Clothing and mutability in Melville

One Melvillean concern that I don’t think I’ve mentioned too much before—except in the context of White-Jacket—has to do with clothing. In that novel, the narrator’s white jacket seems to determine nearly all that befalls him and multiple times nearly costs him his life. In Redburn, also, clothing is important. Redburn takes great care choosing his clothes, but they are all wrong for his life as a sailor and determine how he is treated on board ship. Later, when he befriends a wealthy young man, Redburn wears his clothes and is temporarily transformed into a man about town rather than a penniless sailor. The motif occurs elsewhere, and seems closely related to issues like tattooing in both Typee and Moby-Dick.

Israel Potter abounds in costume changes, and whenever Israel dons a new set of clothes he is transformed. The first such transformation occurs during his escape from the British authorities; he exchanges his sailors’ clothes with a pauper. The pauper has only rags but Israel needs a disguise no matter what.

Israel looked suddenly metamorphosed from youth to old age; just like an old man of eighty he looked. But indeed, dull dreary adversity was now in store for him; and adversity, come it at eighteen or eighty, is the true old age of man. The dress befitted the fate.

Israel becomes a pauper, now, hiding from the authorities, sleeping in haylofts, going with hardly any food. He finds himself a job in the garden of a benevolent knight, but is too weak to work very hard until the knight takes pity, feeds him, and gives him a new set of cast-off clothes.

Later Israel will receive a very special article of clothing: shoes with false heels, to enable him to transport secret documents from sympathizers in England to Benjamin Franklin in France. His shoes have transformed him into a spy.

Israel is so used to this mode of judging men by their outfit that he hardly knows what to make of someone like John Paul Jones, who does not seem to fit the mold: “Israel thought to himself that seldom before had he seen such a being. Though dressed à-la-mode, he did not seem to be altogether civilized.”

Our hero will finally be dressed à-la-mode himself, if briefly, to provide one of the most comical moments in the book. He’s returned to his sympathizer friends in England to carry out one last round of spying, and has been secreted in an Elizabethan-era priest-hole until suspicion in the neighborhood dies down. But his benefactor fails to reappear in the allotted time, and Israel begins to fear being shut up in the walls of his house forever. He ventures out and comes to realize that his friend has suddenly died, and no one else knows Israel is there at all. His brilliant plan of escape is to dress himself in his dead friend’s clothes and simply walk out of the house. If anyone should be roused in the night they will think him a ghost. And again, he is transformed.

But after the first feeling of self-satisfaction with his anticipated success had left him, it was not without some superstitious embarrassment that Israel felt himself encased in a dead man’s broadcloth; nay, in the very coat in which the deceased had no doubt fallen down in his fit. By degrees he began to feel almost as unreal and shadowy as the shade whose part he intended to enact.

It doesn’t last; he can’t wear the clothes out and about in broad daylight, for fear of being caught, so he swaps again, this time with a scarecrow. Which he also is forced, nearly as comically, to imitate.

What is inside all these suits of clothes that can take on their characteristics, but a straw man? It is tempting to say Israel is an everyman, but I suppose more accurate to call him an anyman. You know, just like all us Americans.

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