Friday, March 18, 2011
"The Confidence Man's Masquerade"
This is an old-fashioned appreciation of a tough book which I love very much.
“The Confidence Man’s Masquerade”
An early definition of a Melville-lover was offered in 1851 by the reviewer of The Whale (the English title of Moby-Dick) in the London News of the World: “There are people who delight in mulligatawny. They love curry at its warmest point. Ginger cannot be too hot in the mouth for them. Such people, we should think, constitute the admirers of Herman Melville.” At the end of the nineteenth century a Canadian enthusiast gave another flattering description of those who men should read the neglected Moby-Dick: “To the class of gentleman-adventurer, to those who love both books and free life under the wide and open sky, it must always appeal.” The second definition slights Melville’s female enthusiasts who range from Sophia Hawthorne to Virginia Woolf and beyond. Both definitions slight an aspect of Melville central in most of Moby-Dick and crucial in every page of The Confidence-Man. For all the grandeur of Moby-Dick, another touchstone for identifying a Melvillean is The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. The true Melvillean loves Moby-Dick in large part because of the metaphysical mulligatawny Ishmael serves up more bountifully than Chowder in the Try Pots. He, or she, likes satirical curry hot in the mouth, savors the ginger of blasphemy in diabolical ragouts, relishes punning with ideas perhaps more even than punning with words. The Melvillean validates Saint Paul’s “mystery of iniquity” in freaks of intimation and makes a well-thumbed textbook of Saint Augustine on Original Sin, the firmest article of faith being that human nature, like the divine nature, is “past finding out.” In unepic moods, the Melvillean treasures The Confidence-Man almost as much as Moby-Dick.
What happens on the Mississippi steamboat Fidèle is relentless chicanery, both quotidian and cosmic. A mysterious mute in cream-colors has his “advent” at the water-side in St. Louis on the morning of an April Fool’s Day. Garbed to suggest Jesus, and traversing the deck with mottoes from I Corinthians 13 placarded on his slate, he is the Devil (or is he?), playfully sauntering to and fro on the deck of the American ship of faith, the way Satan goes to and fro on the earth in the book of Job. In now-famous notes ("Devel as a Quaker") made in the last volume of his set of Shakespeare (see the Northwestern-Newberry Published Poems (2009), Melville in 1849 had projected a story in which the Devil as a gentleman moves confidently in Manhattan high society. In The Confidence-Man Melville intermingles biblical devil imagery with shapeshifting in quasi-Christian folklore and classical literature. By evoking Robert Burns’s then universally known “Tam o’Shanter,” where Satan takes the shape of a big rough-coated black dog, Melville ties the last avatar of the Confidence Man to one of the earliest, the Black Guinea, who is compared to a (presumably black) Newfoundland dog. Melville laced the book with allusions to biblical shape-changing and cosmos-traversing passages, where Satan walks on earth and in heaven and where angels and demons appear on earth in human form and are dangerously mistaken for men. Melville make particular complex use of the shape-changing in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses as well as his thickly-strewn allusions to other historical and literary shape-changers. His highly conscious and sophisticated use of Devil-allegory as well as other shape-changing or sub-human and extra-human sources runs throughout The Confidence-Man, where the Devil assumes eight disguises which are linked by a series of double entendres (the second, a Negro cripple, insists that the “others” know him “as well as dis poor old darkie knows hisself”) and by serpent imagery and biblical allusions which project the most trivial conversations into a metaphysical realm.
Except for his role as the unfortunate man with the weed (the emblem of mourning), in which he sets up a victim for later plying, the Confidence Man comes preaching faith in man, nature, the universe, and God, confident that the most tranquillized are the most vulnerable. In a series of conversations, some pungently colloquial, some abstractly formal, he explores among the passengers varieties of gulls, skeptics, and even lower-case confidence-men (such as the Alabama crook Charles Arnold Noble or the philosophical swindler Mark Winsome, a portrait of Emerson). His object is not only to procure a little money and to enter a few souls in his satanic transfer-book: it is to demonstrate in fair play that Christianity is not alive in America. Only two of the passengers are at all worthy to oppose his blandishments—the “invalid Titan,” who exhausts his energy in a single physical attack on the Confidence Man in his guise as the herb-doctor, and Pitch, the Missouri bachelor, who except for one soft-headed moment sticks (like pitch, or tar) to his theological convictions despite the analogical arguments of the Confidence Man as representative of an employment agency. True Christians may just possibly exist, however; Charlie Noble tells of “the Indian-hater par excellence,” a soul peeping out but once in an age, and John Moredock stands as an Indian-hater (or Devil-hater) manqué. At the end, in his guise as the cosmopolitan, the Confidence Man extinguishes a lamp that symbolizes the Old and the New Testaments, relegating Christianity to the row of religions that once burned but now swing in darkness. Midnight being past, the playfulness is over, and the cosmopolitan ominously leads an old man out of the gentlemen’s cabin into the darkness of the deck.
In the “Memorandum of Agreement” for the American edition signed by Melville’s lawyer-brother, Allan, the title was “The Confidence Man his Masquerade,” where “his Masquerade” is plainly not a subtitle but an essential part of the main title. Having mistakenly concluded that the sound “s” in possessives was a contraction of “his,” English printers in the Renaissance put “his” into texts in wholly unhistorical ways, importing this false genitive into titles of books such as one by Samuel Purchas that pleased Melville, the 1625 Purchas His Pilgrimes, which would have been spoken as “Purchases Pilgrims” (and written today as “Purchas’s Pilgrims”). Melville wrote the title to be pronounced The Confidence-Man’s Masquerade, and meant the “His” to indicate, from the start, along with some chapter titles reminiscent of those in eighteenth-century English novels, that this was in some ways a quaintly bookish book—the product of a learned antiquarian thinker, not merely a whaleman turned writer of adventures.
The Confidence-Man, set on a “ship of fools” like Sebastian Brant’s 1494 Narrenschiff or Alexander Barclay’s 1509 translation (as “Ship of Fools”), was published patly on April Fool’s Day, 1857. It was the tenth book Melville published in his eleven-year career as a prose writer. The seventh book he wrote, The Isle of the Cross, finished in May, 1853, was rejected by his publishers, Harper & Brothers, and (we assume) later destroyed; he wrote eleven books in those eleven years. After The Confidence-Man Melville lived thirty-four years. About 1858, he began making himself into a poet, and he wrote five books of poetry. One volume was completed and rejected (at least twice) in 1860. Its contents are only to be guessed at, but some of the poems in it are probably among those still in his desk when he died in 1891. In 1866 he published a volume of Civil War poems, Battle-Pieces, and Aspects of the War, in 1876 a two-volume, 18,000-line Centennial poem, Clarel; a Poem and a Pilgrimage in the Holy Land; in 1888 he printed privately John Marr and Other Sailors, and in 1891, the year of his death, printed Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse the same way. The Confidence-Man marked the end of his losing battle to meet two contradictory compulsions—to be as popular as he needed to be and as profound as he thought he could be.
Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) were highly embroidered autobiographical accounts, one of captivity among South Sea cannibals, the other of Polynesian beachcombing. The writing created few tensions for him, since each was as good as he could write at the time and each was a popular success. The tensions came after publication, when reviewers from the evangelical denominations, particularly the missionary-minded Presbyterians, denounced him as traducing the Protestant missionaries who were industriously civilizing and Christianizing the Polynesian natives—and thereby destroying the cultures while enslaving and enfeebling the people, according to Melville, an eyewitness. The inner conflict began as he wrote Mardi (1849), his massive grab bag (recalling François Rabelais’s Pantagruel and Gargantua and Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy)—realistic South Sea adventure mixed with satirical encounters in an imaginary archipelago and an allegorical travelog through American and European politics. (Early in the last full year of his work on the book, 1848, the American war with Mexico ended; then revolutions broke out in Europe, branding it in Melville’s memory as the “Red Year.”) Mardi was Melville’s declaration of the literary independence he was to win later, in Moby-Dick, but most reviewers wanted another racy tale from the hearty sailor-writer, not a litterateur’s portable symposium on religion, philosophy, art, and politics. To compensate for Mardi, Melville wrote the realistic Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850)—both in a four-month stretch in the heat of the New York summer of 1849. He claimed to regard them as “two jobs” which he had “done for money—being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood,” not distinguishing between the two books. Because he wrote White-Jacket (as young Oakey Hall reported in a letter to a New Orleans newspaper) in a score of sittings (spread over sixty-some days), he may have forgotten quickly how greatly he had written. From London in mid-December 1849 Melville lamented to Evert Duyckinck how critics had treated him when he attempted to write a great book, Mardi: “What a madness & anguish it is, that an author can never—under no conceivable circumstances—be at all frank with his readers.—Could I, for one, be frank with them—how would they cease their railing—those at least who have railed.” In October 1850, part way through his next book, he moved his family to a farm south of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. There in early May while finishing Moby-Dick (1851), he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.” In Pierre (1852), Melville undertook his most strenuous challenge yet, to write a profound psychological study in the form of a story the book-buying audience could accept as “a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, & stirring passions at work.” Simultaneously, the book was to pursue a psychological analysis more profound than any he had grappled with in Moby-Dick. He had written Hawthorne: “Leviathan is not the biggest fish;—I have heard of Krakens.” He finished the book at the end of 1851 (only six weeks after Moby-Dick was published) and took it to the Harpers in the New York City. Armored with the news that Moby-Dick was not selling well, the Harper brothers offered him an impossible contract—20 cents on the dollar where 50 cents on the dollar had not kept him solvent. After a few days, Melville reconciled himself to the contract, but kept the manuscript and, abruptly declaring that his young hero had been a juvenile author, wrote into it what became a profound but reckless, near-suicidal account of his own thwarted literary career. Even before it was published, the Harpers began dropping the word in literary circles that Melville was a little crazy—specifying “a little” so as not to deter anyone from buying Typee and the other adventure books. The New York literary clique gossiped that Pierre showed that Melville had written himself out. Soon a New York paper printed a sober news item: “Herman Melville Crazy,” and other reviewers denounced the book as insane.
During a few months in which he endured the reviews of Pierre, Melville tried to interest Hawthorne in writing a story he had heard about a woman named Agatha Hatch who had rescued and married a sailor, only to be deserted, and to find much later that he had formed a new bigamous marriage. The story, he thought, was in Hawthorne’s vein. Understanding at last that Hawthorne (having written the campaign biography of his friend Franklin Pierce, was focused only on becoming the new American consul at Liverpool, Melville wrote the story of the long-suffering woman himself, from late December 1852 until on or about May 22, 1853, calling it The Isle of the Cross (a title I discovered only in 1987). When the Harpers refused it, he settled down to writing short stories and serials for Putnam’s Monthly and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine—published anonymously, according to magazine policy. A few of the stories between Pierre and The Confidence-Man are of almost pathological secrecy, innocuous enough to be palmed off on his genteel publishers but concealing outrageous religious, sexual, and mock-autobiographical allegories. Literature offered Melville a means of expressing his true feelings by elaborately convoluted aesthetic dodges. The Confidence-Man is tightly linked to these tales. The story of Charlemont, the gentleman-madman (Ch. 34), reads like a companion piece to the tale “Jimmy Rose” (Harper’s, November 1855). Like “Bartleby” and others of the stories, The Confidence-Man was inspired by newspaper accounts—this time of the arrest in Albany in April, 1855, of “Samuel Willis,” whose felonious exploits under another alias had inspired a New York journalist to coin the term “confidence man” six years earlier, during the summer Melville wrote Redburn and White-Jacket. Like some of the stories, also, it manifests a love of allegory as inveterate as Hawthorne’s own and is written in a shifty, deceptive style appropriate to a once popular adventure writer who, not permitted to write frankly, had perforce become a literary sleight-of-hand man.
Just before he began Moby-Dick Melville referred to himself in a travel diary as a “a pondering man.” With the failure of his career and his health, he began re-examining from his rural vantage point not only his own life but also the short life of his country. It was a short life. His grandfathers had helped to create the new nation—Thomas Melvill, a hero of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, and Peter Gansevoort, the defender of Fort Stanwix who kept British troops marching down from Canada from joining up with forces marching from New York City. As he brooded, now deeply in debt and subject to debilitating bouts of physical pain, Melville lost his early exuberant sense of American destiny and began meditating instead upon what was happening to the national character. What Melville saw uniting “Samuel Willis,” P. T. Barnum, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—along with many other “representative men” (Emerson’s phrase) of his own time—was an appeal for confidence. For that matter, in 1850 a man calling himself “Herman Melville” had traveled about “remote parts of Georgia and North Carolina” so successfully that “persons near the scene of his exploits” had written skeptically to the Harpers “for the purpose of getting reliable information on the subject of this stranger's claims to the authorship of Mr. Melville's books.” The New York Journal, in reporting on the doings of this impostor, reminded its readers that some early English reviewers had decided that the name attached to books about adventures in Polynesia was only an “assumed name,” whereas in fact “Herman Melville” was “the real name of the writer of those works.” When the term “confidence man” was coined in New York in 1849 the emphasis had been on “confidence,” the special ploy of a swindler who took a watch or money from a victim specifically as a token of confidence in him. He was “the confidence man,” and only later, as the term proved infinitely adaptable (for instance, to “confidence girls in Brooklyn”), did people begin to use “confidence-man” loosely as a synonym for any crook or swindler.
Melville saw in politics, in society, in religion, in philosophy, and in personal relationships the blithe fatuity of a new country which had sold itself on the notion of a divinely manifest destiny. Cheery Americans were confident in being good nominal Christians in a nominally Christian country, bedeviled, to be sure, by true believers who might travel to Utah Territory to establish a new theocracy, for example, but, most days, secure from being embarrassed by witnessing fanatics in the process of selling all they owned and abandoning their families in order to follow Jesus. Americans were confident in the probity of Wall Street and ready to apply its methods to social problems. Americans could succumb to confidence in sweeping social reforms based on appeals to man’s rational altruism. American practitioners of the late-gothic psychological novel could be confident of financial and critical success if only they would “challenge astonishment at the tangled web of some character, and then raise admiration still greater at their satisfactory unraveling of it.” Readers could cherish their confidence in the intellectual and aesthetic value of soporifically tidy fiction, in which characters are ultimately consistent and plot-strings are ruthlessly pulled tight at the end. Anxious Americans were placing confidence in pseudo-sciences like phrenology and psychology which had “for their end the revelation of human nature on fixed principles.” Hopeful Americans were putting confidence in the curative powers of Nature, or, as a fair substitute, in patent panaceas guaranteed to cure all ailments, physical or psychic. Triumphant Americans were confident in the justness of all American wars, including undeclared ones like Polk’s late Mexican incursion (an “Executive’s War”), which Melville had attacked in Mardi. Americans were imbued with confidence that the American newspapers were dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of truth. American Transcendentalists were putting confidence in idealistic doctrines (on friendship, say) which required no application to daily life, and the philosophical parents of Transcendentalism, the Unitarians, were promoting confidence in the belief that reports of poverty in the United States were exaggerated and, in any case, that what seemed like poverty was due to the laziness of the complainant. Jesus might have said that you would always have the poor with you, but New York Unitarians were confident that city streets would be far more pleasant with all beggars removed from them. In the middle of the abolitionist crusade—during the horrors of “Bleeding Kansas”—many Americans were still confident in the “happy results” attending the formation of the federal union; after all, in 1850 most Americans had celebrated the passage of the Compromise which provided for the return of captured runaway slaves to their masters. Many would-be Christians even retained confidence that, despite all evidence to the contrary, a loving Providence still dispatched his guardian angels to preserve his servants. The Confidence-Man was a dazzlingly comprehensive indictment of American confidence on a national scale, but for a century no reader saw its profound coherence.
In 1857 Melville’s mention of journalistic commonplaces such as accounts of Mississippi steamboat diddlers, American outlaws, spirit-rapping, hard-shell Baptists, Charity organizers, Fouriertes and other Utopian reformers, western land frauds, Barnum’s freaks and frauds, hydrotherapeutic treatments, herbal cure-alls, prowling Jesuits (the subject of the anti-Catholic paranoia of Know-Nothing America-Firsters), aggrieved Mexican War cripples and sham veterans, prison reformers, abolitionism, and Come-Outers--all such references worked to mislead most readers into thinking they had in hand only an unusually talky series of contemporary riverboat sketches. Deluded by the surface of the book, none of the first readers put on known record their realization that Melville had worked real people into the book. John Moredock was a veritable Indian-hater of early Illinois, whose story Melville had lifted from James Hall, an author Evert A. Duyckinck had included in the same Wiley & Putnam series in which Typee was published. Melville infused Hall’s factual account with religious imagery which transformed the frontier history into a metaphysical allegory where his attitude toward real American Indians was altogether irrelevant. Both in physique and philosophy, Mark Winsome is based on Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Melville had heard lecture and whose essays he had read. The ragged peddler who silently appeals to Winsome may contain some of Melville’s memories of a wraith from his first years in New York City, Edgar Allan Poe, when Duyckinck was editing both the poet-tale writer and the South Sea adventurer. Winsome’s disciple Egbert is a portrait of Henry David Thoreau, whose first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Melville had borrowed from Duyckinck. (In 1851, Thoreau’s former neighbor Hawthorne had joked about the title of that book with Melville.) The readers in 1857 who knew that Calvin Edson was the “Living Skeleton” in P. T. Barnum’s American Museum did not realize that Emerson was aboard the Fidèle. Modern readers, alerted that Emerson is aboard, may unknowingly pass by clusters of contemporary allusions which any American would have caught in 1857. The denseness of contemporary references creates stumbling blocks, as do the thickly strewn echoes of eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century literary and philosophical topics. (More than most nineteenth-century books, this one now cries out for explanatory footnotes.)
Another stumbling block in 1857, especially for readers who still thought of Melville as the author of Polynesian romances, is that the book is a satirical allegory. Reviewers had regarded the Americanized Gothic romance, Pierre, as an insane aberration, and some in 1857 had no notion that Melville had been writing for magazines anonymously in the years since Pierre, much less that some of those tales had been infused with allegorical meanings. The books published after Pierre, Israel Potter, the story of a Revolutionary soldier stranded for decades in England (1855), and The Piazza Tales (1856), a gathering of some of the Putnam’s stories, reassured the public that Melville was at last back on his good behavior, shunning anything weighty, but neither book made him much money. With the barest of help readers ought to have understood some of the allegory, for in The Confidence-Man, instead of using private references as in some of the stories, Melville was using conventional devices familiar through the Bible as well as secular literature such as Hawthorne’s stories, conspicuously “The Celestial Railroad,” an updating of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in which nominal Christians want to take the fast and easy way to heaven. Modern literary critics who know of Melville’s interest in Spenser, Milton, and Hawthorne, and know that he was steeped in the Bible, can see the pattern of imagery which links together serpent, Indian, and Devil throughout the book, most clearly in “The Metaphysics of Indian-hating,” an updating of his earlier satiric exposition of the same tragic perceptions about nominal Christians and the impracticability of true Christianity, Plotinus Plinlimmon’s pamphlet in Pierre.
Still another stumbling block is the thickness of classical and biblical allusions and values. No contemporary reviewer suspected that the writer of these steamboat sketches was living imaginatively in the ancient world as he knew it from translations of the Greek and Roman writers, all intermixed with the Bible. No review saw a pattern in the use of Athens, in particular, which is evoked in The Confidence-Man by characters from Greek myth; by names of real people of classical times, ranging from historians to philosophers; by the settings of two of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Timon of Athens. The first readers of Melville’s earlier books were steeped enough in the Bible to catch, and resent, his covert playing with sacred texts. Quite aside from their ferocious attacks on Melville for exposing the misdeeds of missionaries in the South Seas (and the actions of wives of Hawaiian missionaries, who harnessed natives to carts and whipped them down the roads), the religious reviewers had attacked Melville for use of scriptural language in secular contexts and for blasphemous application of biblical texts, as in Ishmael’s elaborately justifying his decision to worship Yojo with Queequeg, in Moby-Dick. More than any other group, the religious reviewers, including those not writing for specifically religious papers and magazines, had destroyed Melville’s career, so that by the time he was writing Moby-Dick he thought of himself very seriously as the victim of religious persecution, to the point of identifying with people burned at the stake during witchcraft frenzies. He toyed with the daring idea of dedicating The Confidence-Man to “victims of Auto da Fe,” victims of the Spanish Inquisition, the Catholic equivalent of his persecution by American Protestants of the “lower” and more missionary-minded churches such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists. The shift in genre from South Sea romance to Mississippi steamboat conversations misled reviewers, none of whom accused The Confidence-Man of being a critique of American Christianity. (In London only the reviewer in the Saturday Review recognized Melville’s pervasive irreverence; in the United States only the New York Churchman complained about Melville’s characteristic defect, specified vaguely as “a disposition to metaphysical speculation.”)
Modern critics have identified most of the biblical fragments which inform many of the conversations on the Fidèle, and can see, for instance, the cosmic irony in the tricking of the old miser, who in a death-bed confidence cries, “I confide, I confide; help, friend my distrust!” They face another hazard—the inability to accept for the course of the book the Christian absolutism against which Melville judges the things of this world. Critics have praised the Methodist clergyman, though Melville meant his militancy to stand as a violation of the Sermon on the Mount. Some have rejoiced that the Indian-hating Moredock was humane enough to lay aside his rifle at times and dwell with his family in loving domesticity, not realizing that Melville sees Moredock as a worthy Christian Devil-hater during his dedicated Indian-hunting and sees him as a backslider from his absolute vow during his hearth-side moments. Some have lauded the barber as a good family man as well as a good businessman, yet Melville sees him as the kind of nominal Christian who would never be so foolish as to forsake “houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands,” for Jesus’s sake. Explicit or implicit in almost every conversation is the distinction between otherworldly morality (represented by the Sermon on the Mount) and the morality of this world (represented by the barber’s “No Trust” sign and embodied in such characters as Winsome and Egbert as well as such literary and historical personages as Polonius and Lord Chesterfield). A dozen times the phrase “this world” is used in The Confidence-Man, by the narrator and by characters; each occurrence summons or almost summons to mind the other world of the Bible where other standards of behavior and possibilities for behavior may prevail. The reader is reminded particularly of the contrast between “this world” and the world “which is to come” (as in the subtitle of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress). Modern readers may need to make an intellectual and emotional leap in order to understand Melville’s attraction to Jesus’s criteria for what his followers must do, and in order to share the heartsickness that underlies Melville’s satirical analyses of the impracticability of Christianity “in this world.”
Most of all, Melville’s new style baffled his reviewers and can still frustrate readers until they surrender to his new way of communicating richly, a way far removed from the ebullient exuberance of Moby-Dick. The “narrative” at first seems slowed—if not actually retarded—by multiple examples of litotes, where constructions such as “not unlikely,” “not wholly without self-reproach,” “less unrefined,” and “not unsusceptible” almost (but not quite) turn double negatives into positives. The style relies on elaborately qualified “assertions” which may be hedgingly offered and ambiguously retracted. In this sentence from Ch. 13, the narrator’s prose reflects the calm refusal of John Truman (the Confidence Man as the man with the book) to admit that misfortune, much less evil, exists in the universe:
When the merchant, strange to say, opposed views so calm and impartial, and again, with some warmth, deplored the case of the unfortunate man, his companion, not without seriousness, checked him, saying, that this would never do; that, though but in the most exceptional case, to admit the existence of unmerited misery, more particularly if alleged to have been brought about by unhindered arts of the wicked, such an admission was, to say the least, not prudent; since, with some, it might unfavorably bias their most important persuasions.
Blandly denying that a conviction of the existence of a Providence should be “in any way made dependent upon such variabilities as everyday events,” lest that conviction be in thinking minds “subject to fluctuations akin to those of the stock-exchange during a long and uncertain war,” Truman innocently glances at his transfer-book, where he keeps the accounts begun during that “dubious battle on the plains of heaven” described in Milton (Paradise Lost, 1.104). Melville’s first metaphysical joke lies in having the Confidence Man (the Devil himself) so thoughtfully deny the existence of evil. Funnier still, this conversation caps a cumulative joke based on the fact that the merchant has encountered the Confidence Man in more than one of his disguises. The merchant learns the story of the vicious wife from the “unfortunate man” with the weed (mourning band) on his hat, then hears the story confirmed and filled out by the man in gray. Then Roberts tells the story to his old interlocutor in his new disguise as the man with the book, who firmly refuses to believe it ever happened—as of course it had not. The astonished reader who pursues the meaning comma past comma to the end is rewarded by the perception of Melville’s superbly controlled combination of metaphysical satire and low comedy.
The wayfaring reader who keeps faith despite the snare-guns and pitfalls of The Confidence-Man receives the literary equivalent of Christian’s reward in Pilgrim’s Progress. Despite his lamentation about “madness & anguish,” Melville still tried to be “frank” with his best readers, unlike his smooth Cosmopolitan, who gives his name as Francis or Frank Goodman. The reader shares Melville’s personal triumph in emerging from introverted private writing yet paradoxically managing to pass off on his publisher a metaphysical American satire in the guise of Western rogue fiction. The reader delights in the verve with which Melville works out his intricate philosophical dialectics within the framework of a low comic yet cosmic joke, and experiences pleasure and awe in perceiving the complex coherency of Melville’s mordant vision of his times. The reader rejoices in watching the functioning of a unique style forged in private agonies but used to communicate, not to conceal. The reader exults in his or her own acumen in unmasking the very Devil, it seems, while any sophomorean vainglory at that literary detecting is lost in the new profundity of the conviction that mankind is indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. The Melvillean’s ultimate reward is exhilaration—intellectual and aesthetic—of a sustained intensity almost unmatched in English and American literature, comparable to almost nothing except some early works by Jonathan Swift (such as A Tale of a Tub) and some late works by Vladimir Nabokov (such as Pale Fire). In some moods, to rephrase an earlier statement, the Melvillean relishes The Confidence-Man as much, or almost as much, as Moby-Dick.