Even the most basic standards of novel-writing are grossly unmet. The plot, such as it is, is gimmicky and simplistic: on board a Mississippi steamship called the Fidèle, a man gets himself up in various guises and tries, with varying degrees of success, to con a few of his fellows. The anecdotes that flesh out this minor conceit are episodic, repetitious and incomplete. What’s more, the whole thing is lopsided and disproportionate. Some incidents are so brief that they’re over almost as soon as they begin. Others are interminable. The author digresses for chapters at a time, losing himself in allegories without meaning, in disquisitions without argument or conclusion; the result is a tediousness and an obscurity so pronounced that he feels compelled, at various moments in what passes for the book’s narrative, to stop and explicitly defend himself against charges of incompetence.
The charges stand. The title character, for example, is entirely protean and inscrutable. His success at self-disguise is improbable and unconvincing. In fact, the elusiveness of his outer life is matched only by the vacuity of his inner one: he has no history, no personality, no motivation, no goal. He is inconsistent, and not even consistently inconsistent: in an early chapter, the Black Guinea, himself the first appearance of the confidence man (unless we count the deaf mute who appears at the book’s opening—should we count the deaf mute?) lists eight men on board the boat who will vouch for him. In the course of the book, six of them appear, each one another manifestation of the same wily character. Obviously an attempt at subtle structuring—But ... what about the other two? The man in the violet robe? The man in the yellow vest? They’re never mentioned again.
The other characters are simple and bland, and they’re drawn in the crudest possible way. Each is described according to a single, unmistakable trait, a tic—a habit of coughing, a foppish air, a violent temper. They’re straight men, puppets who pop up on the stage, say their little piece, then disappear again.
The prose itself is often bland and mannered, sapped of all vigor by Melville’s evasiveness, his perverse indirection. Everywhere he indulges in negatives, double negatives, hedged and qualified double negatives; he backs into every description like a man trying to perjure himself without getting caught. There is a passage in which one of the confidence man’s first victims, a merchant named Roberts, reacts to an entreaty: “the merchant, though not used to being very indiscreet, yet being not entirely inhumane, remained not entirely unmoved.” Other characters are ‘not untouched,’ ‘not unaware,’ ‘not unselfpossessed,’ ‘not uncongenial’ and so on. Four years previously Melville had created another voided character in Bartleby, whose perfect and gentle refrain of “I prefer not to” contained a negating power so immense that even Wall Street—especially Wall Street—was helpless before it. The Confidence Man is Bartleby, the Narrator.
Everywhere Melville flaunts what his book is not, he lavishes attention on characters who don’t really exist and dwells rapturously on events that hardly occur at all. He’s circular, evasive and flippant, and he can’t resist advertising as much. One chapter is entitled, “Worth the consideration of those to whom it may prove worth considering”; another is called “Moot points touching the late Colonel John Moredock”; a third proclaims itself “Very charming,” though it’s essentially charmless. And yet he seems completely unembarrassed. He simply pushes on ahead—did he revise the book even once?—until he gets bored, at which point he ends more or less in mid-anecdote, with the line, “Something further may follow of this Masquerade.” There’s no reason to believe he ever intended to write a sequel.
I love the book, more than Moby-Dick, more than any native novel I can think of. Melville is the muse of my America, and The Confidence Man is my vade mecum. I’ve read it over and over, and sometimes tried to imitate it. And yet ...
Is there a more lighthearted and amusing tale that’s meaner and more misanthropic? It’s a Barnum of a book (the circus man’s own memoirs,The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself, had been published just two years before, and was already vastly popular). Hardly a character escapes it without suffering Melville’s sly and cheerful contempt: the rich and the poor, businessmen, soldiers, doctors, invalids and Indian-haters. Emerson and Thoreau appear in the guise of a dour mystic named Winsome, and Egbert, his callow disciple.
Only the confidence man himself is allowed any dignity, and then only because he is corrupt. He does not, after all, scruple to gull the weak-minded or the infirm, the credulous or the true. Nor is he motivated by anything so mortal as the love of money; he expends enormous effort and wit in order to cheat a barber out of the price of a shave. No, it’s the principle that appeals to him, it’s a point he feels like proving: that men are blind and weak and stupid, vain and stingy and easy to rob, and that he is Scratch and made to rob them.
From The New York Herald, July 8, 1849:
That is, by the way, where the phrase “con man” comes from; the perpetrator was named William Thompson, “said to be a graduate of the college at Sing Sing.” (In times before, such a man would have been referred to as a “Jeremy Diddler”; Poe has a rather wan sketch called “Diddling Considered as one of the Exact Sciences.”) But he bequeathed us more than a tag, because in that passage lies the origin of American humor, or at any rate a substantial strand thereof, and if you listen very closely, you can still hear the original confidence man’s laughter, faintly echoing in the city. It is an unmistakable sound; it’s the amusement of a man walking away from a mark, the joy of a demon who has just rooked an innocent, and then presented the act as a happy affront to the idea of human will and ability.ARREST OF THE CONFIDENCE MAN
For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man”; that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say, after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?”; the stranger, at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance, not at the moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing ...
To share in that laughter was Melville’s great act of brilliance and barvery, the more so because it demolished the myths that had accrued to him over the preceding decades. The author of The Confidence Man was not Melville the bear, the adventurer, the bestseller and the purveyor of theodicies, not the mammoth man who made mammoth masterpieces. This Melville deserted the first whaleboat he signed onto, and took part in a mutiny aboard the second: he was a Timon of the New World, a court jester in a country without a Court.
It is, then, a very American form of humor that he proposes, underwritten by the pessimism that lurks behind our optimism, by our fatalism and our rage. As comedy it relies—as all comedy does—on a certain surprise, but the surprise comes from what does not happen—from the violence of what does not happen, and with it the sudden realization that nothing is going to get better, that the situation at hand is never going to improve, nothing will change and you will never win. On and on the routine runs, spiraling downwards towards a distant darkness; and just when you think that some form of redemption must be in the offing, just when you allow yourself a little hope—down it drops a little more. You can see that sort of comic abjection in Buster Keaton’s face; you can hear it in Richard Pryor’s voice; you can find it in the later performances of Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman, the ones they did just before they died, where the comedy is so desperate that it’s impossible to tell whether they’re kidding or not. It’s the humor that comes from being hounded by failure in a culture which is notoriously afraid of such a thing, until there’s nothing left to do but turn around and laugh.
Failure, of course, was one of Melville’s few forms of success. The Confidence Man was the last novel he published in his lifetime, and it’s hard to argue that he went out with a bang. Foisted on the world on April Fool’s Day 1857, it was met with almost uniformly negative notices: I don’t know if he was surprised or not. Most reviewers found it incomprehensible; several claimed to have read it, first forwards and then backwards, looking in vain for some sense to it. It was not Typee, they all said. In fact it was not a novel:
Well, it’s easy enough to make fun of the blindness of the critics. But I don’t think they were really wrong: Melville was indeed being puerile, and inept, and morbid—and not entirely on purpose—though not quite by accident, either. He was after something; he was aiming in some direction so little known to literature that it’s taken us all this time—an astounding ninety-two years lapsed between the book’s first printing and its second—to bring our own gazes around to follow.The New York Dispatch:“It is not right—it is trespassing too much upon the patience and forbearance of the public, when a writer possessing Herman Melville’s talent, publishes such puerilities as The Confidence Man.”
The New York Times:“Melville has not the slightest qualifications for a novelist.”
Putnam’s Monthly:“The sum and substance of our fault-finding with Herman Melville is this. He has indulged himself in a trick of metaphysical and morbid meditations until he has perverted his fine mind from its healthy productive tendencies.”
What he wanted, I think, was a story strange enough to capture the strangeness of the country as he knew it; because however long the man may have lived among the Polynesians, he knew of no people as extraordinary and inexplicable as the citizens he might meet on board a Mississippi steamboat, none so ridiculous, so fascinating, so tempting. The rest of the world was peculiar, perhaps, but Americans were insane, they had gone berserk in Eden, they were not to be believed. They were fair matches for the Devil, so Melville sent the Devil to walk among them.
The book strolls alongside, poking its head here and there, circling back, tossing off grim anecdotes as it goes: a man who hated Indians, a man who reluctantly borrowed money, a bad wife. The effect is effortlessly odd—not merely eccentric, but deeply uncanny. Reading it is an adventure in aesthetic credulity; it feels as if some stricture on intention is constantly being broken, that it’s impossible that anyone—especially a man who wrote such carefully tuned dramas as Moby-Dick and Billy Budd—could mean to do this. And yet Melville does, apparently, mean it; in any case, he never lets on otherwise. And he must be doing something purposeful, because the themes seem to achieve a kind of consistency, even as they divide and redivide, double up, hide themselves and then jump out unexpected. It’s a style and strategy that the film critic Manny Farber described perfectly, in a brilliant but forgotten essay called “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” He’s discussing movie-making in the early 1960s, but he might as well be speaking of novel writing a century earlier (I have elided a few references to specific films):
Good work usually arises where the creators are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tape-worm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity. The best examples appear in places where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.Well yes: The Confidence Man is wasteful, ornery and unkempt: the book is a barnacle, a stubborn and inert parasite on the hull of the great, gliding culture above it, fastened there by a drowning man. You can’t outsmart it, you can’t lose it, you can’t even criticize it; it seems to defy every attempt at understanding. It takes you as the confidence man takes his victims: with a patience and tenacity that will wear you down if it can’t win you over.
A termite art aims at buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.
I love the book for its cranky brilliance, its slipperiness and mystery, its refusal to apologize or clarify, its fat humor. I love it for its dissolution and monstrousness. And I love it, as much as anything, because it is such a colossal disaster. How often have I wished that I could write as badly as Melville did when he was writing The Confidence Man. God knows I’ve tried. It isn’t easy; I can’t imagine it was very easy for him, either. In a letter he wrote to Hawthorne celebrating the publication of The House of the Seven Gables, he says that the novelist’s job is to say “No! in thunder.” It is a harder thing to say than yes. But to succeed, to build a bomb of a book, in such devious and uncompromising fashion ... a career-ender ... to being willing to wait a century, long past the first flowerings of American art and well into one’s own death, for the glory of its strange explosion ... Has there been any act in the history of our literature more admirable?