Book Review: Melville: Fashioning in Modernity by Stephen Matterson

Stephen Matterson, Melville: Fashioning in Modernity (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) Pp.232, £17.99

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Academic books and an acute sense of style are perhaps not the concepts that you would subconsciously place together. Putting things simply, Herman Melville is definitely not Oscar Wilde, and it’s exactly what forms a significant part of his appeal: harpoons and broadcloth rather than brocade and pomegranates. Before we launch into discussing the academic and literary merits of Matterson’s work per se, it has to be said that even the cover of this particular book evokes a sense of either a deliciously tongue-in-cheek literary inside joke, or else an amusing attempt to make the book more appealing to a lay reader unfamiliar with Melville’s world. Not a white whale or a wave-crest in sight, the cover brings to mind the eternally cheerful world of Glamour magazine and Shopaholic novels, featuring a rather manicured-looking drawing of Herman Melville clad in a green coat (please do note the coat, it will play a prominent part later on!) against a backdrop of cartoonish clothing items. Serious? Probably not. Intriguing? Absolutely.

In the rather brief introduction, Matterson sets out two goals which he hopes to achieve: to explore the topic of clothing and its role throughout Melville’s imaginarium (perhaps being particularly curious about dressing “wrong” or inappropriately), and also to reach out to the lay reader “who may not have thought much of Melville beyond Moby-Dick.”

Upon completion of the book, it appears that Matterson has followed closely the second goal, straying away from the former at times in order to bolster up the latter. Throughout the chapters (which are arranged, it seems, more on a sporadic whim than according to a fixed methodological framework – and yet this makes them very easy to follow even for a non-academic reader), he makes an effort to portray Melville and his life in an engaging and vivid manner. This he succeeds with great flair, even if he needs at times to revert to facts which a Melvillean scholar would find only too familiar (such as the description of Billy and Claggart’s relationship in the final chapter dedicated to Billy Budd). However, even an academic well-versed in the particulars of Melville’s biography would undoubtedly relish fascinating tiny snippets and personal anecdotes cropping up throughout the text here and there, and making the venerable figure of the writer more tangible; such as “the discomfort [which] arises from his choice of a green jacket to wear” upon a trip to London, or his penchant for what is somewhat vaguely dubbed as “Oriental” dress. It is quite worthwhile picking up Matterson’s book for those little gems alone, and watch as Melville’s portrait becomes more multi-dimensional and warm.

It would be a safe assumption that Matterson has prepared something for everyone (and it is not limited to entertaining references to subjects as diverse as Margaret Atwood or tattooed Barbie dolls), which is all the more commendable, given the relatively short length of the book. For those interested by unsolved literary mysteries the first chapter alludes at length to the unexplained and utterly absorbing “Agatha story” case concerning the puzzling fate of little-discussed The Isle of the Cross, which, it must be pointed out, has not been discussed in great detail before. Without wishing to divulge the essence of the matter, it has to be pointed out that this story throws more light on the relationship between Melville and N. Hawthorne, and offers a perfect starting-point for a more detailed exploration, possibly in the form of a monograph or a PhD thesis.

A separate mention should be reserved for Matterson’s choosing to explore in detail two texts which are not commonly discussed as much as Melville’s other, more well-known works; or namely, Israel Potter and Redburn. As the scholarship on those novels, and particularly on the former, is scant, Matterson manages to achieve an important feat: to draw a lay reader or a prospective scholar’s attention to the path less travelled, and at the same time, offer a well-detailed and precise initial analysis of the texts, as a potential starting point for deeper investigation. Perhaps it is this reviewer’s personal opinion, but it seems almost a pity that Pierre, also seemingly relatively unexplored apart from B. Higgins and H. Parker’s thorough study, is not mentioned as much by Matterson – although undoubtedly it would have made a stellar addition to the main body of the book.

Another trait that sets Matterson’s work apart from the rest, is the constantly changing focus that he chooses to adopt. From concentrating on the minute yet all-important details in Melville’s life, he may then take a leap of faith and present a broad and lucid vision, whilst striving to thoroughly explain the historical background to the texts being discussed. In the chapter analysing Billy Budd, for instance, we are given a thorough and exciting overview of what everyday realities (albeit pertaining chiefly to the matters of dress) would have been like for sailors and officers in Nelson’s era. After all, costume is a composite part of what makes reality.

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Matterson’s line of thinking throughout the book stresses that, suggesting that apart from the purely superficial purpose of echoing a character’s background or motives, clothing, dress or costume serves as a centremost part of identity, which may be adopted, bestowed, or indeed “fashioned” at will. It is not a permanent fixture, but a transitional and fleeting one, which (as the chapter discussing Israel Potter shows particularly well) undergoes constant adaptation to what is reality, or, in author’s terms, modernity. Be it a discourse on military uniforms (as it is in case with Billy Budd), or a comparative analysis of traditional Pacific ways and garb and the imposed European modes (in Typee and Omoo) where each serves to “claim” the individual as part of the community it represents, the undercurrent is clear enough: clothes may sometimes make the man according to a particular purpose, yet they are essentially only masks chosen and discarded, whilst concealing what can be described elusively as “self.” Even being a writer, Matterson implies, “requires a change of clothing” each time.

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Melville’s ‘Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life’ was published in 1846

In short, it must be said that Melville: fashioning in Modernity is a somewhat unusual book, and a rather great one at that, notwithstanding the fact that it does not adhere to the usual scholarly outline. Whilst the outward design and the lively written style may presuppose a certain degree of naivety, it manages to deliver a concise and lucid study of a respectable academic topic, as well as draw attention to the less-illuminated aspects of Melville’s universe and works that are, to put it simply, begging to be studied. Therefore, one group who would probably find this book of most use are neither “general” readers or established academics, but rather students, undergraduate or postgraduate, seeking to become more familiar with Melville and the meaning of his works, or maybe even searching for a topic of a research project. Meanwhile, for everybody else, Matterson’s book offers a perfect combination of well-researched basics, exciting details and multitudinous opportunities for further enquiry.

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About Olga Ackroyd

I am an independent researcher, graduated from Queen Mary, University of London, and University of Oxford, and I am currently gathering materials for a prospective PhD thesis on moral relativism and perception of evil as a social construct in a comparative analysis of USA and Russia in the 19th century. My key interests include USA-Russian relations from the antebellum period to the present day, presidential philosophy, and the life and works of Herman Melville.
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