Friday, August 14, 2015

*The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Penguin, 1990
351 pp
(originally published 1857)


"Something further may follow of this Masquerade."


That nice little word that describes so much in such a short breath  represents the long and short of how I feel about reading The Confidence-Man.  I had such a good time with the first part of this book, but by the time it was over I was ready to be done with it.  My reasoning behind choosing this novel was that it all took place along the Mississippi River, a setting further west than my reading's taken me to this point.

The action in this book takes place in one day, most notably on April 1, so right at the outset you get the idea that some sort of mayhem might be in store. The setting is a journey from St. Louis to New Orleans aboard a riverboat called Fidèle.  As the introduction states, "The Mississipi is the artery of trade and commerce, the symbol of manifest destiny, as well as the division between slave states and free;" the ship itself, with its landings, embarkations and disembarkations, is a great vehicle for bringing all manner of people together, most of whom are likely never to meet again.   But it also calls our attention to the different types of people on board, the "Anacharsis Cloots congress of that multiform pilgrim species, man," which together with the riverboat, signify the
 "dashing and all-fusing spirit of the West, whose type is the Mississippi itself, which, uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pours them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide." 
 The first part focuses on a series of encounters between various confidence men and the people who ended up as their victims; the second part (chapter 24 onward) dispenses with the ongoing series of scam artists and centers on just one main character, Frank Goodman, aka "The Cosmopolitan."  However, it is pretty easy to figure out that the confidence-men at work aboard the Fidèle just might be the same man, hence one meaning of the subtitle "His Masquerade." He has several incarnations, including a "grotesque negro cripple" named Guinea, the president and transfer-agent for a coal company, a solicitor of donations for the recently-founded Seminole Widows and Orphans society, an herb doctor who pushes his "Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator;" still another has a grand plan for taxing everyone to support a World Charity as a measure of bringing a "Wall Street spirit" to the act of charity, and the list goes on.  The main thing about this character, despite his many iterations, is that he manages to sucker both trusting and distrusting passengers -- he is saying in effect that if they distrust him, it only goes to prove that they are suspicious toward all other human beings, and that is really no way to exist. Conversely, if they have a trusting nature toward all men, then they must naturally trust him. Distrusters, as Frank Goodman ironically notes, "stab at the very soul of confidence."

A number of contemporary social issues come to the fore in this novel -- slavery, the public's reliance on and confidence placed in patent medicine, man vs. the machine in the growth of industrialization, philanthropic  reforms to help better society's ills, and capitalism, to name a few. The frontier experience is also touched on here, as for example in the story of the "Indian-hater," where it seems that the author expounds on the thin line that separates civilization from "savagery, although I have to say that it's tough to believe any of these stories-within-a-story at face value.  Melville also takes a few digressions away from his story to bring his readers into his thoughts on  fiction writing, most especially about the creation of characters, but perhaps even more important are his ideas regarding truth.     I also get the sense that through the figure of the Confidence-man himself,  the author is trying to show the disconnect between appearance and reality.  Applied to an increasingly-growing nation, this could signify his concerns about the "masquerade" going on in American life.  It might also be that he sees some sort of existential crisis facing the nation as beliefs slip and slide.  The back-cover blurb also gives a clue, saying that The Confidence Man
"finds form for the idea that, if our beliefs are shifting and uncertain, we at least have fiction."
Since I'm not a true Melville aficionado (and to me, that's an okay thing)  I know I didn't even touch the surface of what lays underneath in this novel, so let me point you to a few people who actually know what they're talking about and whose opinions are way better than mine:

Uncredited, "The Confidence-Man" from Columbia University
Zack Friedman, "Prose and Cons

Anyway, when all is said and done, I'm glad I read it, but it's definitely not a favorite. Quite frankly, it was exhausting and I'm still not sure that I came away with any sort of deep understanding.  But I finished it, and that's a major achievement when all I really wanted to do was put it down.  I give myself pats on the back. 


  1. Wow that makes me want to read it! Thanks for posting. I grew up in MN and had a boat on the river as a kid so it reminds me of that (although we often went on the St. Croix). I found you on Goodreads and enjoy your reviews!

    1. Thank you!

      This book was a bit of a slogfest and a challenge at the same time, so beware!


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