Monday, November 16, 2015
The 1962 Ustinov BILLY BUDD played on TCM Saturday, Reminding me of an Experiment in Composition in 1988
What Happened When I Tried to Write a Book as Fast as Melville Wrote WHITE-JACKET
On a train out of Strasbourg for Luxembourg I plotted on a manila envelope what I would do when I got home to Wilmington, DE. I had promised to write a book on BILLY BUDD by September and had worked on the Northwestern-Newberry MOBY-DICK instead. I knew Melville had written WHITE-JACKET in 2 months, maximum, and wondered if later on he remembered much about it. I decided as an experiment that I would write the BB book in what time I had in July and all of August. But I had to go to New Orleans first, and there I found a great cache of letters from Oakey Hall, in one of which he casually announced that Melville had written WHITE-JACKET in a score of sittings. I took that to mean that Melville worked for 20 days out of the 2 months--read sources and planned for a day or two and wrote like hell the third day. Well, the weather did not cooperate. It got hot and we had no air conditioning. For 19 days in a row [I am pretty sure it was 19] it was in the mid 90s. People all over the East died. My computer got gummy.
I finished early and sent it off and the publisher (Bobbs Merrill) refused it because it was too long. Northwestern took it as it was. A lot of people liked it. Paul Seydor quotes it in his new book on PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.
Mike—this is hard to read. I wrote the book between 13 July and 24 August 1988. My computer really did stick in the heat and humidity. And my test proved that in my case, at least, I would not remember a word of what I wrote, whether Melville remembered anything about WHITE-JACKET or not.