghton Library at Harvard University was described as “chaotic,” with “a bewildering array of corrections, cancellations, cut and pasted leaves, annotations inscribed by several hands...” This point is further emphasized in the LEC Monthly Letter (ML):

Now Melville was an old man when he put his final story on paper; he had done most of his writing in a day when an author left his punctuation up to the printer (who knew more about it anyway); Melville’s handwriting was ferociously undecipherable; he used his own system of abbreviations; he was an indifferent speller, and, to add a capstone to this tower of difficulties, he wrote with a pencil.

Billy Budd was first published posthumously in 1924 by the aforementioned Raymond M. Weaver.  Due to the reasons just mentioned along with doing a sloppy job, the 1924 text from Weaver was full of errors of transcription.  It was re-edited in 1948 by F. Barron Freeman, which unfortunately was itself plagued by “mistaken assumptions and textual errors.”  In 1956 Elizabeth Treeman, who had documented over 500 errors in Freeman’s work in a 1953 pamphlet entitled Corrigenda, re-edited the Freeman edition with these mistakes fixed. It is this “re-re-edited” text, from the Harvard University Press, that is used in this edition from the LEC. Readers should know that what has become the authoritative edition of Billy Budd was published in 1962 by the University of Chicago Press, that of Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (rather than continuing to build on top of Weaver’s flawed version like Freeman and Treeman did, they started from scratch). It is unfortunate that the LEC did not use this text.

When first published in 1924, Billy Budd was hailed as a masterpiece by notables such as D. H. Lawrence. By 1926, through the influence of people such as John Middleton MurryBilly Budd was recognized as one of the great works of Western literature. It’s reputation today remains firmly entrenched, along with Moby Dick, as the pinnacle of Melville’s work. The story, as summarized at Infogalactic, has at its heart the “contradiction between the requirements of the law and the needs of humanity.”  The Infogalactic article describes the plot:

The plot follows Billy Budd, a seaman impressed into service aboard HMS Bellipotent in the year 1797, when the British Royal Navy was reeling from two major mutinies and was threatened by the Revolutionary French Republic‘s military ambitions. He is impressed from another ship, The Rights of Man(named after the book by Thomas Paine). As his former ship moves off, Budd shouts, “Good-by to you too, old Rights-of-Man.”

Billy, a foundling, has an openness and natural charisma that makes him popular with the crew. He arouses the antagonism of the ship’s master-at-arms John Claggart. Claggart, while not unattractive, seemed somehow “defective or abnormal in the constitution,” possessing a “natural depravity.” Envy was Claggart’s explicitly stated emotion toward Budd, foremost because of his “significant personal beauty,” and also for his innocence and general popularity. (Melville further opines envy is “universally felt to be more shameful than even felonious crime.”) This leads Claggart to falsely charge Billy with conspiracy to mutiny. When the captain, Edward Fairfax “Starry” Vere, is presented with Claggart’s charges, he summons Claggart and Billy to his cabin for a private meeting. Claggart makes his case and Billy, astounded, is unable to respond, due to a stutter which grows more severe with intense emotion. He strikes his accuser to the forehead, and the blow is fatal.

Vere convenes a drumhead court-martial. He acts as convening authorityprosecutordefense counsel and sole witness (except for Billy). He intervenes in the deliberations of the court-martial panel to persuade them to convict Billy, despite their and his beliefs in Billy’s moral innocence. (Vere says in the moments following Claggart’s death, “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!”) Vere claims to be following the letter of the Mutiny Act and the Articles of War.

Although Vere and the other officers do not believe Claggart’s charge of conspiracy and think Billy justified in his response, they find that their own opinions matter little. The martial law in effect states that during wartime the blow itself, fatal or not, is a capital crime. The court-martial convicts Billy following Vere’s argument that any appearance of weakness in the officers and failure to enforce discipline could stir more mutiny throughout the British fleet.

As you can tell, this provides an excellent basis for a story from someone as philosophical and thought-provoking as Melville. The second story included in this edition from the LEC is Benito Cereno, which was first published in book form in Melville’s 1856 short story collection called The Piazza Tales.  The story, based on a real historical occurrence of a ship whose slaves had overthrown the Spanish sailors, was taken from the memoir of the Captain Amasa Delano, a real figure, who wrote Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres in 1817. However, in Benito Cereno, the Infogalactic article makes clear that Melville made “crucial changes and expansions that make it a very different text” from that from Delano’s memoirs, the most significant of which being in the “way in which the tale is told.” The first part of the narrative tells of Delano’s encounter with the slave ship, with the second and last part of the story surrounding the legal proceedings and consequences for the rebellious slaves. Based on when the story was written, the story obviously can and has typically been thought of as a commentary on race and the West.

As for the 1965 LEC edition being reviewed here, besides the unfortunate use of Treeman’s text for Billy Budd instead of that from Hayford and Sealts, I have very little to criticize. The book was designed by Eugene Ettenberg, who design work today seems largely forgotten. Ettenberg designed a handful of books for the LEC besides this edition of Melville, including The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Beowulf, Reynard the Fox and The First Night Gilbert and Sullivan. Owning all of these, I think they are all quite nicely done. As for his work here on Billy Budd — Beneto Cereno, the ML says:

Eugene Ettenberg has devised for this edition as snug and shipshape a binding as any seaman or book-lover could desire.

The book was bound at Russell-Rutter Company in white sailcloth over heavy boards with four raised hubs on the shelf back, between which are the hand-lettered titles stamped in black and white pigment foils and is this placed in a slipcase with beveled fore-edges made of the same material. Ettenberg chose to set the book in 14 point Monotype Bell with hand-lettered titles and print on specially made white antique paper from Mohawk Paper Company. The ML expands on this:

Bell dates back to the late eighteenth century (monotype version 1932). It is a serviceable, straightforwardly readable face, as well as a handsome one, and what more can one ask of a face, typographical or human? To complement the Bell with other touches of the period, Gene has had the titles hand-lettered and arranged in a dramatic manner that accords well with the spirit of the texts and with Robert Shores interpretations of them. The lettering is based on an early-nineteenth-century open black-letter from the London foundry of W. Thorowgood; it was much used at the time for official documents, naval commissions, and the like.

The book is illustrated with ten casein paintings (8 of which double spreads) by Robert Shore, an American artist who passed away in 2014.  For this work, Shore won the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators in 1966. The ML describes his work here as:

…moody, compelling paintings, by turns violent and brooding; they sensitively reflect the psychological tensions of the characters and of the action.

These were the first illustrations that Shore did for the LEC, though he subsequently also illustrated Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1969), Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon & Around the Moon (1970), Conrad’s Youth, Typhoon & The End of the Tether (1972, see here for a Books and Vines review of) and Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands (1975). The LEC ML expands on the ‘casein’ paintings as done by Shore:

When we learned that Robert Shore paints with casein pigments, we leapt to our dictionary and learned, to our intense bafflement, that casein is “a phosphoprotein that is one of the chief constituents of milk and the basis of cheese.”Naturally we lobbed this one back to Robert Shore, who explained everything:

“Casein,” he said, “is made by causing skim milk to sour, separating the curd from the whey and drying the curd, which is then ground with color.” He admits he doesn’t go through this process himself: “I merely buy already prepared tubes.” You think the casein process of painting is a johnnie-come-lately in the art profession? Far from it. “It goes back to Roman times, if not beyond,” Robert Shore tells us. “Its efficiency and permanence have been well proved over the ages. In the tenth century Theophilus wrote a study on its preparation and use. My paintings are actually in mixed media. While most of the painting is done in casein, the paintings are eventually overgrazed and finally varnished with an acrylic polymer, which I feel adds a brilliance that enhances the casein.”

The illustrations are reproduced in a LEC typically excellent manner with the color separations done by William Mangini and printing by Michael Pagliaro. The introduction is by American author Maxwell Geismar. This edition is a somewhat middle of the road, standard LEC production, nothing overly special…which means its production quality is pretty much higher than all but that being done by today’s private presses. At $50-60 or so for fine copies, it would be quite silly of you not to own one of these!

About the Edition

  • Designed by Eugene Ettenberg
  • Text is a corrected version based on studies of the manuscript at Houghton Library of Harvard University by Elizabeth Treeman
  • Introduction by Maxwell Geismar
  • Illustrated with ten casein paintings (8 of which double spreads) by Robert Shore
  • Color separations done by William Mangini and were printed by Michael Pagliaro
  • Set in 14 point Monotype Bell
  • Hand-lettered titles
  • Printed on specially made white antique paper from Mohawk Paper Company
  • Printed at the press of A. Colish, Inc.
  • Bound at Russell-Rutter Company in white sailcloth over heavy boards with four raised hubs on the shelf back, between which are the hand-lettered titles stamped in black and white pigment foils; contained in a slipcase with beveled fore-edges
  • 7 3/8″ x 11″, 236 pages
  • Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Robert Shore

Pictures of the Edition

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Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Spine
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Spine
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro 1 of Title Page
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro 1 of Title Page
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro 2 of Title Page
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro 2 of Title Page
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #2
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #2
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Title Page for Billy Budd
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Title Page for Billy Budd
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page for Billy Budd
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page for Billy Budd
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #4
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #4
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #5
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #5
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Title Page for Beneto Cereno
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Title Page for Benito Cereno
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #6
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #6
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #5
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #6 with Text
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #7
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #7
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

One thought on “Billy Budd and Beneto Cereno, by Herman Melville, Limited Editions Club (1965)

  1. I read both of these stories together in the EP version and have been meaning to pick up the LEC. The illustration reproduction is certainly much nicer in the LEC and the binding more apropos than the EPs which is a bit gaudy and out of sync with the illustrations I think. I had been afraid of Melville for some time and these were a great introduction!

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