Melville’s Confidence-Man.

A couple of days ago I finished The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and I’m still trying to figure out what just happened to me. Not long before, I’d read Moby-Dick, and that of course was overwhelming as well, but I knew what to expect, having read it already (though not since college). About The Confidence-Man I knew only that it was Melville’s last novel and that it had been very poorly received (one New York review was headlined “Herman Melville Crazy”). Having put down Pierre, equally unwelcomed, after only a few chapters, I was quite prepared to do the same here; instead, I found myself gripped from the first sentence (“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”). Mind you, I can understand why readers had trouble with it, then and now: it has no plot and no real characters, just a procession of scenes in which one participant tries to extract money or goods from one or more others, unfailingly appealing to the need for people to have confidence (the word recurs on every page, with increasing force), and it presents the passengers on “the favorite steamer Fidèle” — and by extension all Americans, and by further extension all of humanity — as either fools or conmen, and who wants to think of themselves as either? But I gobbled it up avidly, and as I went I started making marginal lines by more and more passages. Here’s one from Chapter 21:

“And who of my sublime species may you be?” turning short round upon him, clicking his rifle-lock, with an air which would have seemed half cynic, half wild-cat, were it not for the grotesque excess of the expression, which made its sincerity appear more or less dubious.

“One who has confidence in nature, and confidence in man, with some little modest confidence in himself.”

“That’s your Confession of Faith, is it? Confidence in man, eh? Pray, which do you think are most, knaves or fools?”

“Having met with few or none of either, I hardly think I am competent to answer.”

“I will answer for you. Fools are most.”

“Why do you think so?”

“For the same reason that I think oats are numerically more than horses. Don’t knaves munch up fools just as horses do oats?”

“A droll, sir; you are a droll. I can appreciate drollery—ha, ha, ha!”

“But I’m in earnest.”

And from later in the chapter:

“How can he find it lonely,” returned the herb-doctor, “or how desire a companion, when here I stand by him; I, even I, in whom he has trust. For the gulling, tell me, is it humane to talk so to this poor old man? Granting that his dependence on my medicine is vain, is it kind to deprive him of what, in mere imagination, if nothing more, may help eke out, with hope, his disease? For you, if you have no confidence, and, thanks to your native health, can get along without it, so far, at least, as trusting in my medicine goes; yet, how cruel an argument to use, with this afflicted one here. Is it not for all the world as if some brawny pugilist, aglow in December, should rush in and put out a hospital-fire, because, forsooth, he feeling no need of artificial heat, the shivering patients shall have none? Put it to your conscience, sir, and you will admit, that, whatever be the nature of this afflicted one’s trust, you, in opposing it, evince either an erring head or a heart amiss. Come, own, are you not pitiless?”

“Yes, poor soul,” said the Missourian, gravely eying the old man—”yes, it is pitiless in one like me to speak too honestly to one like you. You are a late sitter-up in this life; past man’s usual bed-time; and truth, though with some it makes a wholesome breakfast, proves to all a supper too hearty. Hearty food, taken late, gives bad dreams.”

From the magnificent Chapter 22, “IN THE POLITE SPIRIT OF THE TUSCULAN DISPUTATIONS”: “Sorry, sorry. But truth is like a thrashing-machine; tender sensibilities must keep out of the way.” From Chapter 24: “‘Ah, now,’ deprecating with his pipe, ‘irony is so unjust: never could abide irony: something Satanic about irony. God defend me from Irony, and Satire, his bosom friend.'” From Chapter 29: “And I return you the pledge, Charlie, heart-warm as it came to me, and honest as this wine I drink it in” (followed immediately by “Talking of alleged spuriousness of wines…”). And the opening of Chapter 33 (“WHICH MAY PASS FOR WHATEVER IT MAY PROVE TO BE WORTH”):

But ere be given the rather grave story of Charlemont, a reply must in civility be made to a certain voice which methinks I hear, that, in view of past chapters, and more particularly the last, where certain antics appear, exclaims: How unreal all this is! Who did ever dress or act like your cosmopolitan? And who, it might be returned, did ever dress or act like harlequin?

Strange, that in a work of amusement, this severe fidelity to real life should be exacted by any one, who, by taking up such a work, sufficiently shows that he is not unwilling to drop real life, and turn, for a time, to something different. Yes, it is, indeed, strange that any one should clamor for the thing he is weary of; that any one, who, for any cause, finds real life dull, should yet demand of him who is to divert his attention from it, that he should be true to that dullness.

I could go on, but you get the picture: this is not a novel that respects either conventions or the fourth wall, it is very much a novel of ideas, and the main idea is one that cannot but be repugnant to persons of good, open, honest natures and tender sensibilities. On the other hand, I cannot but wonder if there are not fewer such persons than there are cracked up to be. At any rate, if you enjoyed the excerpts above, I can pretty much guarantee you will enjoy the novel, and it’s available for free in various formats from the good folks at Project Gutenberg, in whom you may have the utmost confidence. And if you would like to read a more thoughtful analysis, I offer you — again, absolutely free! — this fine essay by our own John Emerson.

Two final thoughts:

1) The novel could be taken as an extended gloss on Pushkin’s famous lines from the fourth chapter of Eugene Onegin (I give Nabokov’s translation):

Кого ж любить? Кому же верить?
Кто не изменит нам один?

Whom, then, to love? Whom to believe?
Who is the only one that won’t betray us?

2) The book that kept coming to mind as I read was Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (see this post). DeWitt, like Melville, was coming off a Great American Novel of tremendous scope and complexity that didn’t do as well as it should have, and like him, she produced a follow-up that was less sprawling, more focused, superficially more approachable. Both novels could be described by the phrase I used of DeWitt’s, “a scathing but increasingly funny satire of American culture,” and both are told in a genial narrative voice that sucks you into the ever stranger goings-on being recounted. And both made me laugh heartily and often. Go thou and do likewise.


  1. And let’s not forget the additional dimension here: Melville himself is the con man’s con man, earning our trust, enticing us into his labyrinths, and making us believe versions of reality which only he has escaped to tell us.

  2. David Marjanović says

    That first sentence is a work of genius.

  3. I tried reading it last year but found out that I had to read it non-stop, because a pause of two days or longer made me forget everything so I had to go back almost to the beginning and read anew. I should try again.

  4. rootlesscosmo says

    Long, long ago I wrote a paper advancing the proposition that the interaction between con man and sucker was Melville’s metaphor for the condition of the writer under pressure to produce commercially appealing material: punished for sincerity, rewarded for faking. I’m not sure I could defend this argument now but it made sense to me at the time–I think I found some evidence in his correspondence that he was feeling embittered by the failure of Moby-Dick and Pierre by comparison with his early success with Omoo and Typee. (In the course of my research I read Mardi: With a Voyage Thither, which is monumentally weird.) (And don’t get me started on Clarel.)

  5. I thought it was Pierre that prompted “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY.”

  6. Oops, you’re right, of course — thanks!

  7. Though it would have been a clever idea to reprise the headline for the later novel. Or “Still Crazy After All These Years.”

  8. “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
    How old is that phrase anyway? I associate it with Simon and Garfunkel, but it surely predates them?

  9. David Marjanović says

    Any relation to “shine on, you crazy diamond”?

  10. I can’t find anything useful at, which is the most reliable online source for these things.

  11. Sir JCass says

    “Melville, weer all crazee now!”

  12. Ah, always nice to see a Slade reference! (Reference.)

  13. Sir JCass says

    Gudbuy T’Jane…Cum On Feel the Noize…Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me… Slade were probably responsible for 90% of the heart attacks suffered by traditionalist English teachers back in the seventies. They’m bostin’.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Google books has zero non-spurious pre-1975 hits for “crazy after all these.” But if you want to name your scholarly Melville tome after the song you will want to make sure to avoid confusion in academic-library purchase orders with e.g. “Still Crazy After All These Years: Women, Writing and Psychoanalysis” (Routledge, 2003).

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    Re Slade, I am not surprised to learn that the US pressing (which is the one on my shelves) of this album has a different track listing and fewer overall tracks than the UK edition, because that was quite a common trans-Atlantic difference back in the day, but I’m intrigued to notice that the tracks omitted for the US version all have titles given in standard orthography (assuming “Pouk Hill” is an unknown-to-me proper name in its standard spelling and treating “Tonite” as standard-enough-in-context). Maybe that’s why they weren’t big hits? Actually, to be more precise, seven of the eight tracks common to both versions (all but “Get Down and Get With It,” which the band didn’t write) have non-standard spellings, and the US version replaces the six standard-spelling tracks omitted from the UK version with two extra tracks not included in the UK version (“My Friend Stan” and “My Town”) that also use standard spelling!

  16. January First-of-May says

    and it presents the passengers on “the favorite steamer Fidèle” — and by extension all Americans, and by further extension all of humanity — as either fools or conmen, and who wants to think of themselves as either?

    Are you sure this is not O’Henry? Every time I read (most of) his short stories (and Kings and Cabbages, which is basically an extension of his short stories), I always feel the same way.

  17. William Sydney Porter’s pseudonym was “O. Henry”, not “O’Henry”, though I have seen the latter error on the cover of a Spanish translation from a well-known press.

  18. January First-of-May says

    William Sydney Porter’s pseudonym was “O. Henry”, not “O’Henry”

    I know (the latter part, at least – I didn’t know he was also William Sydney Porter), but I still keep thinking of him as O’Henry.

    It’s hardly the only weird mental thing I can’t get rid of even if I know it’s wrong – it’s out there with my persistent spelling mistakes (substract, recurrest, relevation, I think a few others) and thinking of Keith Laumer as a female (she’s still a very good writer, of course, but I just can’t get my mind around her actually being a guy).
    In the case of Keith Laumer, it’s probably partly because one of the first of her (um, his) books I saw spelled her (um, his) name as Кейт, which is normally a female name, and I didn’t know enough about Keith as a name to know that it wasn’t female. I suppose that something similar must’ve happened with O’Henry (googling around, I’m hardly the only one to make that mistake, anyway).

  19. In the case of Keith Laumer, it’s probably partly because one of the first of her (um, his) books I saw spelled her (um, his) name as Кейт,

    That’s weird — I guess whoever came up with that Cyrillic spelling didn’t know how the name is pronounced (should be Кит). For those who don’t read Russian, Кейт would normally represent Kate, so the misunderstanding is understandable.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    I had thought of the possibility of Puck/Pook, but apparently the song took the standard orthography of a more obscure (yet non-fictional) English toponym:

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    Does Кит really sound like Keith? Wouldn’t Киф, as in the established BrEng variant “Keef Richards,” be better? That old Cyrillic ѳ had come to be pronounced identically with ф (which I guess is why the Bolsheviki decided it was surplus to requirements) is perhaps further confirmation of the superiority of that approach.

  22. Does Кит really sound like Keith? Wouldn’t Киф, as in the established BrEng variant “Keef Richards,” be better?

    They’re about equally distant from the English sound; while both are used, the first is traditional. (Cf. г versus х for English h.)

  23. it presents […] all Americans, and by further extension all of humanity — as either fools or conmen, and who wants to think of themselves as either?

    It’s part of the con man’s world view that everyone is either a sharp or a flat. There is, of course, a hierarchy among sharps: the three-card monte man on the corner knows he isn’t Donald Trump, but who can say that he too won’t be running for President one day?

    I note that O. Henry was sentenced to prison for five years (he served three as a prison pharmacist) for embezzlement while working at a bank. He doubtless knew everything there is to know about sharps and flats, and it shows in his stories.

  24. but apparently the song took the standard orthography of a more obscure (yet non-fictional) English toponym

    I suspect I might have visited the real Pouk Hill at some point. My dad went to the same school as Noddy Holder (although my dad was a few years older than him).

  25. Strike “running for” above.

    To become a high officer in the Sarf [secret police] one must have, it seems, a certain complex form of stupidity. Gaum exemplifies it. He sees me as a Karhidish agent attempting to lead Orgoreyn into a tremendous prestige-loss by persuading them to believe in the hoax of the Envoy from the Ekumen; he thinks that I spent my time as Prime Minister preparing this hoax. By God, I have better things to do than play shifgrethor [dominance games] with scum. But that is a simplicity he is unequipped to see. Now that Yegey [an Orgota politician has apparently cast me off Gaum thinks I must be purchasable, and so prepared to buy me out in his own curious fashion. […] Did he really think I’d sell myself for his small change? He must think me very uneasy; which, indeed, makes me uneasy.

    Damn them, these unclean men. There is not one clean man among them.

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