The Confidence-Man’s Masquerade, and a Voyage Thither

The Confidence-Man was Melville’s first published novel-length work after Pierre, and like in Pierre we get a new setting. We’re on the water again, but this time on a Mississippi riverboat, headed down from St. Louis to New Orleans. The novel is most briefly and most often described as a series of conversations between passengers on the boat, including a “confidence-man” who changes disguises some seven times. Structurally, there is much more going on than that, but such will suffice for today.

The confidence-man, be he devil, Jesus, or some other supernatural being (or, perhaps, simply a confidence-man?), gets into more or less philosophical discussions with the other passengers on the cruise under the cover of his various confidence schemes. Just as Melville harped on blankness in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” here he harps on confidence: “confide,” “confidence,” and “confident,” and various other forms of the word, appear well over 200 times in the text (that’s based on a quick and dirty count; I suspect the number is actually much higher). The main thread of discussion is whether the confidence-man’s interlocutors have confidence in their fellow men, or whether they have only distrust.

Put aside for a moment what that might mean—after all, people have been arguing over it for over a hundred years now. It’s the way all these discussions occur that interests me today. A large chunk of the novel is devoted to dialogues, mostly metaphysical. The reader must keep track of a large number of variables. The confidence-man himself changes; not all readers even agree on exactly who among the cast is, underneath it all, the confidence-man. Once his avatar is identified, his interlocutor must be placed among the rest of the passengers that have come and gone throughout the novel. Sometimes those other passengers also speak to each other, without the confidence-man around. And the various avatars of the confidence-man take on slightly different opinions, or at least different ways of expressing those opinions, depending on who they “are” and who they are speaking to.

This complicated dialogic structure immediately reminded me of Mardi, with its long sections of conversation (usually including more than two people, however), on canoes paddling around Mardi and on the various islands the main group lands at. Back when I wrote about Mardi‘s disputes about religion, Amateur Reader commented that he “gave up on really sorting out the disputants” when he read it. Definitely a danger there, and likewise a danger in The Confidence-Man. I must say, my own seriousness did not hold up as well here, though I think that’s partly because The Confidence-Man is simpler and more enjoyable to read—certainly an improvement on Mardi in this and many other respects.

So things are slippery, and I could tell a lot of them slid through my fingers. Not that I minded. This is certainly a new favorite Melville for me and will bear much re-reading. And there’s still plenty of goodness to share with you all this week.

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