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Billy Budd is a "mediated" text, for it was left by Melville in manuscript form at the time of his death. Along with the basic text, there were many notes, revisions, and scribblings that suggested there were further decisions to be made on the final version, which had never been submitted to a publisher. His notes indicate that Melville completely changed the character of Billy during his revisions. The innocent Billy, who emerges in the later drafts of the novel, is completely different that the wild sailor of the early versions.
A Melville revival occurred in the 1920s, partly due to a republishing of his works. At that time though, Billy Budd was considered a minor work, casually included with other minor tales. After World War II, however, its popularity soared.
Certainly Melville's interest in Billy Budd was in contrasting good and evil while showing the purity of "barbaric" innocence and the limits of Reason. The twentieth century concern for good versus evil is probably in large part responsible for the late success of the book. But there were also contemporary concerns that influenced Melville in writing the novel, including the Somer's mutiny of 1842, the concern in his own family with questions of authority, and the well-known, horrible conditions that sailors endured on merchant ships.