Melville’s Billy Budd had “just one thing amiss in him,” goes the narrative, “an occasional liability to a vocal defect” (53). Billy’s linguistic breakdown on board the H. M. S. Bellipotent-his “stutter or even worse” (53)—precipitates a near-mutiny, mobilizing the unspoken collective murmurs of the common sailors on the ship against the authoritarian Captain Vere. As the plot goes, Billy the sailor, possessor of great masculine beauty, falls foul of the ship’s master-at-arms and head of police surveillance, the sociopathic John Claggart. We are told that Claggart’s antipathy to Billy Budd is spontaneous and profound, though unprovoked by any offending word, deed, or trait as such. In the climactic scene, Billy, convulsed by his speech impediment, unintentionally delivers a fatal blow to Claggart in response to the latter’s false incriminations. Their final struggle is coded in almost clinical terms, prefiguring agonistic analytic scenarios between neurotic patients and neurasthenic doctors. Melville describes Claggart as confronting Billy “with the measured step and calm collected air of an asylum physician approaching in the public hall some patient beginning to show indications of a coming paroxysm” (98). Billy’s muscular and nervous paroxysm following Claggart’s accusation and Captain Vere’s injunction to respond to it, results in a fatal “tongue-tie” (98):

In Strange Talk, an excellent study of the linguistic psychology of Gilded Age America, Gavin Jones suggests that Billy’s linguistic affliction is contagious: “Billy Budd constructs the disturbing possibility that the forms of social power, in addition to subaltern forces of resistance, are contaminated by a single linguistic disease” (80). According to Jones, Billy Budd’s stutter must be assessed in the context of the prevalent neurasthenic climate in Melville’s America, and with direct reference to “American Nervousness,” a catch-all term coined by neurologist George M. Beard, to classify neurotic reactions to urbanization, capitalism, and social mobility in the Gilded Age. Put simply, people were nervous because they had reached the acme of private and public success. Beard catalogued five main causes of American nervousness: steampower, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women. Melville too imaginatively configured the Nore Mutiny as an epidemic disease: “the distempering irruption of contagious fever in a frame constitutionally sound, and which anon throws it off ” (55). If we extend this analogy to the hysterical stammer, it may be seen as a virus that infiltrates the healthy idioms and articulations of dominant discourse.