We are not among those who have had faith in Herman Melville's South Pacific travels so much as in his strength of imagination. The Confidence-Man shows him in a new character -- that of a satirist, and a very keen, somewhat bitter, observer. His hero, like Mr. Melville in his earlier works, asks confidence of everybody under different masks of mendicancy, and is, on the whole, pretty successful.... It required close knowledge of the world, and of the Yankee world, to write such a book and make the satire acute and telling, and the scenes not too improbable for the faith given to fiction. Perhaps the moral is the gullibility of the great Republic, when taken on its own tack. At all events, it is a wide enough moral to have numerous applications, and sends minor shafts to right and left. Several capital anecdotes are told, and well told; but we are conscious of a certain hardness in the book, from the absence of humour, where so much humanity is shuffled into close neighbourhood. And with the absence of humour, too, there is an absence of kindliness. The view of human nature is severe and sombre -- at least, that is the impression left on our mind.... Few Americans write so powerfully as Mr. Melville, or in better English, and we shall look forward with pleasure to his promised continuation of the masquerade. The first part is a remarkable work, and will add to his reputation. --London Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, July 1857"a certain hardness in the book," yes, that's it exactly. This is a stern book, an upwelling of Melville's disappointment and frustration with his America. I am not sure what to say about this novel, or why I'd say it or to whom I'd say it. And yet, look at me go.
The Confidence-Man is the last Herman Melville novel published during his lifetime. On the whole, it baffled American reviewers; the English reviewers, such as the above-quoted writer, were able to make more of the book. I don't know what that means, if anything, except that perhaps it's hard to have a sense of humor about oneself, to understand when one is the subject of a powerful and cutting satire.
The Confidence-Man is a powerful and cutting satire of America, Melville focusing his "certain hardness" on the American love of profit and the American casual objectification of Native Americans. It is a social critique in the form of a sort of picaresque folk tale: a riverboat sails up the Mississippi River on April Fool's Day of 1851 or so, filled with Americans from all walks of life. Onto this boat steps The Confidence-Man, a professional swindler with no fixed identity, who changes his name, costume, and persona about once an hour, seeking victims who will "have confidence" in him. "Confidence" here means something like "trust", as in "will you trust this man with your money?" He is at one time a beggar, at another a hawker of medicines, turning up later as a representative of a mining firm who'll sell you as many shares in the mine as you can buy. He is made of air, mostly, lies and air. The Confidence-Man preaches tolerance and charity, chiding his fellows when they show selfishness, getting money from many of them by a wide variety of ruses. If you were to call the Confidence-Man a fraud, a thief, he would put on a wounded expression and quote the gospels at you.
This is a funny book, an insightful book, a terrifying book. Melville was angry.
A few nights ago I was struck by how similar The Confidence-Man is to Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Not just because the Rabelais book has a cast of characters on a boat and each chapter is a comic episode, and not just because the character who gradually takes over the "Pantagruel" books is a dishonest and selfish liar, but there is also something in the tone of both books that is similar, and I realized for the first time that Gargantua and Pantagruel must be a satire of 16th-century France, when all this time I was thinking it was mostly just a bawdy comedy. Shows what I know.
I am also delighted to find so many references to the plays of Shakespeare in The Confidence-Man. They're scattered liberally across the whole narrative, which is quite fun for a guy like me.