My book Melville's Short Novels—Norton Critical Edition includes some criticisms, and from the look of it, readers of “Billy Budd, Sailor”, as with “Benito Cereno”, fall into 2 camps: Vere or anti-Vere.
Here are Robert K. Martin Jr’s anti-Vere arguments in “Is Vere a Hero?”:
1/ “Nothing that we know about the role of the Captain from the earlier works could lead us to believe that Melville would create a captain who represents the moral perspective of the author: every Captain in Melville is corrupt, a tyrant, or a madman.”
2/ Vere is a snob. What does he read? “Those books that ‘every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world naturally inclines’ toward (my emphasis). His conservatism is not the product of careful reflection on new ideas, but instead ‘a dike against those invading waters of novel opinion social, political and otherwise’.”
That’s a good point. Let’s look at Melville’s text.
“In this line of reading he found confirmation of his own more reserved thoughts—confirmation which he had vainly sought in social converse, so that as touching most fundamental topics, there had got to be established in him some positive convictions which he forefelt would abide in him essentially unmodified so long as his intelligent part remained unimpaired.”
Vere reads to find confirmation of his own ideas, i.e. avoids books that challenge them. That is narrow-mindedness. We see that later, when Billy Budd strikes Claggart dead, he decides at once that “the angel must hang” and afterwards sticks to it, without much struggle.
Let’s go on.
“While other members of that aristocracy to which by birth he belonged were incensed at the innovators mainly because their theories were inimical to the privileged classes, not alone Captain Vere disinterestedly opposed them because they seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.”
He’s afraid of change, afraid of anything that looks like a threat to his sense of peace and stability. His fear of such threats later becomes so strong, stronger than anything, that he forgets justice and conscience in his judgement of Billy.
The narrator then says that Vere lacks “the companionable quality”*, that he is dry and bookish. We see later that Vere thinks in the abstract and forgets that Billy Budd is a human being.
Besides, speaking of snobbishness, Vere makes allusions without caring whether or not his listeners understand them.
3/ Martin notes that Vere “betrays the very code he claims to believe in. It is not even necessary to accept the idea of a moral code higher than military justice (although I am certain that Melville did) in order to condemn Vere. Revolution may be a legitimate fear, but does it justify the suspension of legal procedure? And if Vere acts only out of a justified fear of mutiny, why not act on that basis instead of cloaking his behavior in legal self-righteousness.”
The court doesn’t determine evidence.
“Vere is the accuser, the witness, and the judge; he is even the defense counsel at moments. No witnesses are heard; no attempt is even made to determine the truth of Claggart’s accusation. Of course, the fact that the accusation is false does not alter the fact that Billy killed Claggart, but it does determine a great deal about motive and justification.”
Martin adds, “it is Vere’s assumption of the danger of mutiny that justifies his suspension of proper procedure, although no effort whatever is made to examine that assumption. Vere has decided Billy’s fate before the court meets, and he uses his power to manipulate the court’s decision. The trial is a sham, the pretense of justice and not justice itself”.
Now let’s examine Vere’s language as he speaks before the drumhead court.
“Quite apart from any conceivable motive actuating the master-at-arms, and irrespective of the provocation to the blow, a martial court must needs in the present case confine its attention to the blow’s consequence, which consequence justly is to be deemed not otherwise than as the striker’s deed.” (the italics are Martin’s, to emphasise Vere’s exploitation of the legalese)
All of those words mean nothing but that Billy struck Claggart.
“It is not possible to imagine that Melville would cast as hero a man who could so abuse the language.”
4/ Martin says, defenders of Vere argue that he represents “a higher ethic” than “justice to the individual”, namely “the claims of civilized society”.
That is not true. “Vere’s decision to hold the court is contrary to law and to the opinion of his officers. It corresponds only to his own desires. Far from establishing a higher social order, Vere imposes the rule of the individual (himself) over social justice.”
5/ “Vere, that double of Claggart, is driven by ‘the most secret of all passions, ambition’. But as Claggart is never able to profit from his currying of favor with higher authority by denouncing Billy, since he is killed by Billy, so Vere does not live long enough to attain to ‘the fulness of fame’, since he is killed in battle by the French shortly after Billy’s execution. The deaths of the 2 men who might have gained by the death of Billy adds a final turn of the ironic screw: all that killing, and not even ambition is served.”
*: This is a quality that Melville ranks high, as Carolyn L. Karcher argues in “Melville and Revolution”: For example, see Melville’s description of John Marr “to a man wonted… to the free-and-easy tavern clubs… in certain old and comfortable sea-port towns of that time, and yet more familiar with the companionship afloat of the sailors… something was lacking [in the company of his neighbors]. That something was geniality, the flower of life springing from some sense of joy in it, more or less”. Or Melville’s disparagement of Emerson’s lack of convivial geniality.