The Confidence Man


First of all, the Partnership Celebration was amazing! Everything went smoothly, and it was even more meaningful and full of love than I could have imagined. Thanks to everyone for your good wishes, and I will link to pictures as soon as our photographer posts them. And now, on to books:

Well, my attempts to read realist fiction this month are so far zero for two, although I'm certainly taking in some interesting texts. After the unexpected magical elements of Tim Winton's Cloudstreet, I thought I might go in for some Melville. Nineteenth-century American maritime novels: what could be more straightforward? I didn't realize, though, that The Confidence Man, which was waiting on my to-be-read shelf, is late Melville. Published in 1857, it is in fact sometimes labeled his last "major" work. And as anyone who has read Bartleby the Scrivener or even Moby-Dick can attest, Melville got steadily more experimental and allegorical as his career progressed, to the point where he was way too weird for his contemporaries, and began prefiguring Modernist preoccupations with absurdism, nihilism, and all my other favorite literary modes from which I'm trying unsuccessfully to take a break this month. The Confidence Man extends this tendency to, perhaps, its logical conclusion: set on a Mississippi steamboat on April Fool's Day, it's an extended allegory that methodically questions our decisions about the people, ideas, and circumstances in which we repose confidence and trust. There is almost no plot as such: the narrative is composed primarily of dialogues between two or three passengers, one of whom is attempting to secure the confidence of the other.

The novel opens in the morning of April 1 (which was also its original publication date), and one of the first scenes features a crippled black man begging passers-by for change. Soon enough, a white man with a wooden leg happens along and aggressively accuses the beggar of being a fraud, a white man in black-face who is faking his injuries. When a sympathetic clergyman asks if anyone on board the steamer can vouch for the beggar's character, the black man gives the following references:

Oh yes, oh yes, dar is aboard here a werry nice, good ge'mman wid a weed, and a ge'mman in a grey coat and white tie, what knows all about me, and a ge'mman wid a big book, too; and a yarb-doctor; and a ge'mman in a yaller west; and a ge'mman wid a brass plate; and a ge'mman in a wiolet robe; and a ge'mman as is a sodjer; and ever so many good, kind, honest ge'mman more aboard what knows me and will speak for me, God bress 'em...

This paragraph goes on to form the backbone of the entire novel. The reader meets each of the men mentioned by the beggar in succession, and in the order he gives: first the man with the mourning weed, then the grey-coated charity collector; then the employee of a coal company, who carries a big stock-book with him; then an herb-doctor; and so on. In each case, the man mentioned by the cripple interacts with the other passengers and attempts to gain their confidence for one cause or another. The man with the weed, for example, has a hard-luck story and could do with a few dollars; the man with the grey coat is collecting for charities; the man with the book just happens to have a time-sensitive opportunity for financial investment; the herb-doctor is peddling a concoction that may or may not be a miracle cure. Some of these men push their wares on their fellow-passengers, but most do not: the other passengers hear about one of these men from another, and actively seek them out (for example, a merchant who ends up investing with the coal-company man, first hears about him from the man with the weed). In this way, the relationships among the different characters are interlinked, and form a kind of chain along which the narrative progresses.

There is one big "spoiler" in The Confidence Man, and even though I figured out what was going on within the first 50 pages, I don't want to give it away. However, it's also the main point of the book, so I'm going to write about it under a veil. Highlight and read at your discretion.

As you may have realized already due to the Clark Kent-ish "never seen in the same frame" characteristic of the black beggar, the man with the weed, the man with the book, the herb-doctor, etc., the big April Fool's joke is that all these people are the same man—the "confidence man" of the title. Throughout the day, he takes on different guises in order to test peoples' confidence in different aspects of society—in the honesty of a hard-up stranger; in the efficacy of a miracle cure, the basic goodness of children, and so on. His basic move, repeated in a variety of ways, is to pit peoples' desire to believe themselves and other humans "good," against the common sense which makes them wary of handing over their money to a complete stranger. In each particular instance, one's sympathy might be with the confidence man, and with the desire to believe that strangers are, overall, trustworthy and honorable. Knowing that the same man is enacting all of these personae, of course, makes each one a joke—a joke that gets steadily darker as the novel progresses and the "cons" strike ever closer to peoples' core beliefs.

The really interesting thing about the experience of reading The Confidence Man is that even though the reader is conscious, based on the title and the events, that some kind of con-job is in progress, she still goes through the process of questioning her own assumptions about confidence in humanity. At the beginning, when the old curmudgeon is accusing the crippled black man of being a counterfeit, my sympathy is all on the side of the beggar—who would be so cynical as to assume that a poor cripple is perpetrating an elaborate hoax on his fellow-passengers, all for the sake of a few coins? I agree, initially, with the man in mourning when he laments how suspicious people have become of their fellows. Yet, as the story goes on, one's sympathy gradually shifts away from the advocates of unadulterated confidence. One realizes that a militant insistence on confidence, one that refuses to recognize the darker impulses of human nature, paradoxically allows just those dark, cruel impulses to thrive. In one scene, two new-found friends are toasting to the innocent and confidence-inducing act of laughter, when one of the friends starts laughing at a poor club-footed boy dressed in rags on the bottom deck. The other friend cites this as an example of the laugher's good faith, but of course in reality it's just mean.

The prime example, though, and one I'm still not sure about vis-à-vis Melville's intentions, are the chapters on "Indian-hating." By any modern standard these chapters are very racist, and I'm betting they're one reason this book isn't more widely read. Basically, one character tells another the story of Colonel John Moredock, who is kindly to his family and to white people in general, but goes out killing Indians for sport. It includes passages like the following:

Moredock was an example of something apparently self-contradicting, certainly curious, but, at the same time, undeniable; namely, that nearly all Indian-haters have at bottom loving hearts; at any rate, hearts, if anything, more generous than the average.

Or this one, on why the Colonel refused to run for governor of Illinois, despite being begged to do so:

In his official capacity he might be called upon to enter into friendly treaties with Indian tribes, a thing not to be thought of. And even did no such contingency arise, yet he felt there would be an impropriety in the Governor of Illinois stealing out now and then, during a recess of the legislative bodies, for a few days' shooting at human beings, within the limits of his paternal chief-magistrancy. If the governorship offered large honors, from Moredock it demanded larger sacrifices.

Granted, this whole novel is a multi-layered and complex satire, but the above is fairly breathtaking in its sympathy for a person who goes out hunting other people for sport. Is it supposed to be striking in that way? The level of white sympathy for Indians in 1857 was not high, and yet Melville seems to know that his character is making a bold claim when he argues that Moredock should be admired. I think the point Melville is making here is that putting the most sympathetic, forgiving construction on peoples' actions is sometimes the wrong decision, and that there are some actions that simply deserve to be condemned—making the indiscriminate "confidence" peddled by the beggar's reference list suspect. However, the author's treatment of the subject still reads very oddly to modern ears, and displays the prejudices of the day regarding American history (for example, that native people, rather than government officials, were the primary treaty-breakers).

All in all, an unusual and thought-provoking read, if not precisely the sea-going adventure tale I was expecting. Although long-winded at times, it features a few scenes (including the last one) which are downright chilling (not to mention a satisfying send-up of two self-satisfied philosophers based on my old nemeses Emerson and Thoreau!). I'm not sure I would recommend The Confidence Man generally, but for those who like "novels of ideas," I'd say it's worthwhile.


  • Can't wait to see those photos. And congratulations again!

    Started laughing when you remind us here of how weird Melville got. You let the guarded secret out of the bag! Like the blatant racism here. The concept of confidence men and women in 19thc American lit rests so much in scripting (and distorting, perverting) notions of the American identity so it is funny to think about how Melville's identity has been protected this long as well.

    I would be interested in reading this at some point so I skipped the veiled section (a feature I thought especially clever) but not for a while.

  • Frances: Haha, I was just looking at Melville's Wikipedia article and chuckled at this sentence:

    Indeed, The New York Day Book on 8 September 1852 published a venomous attack on Melville and his writings headlined HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY.

    And that was still five years before The Confidence Man! :-)

    I'd definitely be curious to talk with another reader about this book, so if/when you ever get around to it, I'll be around for a chat.

  • I've got this book because of the Emerson and Thoreau bits and read the introduction about a year ago but then got sidetracked and never got to the book. I'm still planning on getting to it and hopefully will this year but you never know. The Melville headline you found cracked me up.

    Glad to hear your Partnership Celebration was everything and more than you hoped for. Looking forward to the photos!

  • I'm really looking forward to getting to The Confidence Man in my current read-through of all Melville's works, in order. (Right now I'm taking a break before re-reading Moby-Dick, so I'm getting there.) I do especially love weird Melville, too.

  • I'm glad the celebration went well -- congratulations! I have read distressingly little in 19th-century American Lit, given all my time in grad school for English. Oh, well. This is one I haven't gotten to, and I'm not entirely sure I will. I do like novels of ideas, though -- and one never knows, right?

  • Stefanie: The Emerson/Thoreau satires were fun - very involved, though! He basically depicts Emerson as completely incomprehensible, and Thoreau as his heard-hearted but line-towing toady. :-) Dress photos to come!

    Nicole: Wow, all Melville in order! That's a lot more Melville than I think I want to read, but good for you. This is plenty weird so you may really enjoy it. :-)

  • Dorothy: Yeah, I wouldn't put it at the top of your to-be-read stack. I actually wish I'd read it with a class, though, because there's a lot of meat here, and I would be very curious about different peoples' reactions and which parts set off different peoples' brains. Parts of it were very interesting to me and other parts totally dragged, and I kind of suspect that would be true for everyone but that it wouldn't be the same parts for all readers (if that makes sense). Anyway, one never knows. That's for sure.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography