Interpolated in The Confidence-Man are three chapters where the narrator steps back from the riverboat to expound on theories of writing fiction. These are, of course, for the Melville fanatic, an irresistible glimpse into his thoughts about writing, and a much better one than we get in Pierre, which is too full of bile and unseriousness.
These chapters largely concern character, in the context of a demand for realism. This was a major complaint against Melville in his day. Reviewers insisted on thinking of him as the writer of Typee and Omoo no matter how many times he tried to show them that he was really the writer of Mardi and Moby-Dick, and in these chapters he rejects many of the criticisms made against him.
He also comments on the reputation of another writer, covertly of course. The evidence seems relatively sound that chapter 44, which discusses the real number of “original characters” in fiction, as opposed to simply “odd characters,” is referring to Dickens and his popularity for creating just such “originals.” Melville judges the mass creation of original characters frankly impossible, and refuses to put any even of his own creations on the footing of those he does name: Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Milton’s Satan. Others “are novel, or singular, or striking, or captivating, or all four at once,” but not original.
This could also have been a criticism of the future reviewers, and probably many regular readers, of The Confidence-Man, or at least a warning not to succumb to such feelings. Because there are, in the usual, looser terminology, a good number of “originals” in this novel, the confidence-man himself not least among them. My favorite, though, is Pitch:
It was a rather eccentric-looking person who spoke; somewhat ursine in aspect; sporting a shaggy spencer of the cloth called bear’s-skin; a high-peaked cap of raccoon-skin, the long bushy tail switching over behind; rawhide leggings; grim stubble chin; and to end, a double-barreled gun in hand—a Missouri bachelor, a Hoosier gentleman, of Spartan leisure and fortune, and equally Spartan manners and sentiments; and, as the sequal may show, not less acquainted, in a Spartan way of his own, with philosophy and books, than with wood-craft and rifles.
What’s not to love? Even better, he will be a real match for the confidence-man. Freely willing to admit his misanthropy and discourse on the ills even of mother nature herself, the Missouri bachelor is not an easy mark like everyone else on the boat. “[W]ith both hands on his rifle, used for a staff, and gazing in the herb-doctor’s face with no more reverence than if it were a target,”—the herb-doctor being the confidence-man’s current avatar—Pitch puts him in his place. He goes up against the confidence-man’s next avatar, going so far as to say that the devil, “[t]o judge by the event…appears to have understood man better even than the Being who made him,” freaking the devil—or Jesus—or just a supernatural confidence-man—the hell out. A Melvillean himself, the Missouri bachelor holds St. Augustine on Original Sin his textbook.
Alas, he does soften, and he does give in. Even Pitch, named thus for sticking to what he says, is taken in by a confidence-trick, at least for a moment. Fortunately, it only convinces him to be more misanthropic in future, and Pitch won my heart entirely telling the cosmopolitan, the confidence-man’s final incarnation, that this time his parables and analogies will not work, and that “I, who rate truth, though cold water, above untruth, though Tokay, will stick to my earthen jug.”
Many of the non-originals, including Pitch, are supposed to have been taken from life. In him we may have James Fenimore Cooper; elsewhere are (perhaps) Poe, Thoreau, Emerson…&tc. Interesting for context, certainly. I liked Emerson a lot more than Melville seemed to—though who could really say.