Men in Coats - Nixon

Having experienced the dubious or mixed benefits of

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Unformatted text preview: inningStanly in Pierre (1852), which was written two years after Melville's trip to London. Having experienced the dubious or mixed benefits of "enlarged foreign travel,"Glen Stanly returns to New York a Europeanized courtier, infused with a characteristic "fastidious superciliousness"(218). McCurdyand Taylorcould equally be historicalprecursorsof the pretentiouslyoverdressed"boon companions"and "golden boys" CharlieNoble and FrankGoodman (175), who meet aboardthe Fidele and experience an almost sexualized "friendship at first sight" (160) in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). But McCurdyand the "rare oke" also offer j paradigmsfor anotherdandy and elaborate, eroticized masquerade, which, combined with Amasa Delano's A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817), make up Melville's "BenitoCereno,"of 1855. Although the effete gentleman in "Benito Cereno" is ostensibly a Spanish aristocrat, Captain Delano's response to him is, I argue here, tempered and determined by assumptions that speak less of a general American reaction to impenetrable foreign aristocraciesthan of a specifically Yankee reaction to the familiar,McCurdy-likesons of its social elite-those who might not wearwomen's a "cloak[s]&c."but whose refinement ndeffeminate mannerismsneverthelessmarkedthem as culturally and socially superior. Because the dandy was an English import,he reachedculturalprominencein Americalaterthanin England,but from at least the mid-1840s onward,he became a topic of much debate in the United States, admired and spoofed in northernmagazines.1Melville's tale, unlike Amasa Delano's Narrative, is orchestrated lmost entirely a aroundDelano's specific response to Cereno'sdandyish refinement,the lavish details of which are altogetherMelville's invention.If the earlieraccount merely presents an interplay among a cunning slave, a slippery,dishonest Spanish aristocrat,and a trustingAmericancaptain,"BenitoCereno"recapitulates that interplay as expressly and curiously sartorial-as amonga near-naked lave, a hyperbols ically overdressed aristocrat,and a sober middleclass Yankee, who is preoccupied with how he should read the dress and mannerisms of the San Dominick's captain. For Eric Sundquist,Delano's obsessions, which are focused unswervinglyon the finerpoints of etiquette and dress-on the complicated issues of cultivationand gentility-are necessarilypartof the "shadowplay,"the play of surfaces that is displaced by the imperfect repression of clues; clues may gesture obliquely to antebellum politics, to the "centraldramaof black liberation," Nicola Nixon but because they operate within the narrative"theatreof [Delano's]consciousness,"they are divested of "verticaltemporality" nd offer instead a "hemia (149-51). And yet, I suggest, Melspheric past" ville's text subverts any such reading of surface and depth, of shadow play and repression,of figurative language and buried psychoanalytic truth, and that subversion is situatedhistorically in Melville's antebellum present. Delano's absorptionin the apparentlycomplex markersof class superiority that the dandiacal Cereno exhibits is itself a clue not to deeply repressed content but to a propensity to ignore the seemingly plain and transparent, for the obverse of Cereno's overdressedbody is the slave's nakedbody-a surfacethat,unembellished with the cultural codes that signify social and political complexity, should be the easiest to interpretwithin a logic of surfaceand depth. Fromthe beginningof "BenitoCereno"Melville accentuatesthe Yankeepreoccupation ith clothes. w With perhaps a glance back to Emerson's anonymous preface to Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, Melville maps the convergenceof obfuscatoryrhetoric and dress, indulging overtly in the "gay costume" that might occlude narratorial genuineness." nd, " A in so doing, he fashions the narrativeas a sort of hermeneutic adventure, premised, to use Roland Barthes's terms, on a gradual "unveiling of the truth" (10). Delano's initial sighting of the San Dominick is, for example, couched in sartorialand self-consciously "foreign"metaphors:the captain observes vapor "mantling the hull" and the sun "wimpled"by clouds so that it resembles an "intriguante's"eye peeringthroughthe "loop-holeof her dusk saya-y-manta." s he approachesthe mysteriA ous ship, he notes the fog "raggedlyfurring"it, the "woolly" quality of the spars, and the "mourning weeds" of festooned sea grass (47-49). After Delano is established as the potential exegetical protagonist,Melville questionshis criticalacumen:his "surprise[at seeing the San Dominick] might have deepened [....] had he not been a personof a singularly undistrustful good nature [...]. Whether, in view of what humanityis capable, such a trait implies [...] more than ordinaryquickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine"(47). While vaguely noncommittal in the initial pages of the text, Melville nev- 361 ertheless make...
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