Saturday, April 7, 2018
A paragraph from something I wrote when Americans were universally confident and evangelicals were Christian
A paragraph from "The Confidence Man's Masquerade" in the 2nd Norton Critical Edition of THE CONFIDENCE-MAN.
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 press was 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.