My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This 1857 novel, Melville’s last, aside from the unfinished and posthumously published Billy Budd, takes place in a single setting—a Mississippi steamboat called the Fidèle—over the course of one day, April 1, All Fools’ Day. It begins most mysteriously—
At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a man in cream-colors, at the water-side in the city of St. Louis.
—and proceeds with no less mystery. It consists mostly of philosophical dialogues, endless talk, seas of chatty verbiage, half demotic, half grandiose, often obscure. It is difficult to read; the style is strange—a minor character, for instance, is described almost entirely by negation. It is often very funny. The identities of its characters are at times unclear, and their ideologies are unstable. These characters, or the author, appear to mock, or to mockingly endorse, many of the ideological currents of the period.
The novel hints that it is some kind of allegory: allusions to the Bible and to Shakespeare are unremitting, and some of the characters appear to be based on Melville’s contemporaries (among them: Poe, Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau). The quickest glance at the voluminous body of criticism on the novel—and the quickest glance is admittedly all I took—shows that there’s no real agreement on what any of it means. Is Melville for or against Christianity, for or against democracy, for or against abolitionism, for or against Romanticism, for or against America? As in the novel, so about the novel: you’ll find someone willing to argue every side.
A brief summary, one that makes the novel sound simpler than it is, would go like this. A confidence-man boards the Fidèle and proceeds to don various disguises: he is by turns a black beggar, a man in mourning, a man in a gray suit, an herb-doctor, an agent for a personnel office, a richly-dressed cosmopolitan, and more. So disguised, he draws his shipmates into various philosophical conversations usually terminating in his request for money. These requests often have a charitable pretext: the black beggar pleads poverty, the man in mourning tells a sad tale of being abused by his late wife and needing to reunite with his daughter, the man in the gray suit claims to be collecting money for Seminole widows and orphans. At other times he sells a good or a service, like the supposed medicines of the herb doctor or the employees the Intelligence Office man promises to hire out. In several of the guises, he promotes stock in the Black Rapids Coal Company; prices are currently at a low, but will, he promises, rise again.
The main topic of his conversation is “confidence,” or faith, in the basic goodness of other people and the universe. By upbraiding his interlocutors for their lack of such confidence when they question his pleas of need or charity or service, he entices them with an optimistic morality to pledge their belief in him. He doesn’t do it for money exactly; as one character observes:
“Money, you think, is the sole motive to pains and hazard, deception and deviltry, in this world. How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?”
But still, this is a novel suffused with talk of money and exchange, interest and credit; the economic seems to stand symbolically for some value more intangible, as money always does.
Many critics seem to think the Confidence-Man represents the devil, looking to enroll souls in his ledger, and the infernal-sounding name of the Black Rapids Coal Company certainly supports the reading. But the first chapter gives us the Confidence-Man as a messianic figure: Manco Capac was the founder of the Inca civilization, and the Confidence-Man’s first appearance as a mute dressed in white, bearing a New Testament message, and compared to a lamb, suggests Christ. Melville, an admirer of Milton and composer of a gnostic poem, might well have regarded Satan himself in just such a light—as redeemer, liberator, hero. One question the novel poses might be this: can we distinguish between Jesus and Satan, between redeemer and revolutionary?
As in Melville’s other fictions, this one insists upon the instability of all meaning. It hints at allegorical equations—the Confidence-Man equals Satan—that it also undermines. Melville did not wait to be told by 20th-century literary theorists that allegory calls attention to the arbitrariness and fragmentariness of surface meanings in the very act of referring them to some higher significance.
In one scene, the Confidence-Man is arguing with a bluff Missouri misanthrope, a man somewhat like the persona Melville dons in his literary manifesto, “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” The Missouri man and the Confidence-Man (here guised as the Intelligence Office agent, trying to persuade the Missourian to hire a boy) have been debating Wordsworth’s metaphor “the child is father to the man.” The Missouri man claims that this means even a good boy will become a bad man since the human race is essentially corrupt, while the Confidence-Man challenges the metaphor by replacing it with one of organic growth and development rather than linear descent. Finally, the plain-spoken Missourian objects:
“But is analogy argument? You are a punster.”
“Punster, respected sir?” with a look of being aggrieved.
“Yes, you pun with ideas as another man may with words.”
“Oh well, sir, whoever talks in that strain, whoever has no confidence in human reason, whoever despises human reason, in vain to reason with him. Still, respected sir,” altering his air, “permit me to hint that, had not the force of analogy moved you somewhat, you would hardly have offered to contemn it.”
Analogy may not be argument, but strictly rational argument cannot exist in language, or in life. Who was ever persuaded by reason alone? (Who was ever even persuaded of anything vital? We are only ever converted.) And who can reason with words, as if words were simply tokens shorn of history, connotation, and potential? The Confidence-Man’s remark about reason both is and isn’t ironic: faith in human reason is faith in all that is inextricably tied to it: passion, taste, interest, art. Which is to say, the irrational.
If the Confidence-Man is a devil, he is a dialectical one, like Goethe’s, provoking people to interrogate their assumptions and thereby potentially drawing them back to the true good. The true good can never merely be said, for language will always fail to signify or signify too richly; it must be enacted. The most devilish thing the Confidence-Man does is to substitute money—the language of value, in all senses—for such action: give a black beggar a coin instead of abolishing racism and poverty. But some of his interlocutors understand true good, at least intermittently. Back to the Missouri man, for instance, who reproves the Confidence-Man for being too nonchalant about slavery:
“You are an abolitionist, ain’t you?”
“As to that, I cannot so readily answer. If by abolitionist you mean a zealot, I am none; but if you mean a man, who, being a man, feels for all men, slaves included, and by any lawful act, opposed to nobody’s interest, and therefore, rousing nobody’s enmity, would willingly abolish suffering (supposing it, in its degree, to exist) from among mankind, irrespective of color, then am I what you say.”
“Picked and prudent sentiments. You are the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man. You, the moderate man, may be used for wrong, but are useless for right.”
The Confidence-Man uses the right words, but anyone can use them. Who will do right? (What, by the way, did Herman Melville do about slavery? As far as I know, about as much as I’m doing about slavery today: nothing.) Most of the doing we hear of in the novel is wrong: for instance, a long interpolated tale tells of an “Indian-hater,” a man religiously devoted to killing Native Americans in requital for an attack on his family. This fanaticism in hate is balanced, which is to say imbalanced, by the Confidence-Man’s farcical charitable efforts on behalf of Seminole widows and orphans, just as the discussion of slavery above is imbalanced by the Confidence-Man’s minstrel-show imposture of a black beggar (a scene that carries even further Melville’s intimation in Benito Cereno that racist caricatures are projections of the white psyche). As a later literary extremist wrote:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Despite the late Philip Roth’s suggestion that The Confidence-Man is a prophetic satire on the current American president’s style of showmanship, much of the novel is instead a send-up of the liberalism of Melville’s day. Melville accuses liberalism of patronizing the objects of its sentimental attention and for disappearing into its own abstruse philosophies that are only humane in theory but leave the world no better than before. This latter theme surfaces in the novel’s bitterly Swiftian attack on the Transcendentalists, represented by the mystic Mark Winsome (i.e., Emerson) and his follower Egbert (i.e. Thoreau), who preach an idealist gospel about human perfectibility. This Transcendentalism, in its doctrine of self-reliance, ends up forbidding mutual assistance and ratifying exploitation on the grounds that all true relationships between sovereign souls stand above material reality. Such satire represents a very unfair reading on Melville’s part of two great, complex writers, but, from excessive contact with the left-wing intelligentsia of my own time, I surmise that it’s a direct hit at how many Transcendentalists actually conducted themselves, literary merit notwithstanding.
The Confidence-Man contains three interpolated chapters of metafictional reflection. I will consider them in reverse order. The third discusses the creation of “original characters” in fiction—Melville’s examples are Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Milton’s Satan. He claims that such characters are found, not made, by writers observing the pageant of humanity around them. The original character, continues Melville,
is like a revolving Drummond light, raying away from itself all round it—everything is lit by it, everything starts up to it (mark how it is with Hamlet), so that, in certain minds, there follows upon the adequate conception of such a character, an effect, in its way, akin to that which in Genesis attends upon the beginning of things.
The Confidence-Man, like Captain Ahab and Bartleby before him, is an animating force in his universe, illuminating the life of the supporting players. Ahab, Bartleby, and the Confidence-Man incite Ishmael and the attorney and the Missouri man to declare themselves, but these ungodly, godlike men remain, like all sources of light, blinding and inscrutable.
The second metafictional reflection, my own favorite, defends literary inventiveness in the novel. While the original character is painted from life, the painting is a painting, just as words always over-signify. Audiences, therefore, should not expect fidelity (certainly not on the Fidèle) to everyday life when they sit down with a book. Why read a novel if not to escape from the quotidian?
It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.
We could take that last remark cynically—religion is fictional—but I propose we reverse the meaning: this fiction, perhaps all serious fiction, is religious. The first metafictional interpolation hints, in retrospect, at this novel’s religious significance. In the little manifesto—and in all three of these meta chapters, scholars have pointed out, Melville can be heard replying to the critics who responded with charges of lunacy to Moby-Dick and Pierre—Melville dwells on the problem that audiences expect characters to be consistent when people in real life are not:
But though there is a prejudice against inconsistent characters in books, yet the prejudice bears the other way, when what seemed at first their inconsistency, afterwards, by the skill of the writer, turns out to be their good keeping. The great masters excel in nothing so much as in this very particular. They challenge astonishment at the tangled web of some character, and then raise admiration still greater at their satisfactory unraveling of it; in this way throwing open, sometimes to the understanding even of school misses, the last complications of that spirit which is affirmed by its Creator to be fearfully and wonderfully made.
The greatest writers, Melville argues, make a unity of inconsistency, revealing by the end of their books that their inconsistent originals were of a piece all along. What about the Confidence-Man? How can he, despite the fact that we never see him in his own person, whatever that might be, resolve into consistency?
I would suggest—provisionally, given this novel’s extraordinary irrealism and inexplicable allegory and endless wordplay—that the Confidence-Man’s quest for confidence, for faith, becomes less facetious and more desperate at the novel wears on. (The final chapter is titled “The Cosmopolitan Increases in Seriousness.”) When he pleads with Egbert the Transcendentalist to make room in his coldly idealist philosophy for friendship and charity, we can hear a genuine anguish at the indifference spreading west across America, overtaking the modern world.
If irony is a reversal of meaning, we might reverse the novel’s allegory: what if it is about an earnest spiritual quester (the Confidence-Man) encountering in guise after guise after guise all the ways that modern America dismisses or quashes or co-opts the quest? The ship, Melville tells us early on, is no less allegorical than the anti-hero. It represents the collective journey of all humankind:
As among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, or those oriental ones crossing the Red Sea towards Mecca in the festival month, there was no lack of variety. Natives of all sorts, and foreigners; men of business and men of pleasure; parlor men and backwoodsmen; farm-hunters and fame-hunters; heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters. Fine ladies in slippers, and moccasined squaws; Northern speculators and Eastern philosophers; English, Irish, German, Scotch, Danes; Santa Fé traders in striped blankets, and Broadway bucks in cravats of cloth of gold; fine-looking Kentucky boatmen, and Japanese-looking Mississippi cotton-planters; Quakers in full drab, and United States soldiers in full regimentals; slaves, black, mulatto, quadroon; modish young Spanish Creoles, and old-fashioned French Jews; Mormons and Papists Dives and Lazarus; jesters and mourners, teetotalers and convivialists, deacons and blacklegs; hard-shell Baptists and clay-eaters; grinning negroes, and Sioux chiefs solemn as high-priests. In short, a piebald parliament, an Anacharsis Cloots congress of all kinds of that multiform pilgrim species, man.
As with all anti-heroes, the Confidence-Man’s villainy is true heroism in a sick society. The novel ends with a hallucinatory, almost surrealist, scene: the Confidence-Man confers with an old man about the more despairing passages of the Bible under a Biblically-decorated solar lamp in the ship’s sleeping quarters, while recumbent men cry out of the darkness—
“And so you have good news there, sir—the very best of good news.”
“Too good to be true,” here came from one of the curtained berths.
“Hark!” said the cosmopolitan. “Some one talks in his sleep.”
When the solar lamp goes out on the last page, it is if any possibility for human redemption has been extinguished. As one of the disturbed sleepers cries out, mishearing the old man and the Confidence-Man discussing Biblical apocrypha, “What’s that about the Apocalypse?” There is much in this novel that I do not claim to understand, much that is possibly not meant to be understood given Melville’s lack of faith in language, but the half-awakened man’s question is the question The Confidence-Man leaves each of its exhilaratedly or exhaustedly baffled readers. We are all like the almost nauseatingly loquacious characters in this metaphysically seasick novel: talking in our sleep about the end (both telos and terminus) of the world.
Does this confusion render us “moderate men,” lost in a labyrinth of relative ideas, wishing good to all and doing good to none? Or does it impel us to action, to strike through the world’s mask, whatever the price? “Something further may follow of this Masquerade,” the novel concludes—or fails to.