Review: Stephen Matterson, Melville: Fashioning in Modernity (Bloomsbury, 2014)

Johanna Hoorenman
Utrecht University

Melville: Fashioning in Modernity is an exploration of Melville’s representations of selfhood, identity and self-fashioning in modernity. Matterson traces these representations in Melville’s attention to clothing and dress in his prose works, whereby the clothing of Melville’s characters symbolizes their acceptance or rejection of public roles and private identities, and the degree to which these characters are able to adjust to changes in their situation. This dress-theme proves a fresh and remarkably fertile approach to Melville’s prose, and is the basis both for new insights into individual works and for a novel consideration of the broader development of his writing career. The purpose of the book thus has a dual focus: on the one hand, the individual chapters aim to provide a reading of the symbolic aspects of dress in relation to selfhood and identity in the works of Melville. On the other hand, this symbolic aspect of self-styling and and self-hood provides an extended metaphor for Melville’s struggle with financial demands versus artistic integrity of authorship.

The book provides close readings of a number of Melville’s works beyond (the now most famous) Moby-Dick, with chapters devoted to Redburn and White-Jacket, Typee, Israel Potter and Billy Budd. In these, Matterson expansively but coherently argues for a recurrent, central motif in the works of Melville: the extent to which his central characters are (un)able to adapt themselves to changing roles and changing times. Matterson typifies this as “modernity,” and he qualifies the term in the introduction:

Typically, Melville represents characters who are struggling in modernity. While modernity is a much-discussed term, I have in mind here not so much the modernity of a specific historical moment or period, but an ongoing confrontation with rapid social change leaving the individual dislocated and uncertain (2).

This struggle with identity in rapid social change is signified in Melville’s work by the symbolic aspects of clothing, uniform, and dress. Through a careful exploration of the clothing of the central characters Tommo, Israel Potter, Captain Vere, White-Jacket and Wellingborough Redburn, Matterson demonstrates their struggle to unite inner and outer identities in changing circumstances. Key notions in these discussions are those of uniform, dandyism, nakedness and disguise.

The organization and methodology of the book may at first glance seem rather capricious. The characters and books are for instance not discussed in chronological order, even though the evolution of Melville’s writing career is a central motif throughout the book. Rather, the chapters seem organized in such a way that they carefully build up Matterson’s central argument about the symbolism of clothing in Melville’s work. This brings a surprising sense of coherence to the book. Furthermore, Matterson regularly digresses from his main argument to discuss in detail a wide range of related matters. These include for instance sources of influence on Melville such as Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus or Dana’s Two Years before the Mast, as well as discussions on the development of naval standard uniforms, the figure of the scarecrow, or dress, nakedness and tattooing in Polynesia and the Pacific. In the course of the chapters, the book also offers relevant summaries of previous scholarship on Melville. All of this is regularly interspersed with regular contemporary illustrations and references. To name a few of these, Matterson refers to the views on fashion of John Galliano, Ralph Lauren and Jean Paul Gaultier, to examples of style or dress from The Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison’s leather trousers and to the BBC children’s animation series Mr Benn, tattooed Barbie dolls and tattooed Marlboro Men. With this expansive and meandering writing style, Matterson weaves a multicolored fabric of substantial strength. The unorthodox organization of the book with its many detours contributes to both the strong and well-researched contextual framework of the book and to a lively and engaging portrayal of Melville.

Chapter One establishes the theme of the book around Melville’s interaction with Hawthorne, and his curious encouragement of Hawthorne to write a particular story based on material from a legal case he had heard about. The letter in which this encouragement is made, however, contains such an elaborate sketch of what the story should be, that one wonders why he should not rather write it himself. This introduces a number of central questions about Melville’s anxieties about authorship and his admiration for Hawthorne, as well as Melville’s attention to items of clothing as a key to character and identity (the legal case turns on a question of shawls). Throughout, the chapter establishes a symbolic reading of clothes based on the consideration of a variety of sources on fashion and modernity, the psychology of clothes, and dress and fashion in fiction. This chapter introduces the question of Melville’s development as a writer, and his ongoing concern with creating a living out of writing while maintaining his artistic integrity. The theme of clothing provides a metaphorical connection to this concern, in which the clothing symbolizes the tension between public and private identities. Much like those of his central characters, Matterson suggests, Melville’s struggle is ultimately also one between a public and private identity: that of popular writer and that of creative artist.

Chapter Two explores Melville’s concern with clothing through his engagement with the work of Scottish philosopher and satirist Thomas Carlyle, in particular his 1834 book Sartor Resartus (“The Tailor Re-tailored”) in which an unnamed editor provides a commentary on the manuscript of The Philosophy of Clothes, written by (the fictional) Professor Diogenes Teufelsdrockh. Teufelsdrockh’s clothes-philosophy finds clear echoes in the symbolic nature of clothes in Melville’s works, and these are explored first in the characters of White-Jacket and of Redburn, in their respective eponymous books. Both books are sea-faring novels with autobiographical cores, and both pay a great deal of attention to the symbolism of dress and uniform, in particular jackets. The character White-Jacket, for instance, is named by the rest of the crew after his jacket, which he describes as “an outlandish garment of my own devising” and which is a notable deviation from the increasing standardization of naval uniforms. His coat is both inappropriate for his station and highly personal, and it is in this tension that it contains most of its symbolism, and most of its parallels with the coat of Redburn. Wellingsborough Redburn is the unemployed son of a gentleman who finds work on a ship. He goes to sea in the wrong clothes, which include his brother’s old shooting-jacket. His inappropriate, inconsistent outfit symbolizes his inability to find a clear place for his motley, “compound” identity. Here Matterson draws parallels between Redburn’s inappropriate clothing and compounded identity, and Melville’s writing career and artistic choices. With Redburn and White-Jacket, Melville returned to the familiar narrative mode of sea-faring novels after the critical failure of the more experimental Mardi. Matterson argues that with these novels, Melville puts on a performance of popular writing that “does not fully encompass his own actuality” (67).

The subsequent chapter turns to Melville’s first novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and its central character Tommo. Tommo’s four-month stay with the Typee tribe on the Polynesian island of Nukuheva brings up fascinating questions of dress and colonialism, of civilization and nakedness, and of nakedness and tattooing. As a guest or captive of the Typee, Tommo is able to adapt well to the changes in his circumstances, and this is symbolized in his calculated changes of clothes. In this he stands out from the other characters under discussion in this book: his ability to adapt to different roles and to temporarily accommodate different identities is ultimately key to his survival. However, Tommo’s resistance to a loss of identity is symbolized clearly in his strong resistance to tattooing, which would entail a permanent alteration of his identity. Matterson’s discussion of the significance of clothing, costume, nakedness and body art in relation to colonialism, orientalism and hybridity here is particularly strong and convincing.

Chapter Four looks at the title character of Israel Potter, and Potter’s inability to adapt to changes in his circumstances forms a striking contrast with Tommo. Matterson’s elaborate exploration of this comparatively rather neglected novel provides a detailed and thoughtful introduction to the novel for the less-informed reader. Matterson makes a strong case for the value of the novel for a wider readership as well as for more critical consideration, and argues that “Israel Potter is a post-romance novel, part of a new departure for Melville, his most sustained consideration of the self in modernity” (134). Based largely on an account of the Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter by Henry Trumbull, Melville’s Israel Potter is a story of relentless displacement, dislocation from family and nation, passivity and alienation and “the loss of upward trajectory in his circumstances” (134). Potter’s various occupations, adventures, and dislocations are symbolized by changes in dress, and gradually lead to a loss of self. This loss of self is discussed in relation to Potter’s dressing in numerous disguises, such as the rags of an old ditcher, the fancy suit of a dead squire (effectively rendering him a ghost), and the clothes of a scarecrow. The downward trajectory of Potter’s fate and his increasing dislocation into non-personhood as a ghost and a scarecrow are symbolized by these changes in dress. Matterson includes a careful consideration of the implications of this loss of selfhood and alienation as a condition of modernity, and this chapter forms the climax of that particular argument.

The concluding chapter on Billy Budd does not focus so much on the character of Billy, whom Matterson describes as a relatively ‘flat’ character in the sense that his identity remains quite stable throughout the story. Instead, Matterson argues that although the figure of Billy provided the starting point for the narrative, it is rather Captain Vere who comes to be at the heart of the novel. The chapter provides a detailed outline of the complexities surrounding the nature of the manuscript, an unfinished draft that was in the middle of extensive revision when Melville died in 1891. The nature of the novel has been subject to significant changes in how it is read. Instead of working with a ‘stable’ version of the text, edited out of the raw material of the drafts, Matterson explores the shifts and the changes in direction of the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd. Via a discussion of the insignia of Admiral Horatio Nelson, the chapter considers the role of Captain Vere in the text, and the extent to which his attitude to his profession is symbolized by his naval uniform. Vere’s particular internal struggles and ambiguities mark him out as “another Melville character ill-equipped for modernity,” especially in light of notions of professionalism and bureaucracy (202). This is a tension that can also be seen in the figure of Bartleby, for instance. Matterson’s discussion of Vere centers on questions of “duty, sacrifice and truth to oneself,” and on “self-sacrifice and the cost of self-integrity” (176).

These questions relate as much to Melville himself as they do to Captain Vere. Billy Budd marked a return to prose for Melville following his retirement. After the critical and public failures of Pierre and The Confidence-Man, Melville abandoned prose writing for a period of roughly 30 years. In this period he wrote only poetry. Begun as a ballad for a volume of poetry, Billy Budd was expanded over the course of five years by Melville into a draft for a prose work.  However, this is no longer the Melville who wrote exasperated to Hawthorne in 1851 “Dollars damn me” since “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, – it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches” (Melville, qtd in Matterson, 5). Melville’s treatment of Vere’s questions of duty and sacrifice in Billy Budd, Matterson suggests, point to his ultimately attaining a more comfortable division between his private self and his public duty, and an acceptance of the demands of modernity while maintaining a certain amount of ambivalence towards it.

With this, the two aims of the book are admirably fulfilled. Matterson’s keen eye for detail and parallels, the scholarly rigor of his research and his entertaining writing style draw the reader into a considered and multifaceted portrayal of Melville and an elaborate exploration of the symbolic aspects of dress and clothing. The individual chapters provide stimulating starting points for a study of individual works, whereas the book as a whole offers a fresh and novel meditation on Melville as an author. As such, the book will be valuable to a range of readers, from undergraduate students looking for readings of individual works, to graduate students looking for inspiration for research topics and to anyone else who has a particular interest in Melville. Special mention must be made of the attractive book cover. Illustrative of the playful and eclectic style of the book, it is designed with a central drawing of Melville in his own green coat, surrounded by a playful and eclectic assortment of items of clothing.