Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville

"Can I be so changed?  Look at me.  Or is it I who am mistaken?--Are you not, sir, Henry Roberts, forwarding merchant of Wheeling, Pennsylvania?  Pray, now, if you use the advertisement of business cards, and happen to have one with you, just look at it, and see whether you are not the man whom I take you for."

"Why," a bit chafed, perhaps, "I hope I know myself."

"And yet self-knowledge is thought by some not so easy.  Who knows, my dear sir, but for a time you may have taken yourself for somebody else?  Stranger things have happened."

A crippled black man begs for alms on a Mississippi Riverboat.  Among the crowd there are skeptics--those who say not only is the man not crippled, he's not even black!  The man, called the Black Guinea, exclaims that there are a number of men aboard who will vouch for him, each easily identified by their clothing: a gray suit, a hat with a weed.  And sure enough, one by one, these men appear, but are they the same as the man who was pretending to be the Black Guinea?

The Confidence Man's proponents--like our own Brent--like to think of it as a proto-modernist novel.  Are the various huckster figures, who are always trying to get one over on the ship's innocents, several confidence men, or one confidence man in various disguises?  The impenetrability of this question, and the inscrutability of the Confidence Man, or Men's, purposes, make it very modernist indeed.  Certainly he can't only want money, because he's not terribly successful in getting it, either as Black Guinea, or a charity representative, or a man with a once-in-a-lifetime investment, or a quack doctor.  No, there's something about him that wants only the trust, here called confidence, of his fellow men.  I especially liked a very modernist moment where the Confidence Man is abandoned by one companion, and then forces another one to enact the very same dialogue with another companion, using the same "hypothetical" name as the last guy.  It's weird.

It's certainly an interesting premise.  But as a book, The Confidence-Man is almost impossible to read.  It's almost entirely dialogue, and not just dialogue but Melvillean dialogue: stilted, philosophical, interminable.  For a reader with infinite reserves of patience, The Confidence-Man may have something interesting or valuable to say about the nature of trust.  I admit I wanted some of the rollicking sea-adventures of Typee and Moby Dick to temper all that dialogue.  Without it, The Confidence-Man is never as beguiling or seductive as its main character--or characters.

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