By Herman Melville
Edited by Hershel Parker
and Mark Niemeyer
Norton. 505 pp. $13.75
Reviewed by Roger K. Miller
For Herman Melville, the Original Confidence Man was the snake in the Garden of Eden - Satan, the source of original sin. An instinctively religious man and profound student of the Bible, he knew that according to Christian tradition Satan can assume countless forms, and in
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade
Melville has him do just that, to tell a provocative tale about America in the middle of the 19th century.
, marking its 150th anniversary this year, was Melville's last published work of prose. Coming out in 1857, when the nation was in one of its periodic financial "panics" and his own finances were at poverty level, it earned him little.
It is a dazzling and at the same time maddeningly frustrating work - dazzling because of what it accomplishes, frustrating because of the difficulties in accessing it. As the editors of this Norton Critical Edition point out, more than most 19th-century novels
requires explanatory footnotes to understand its religious, classical and historical references. This edition bristles with footnotes.
The novel, a satirical allegory, fully rewards the effort needed to appreciate it. Set aboard a Mississippi steamboat, it follows a shape-shifting impostor who appears in various guises, engaging passengers in philosophical discussions about confidence, trust and human nature.
Always he asks the passenger for a "confidence" of some financial type - a donation, purchase or loan. The devil, a gentleman, always asks - as we know from the demonic or satanic figures in scary movies and novels who must seek your permission to enter your house - with the purpose of destroying your life and soul.
Most give the confidence man what he wants; he then changes his appearance, and the cycle begins anew. The exact number of shapes he takes is as elusive as he is, but they are never frightening - the devil is also no fool - and include a deaf man, a crippled black man, a gloomy widower, a collector for charities, a transfer agent, an herbalist, an employment office representative, and a cosmopolitan traveler.
(There was an actual original confidence trickster, operating on the streets of New York and other cities, for whom a newspaperman in 1849 coined the term "confidence man." It is quite likely that Melville knew of him through widespread newspaper accounts.)
So much is going on in here that it cannot be contained even in the helpful analyses at the back of this volume, much less in a short review, but in my view there are two main species of chicanery being satirized. One is capitalist, the other cosmic.
It is nothing less than a parable of the United States' rickety market economy. One perceptive London review in 1857 called the novel a satire of the American "money-getting spirit."
This was a time, for instance, when the country had no uniform national currency, but existed in a chaos of thousands of different bank notes issued by hundreds of different state-chartered (and too-often shaky) banks. This gave rise to widespread counterfeiting and other forms of fraud.
This lunacy of legal tender is captured in the final scene, one of the novel's best, wherein the confidence man gleefully watches an older man as he anxiously tries to determine whether some bank notes he received in St. Louis are genuine or counterfeit. Finally he cannot, and on this note of desperation and uncertainty the novel ends.
Overriding this, however, is a sort of updating of John Bunyan's spiritual allegory,
The Pilgrim's Progress
. The confidence man's - Satan's - true purpose is to enter souls into his log (symbolized by the transfer agent's transfer-book).
Melville subtly sends several messages. One is that Christianity, partly because of the influence of Transcendentalism, is not alive in America.
His wholesale indictment of American confidence, taking the word as it is applied to both swindling and self-satisfaction, reflects his scorn for heedless optimism and, like Bunyan's, for seeking the easy way to heaven. Throughout he makes a distinction between the accommodating morality "of this world" (a term that appears many times) and otherworldly morality (voiced in the Sermon on the Mount), which Melville thought represented the only kind of Christianity worth pursuing. Hence, to him, Christianity, however desirable, was impracticable.
So is it a "ship of fools" floating down the Mississippi this April Fool's Day? Perhaps there is a clue, albeit (fittingly) ambiguous, in the steamboat's name - Fidele ("Faithful"). In
The Pilgrim's Progress
, which Melville knew backward and forward, the wayfarer Faithful is executed by the people of Bunyan's Vanity Fair.