The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

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The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade:

The Confidence-Man is available as an online text

Publishing History

First American edition published on April 1, 1857 by Dix, Edwards, & Co., New York. First British edition published on April 3 or 4, 1857 by Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, London.

Very poorly received by an uninterested and uncomprehending public, The Confidence-Man was Melville's last novel. He would thereafter turn to writing poetry, resuming prose fiction only in 1885 with the commencement of Billy Budd, Sailor.

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At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a man in cream-colors, at the water-side in the city of St. Louis.
His cheek was fair, his chin downy, his hair flaxen, his hat a white fur one, with a long fleecy nap. He had neither trunk, valise, carpet-bag, nor parcel. No porter followed him. He was unaccompanied by friends. From the shrugged shoulders, titters, whispers, wonderings of the crowd, it was plain that he was, in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger. --opening paragraphs

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Contemporary Criticism and Reviews

When we meet with a book written by Herman Melville, the fascinations of Omoo and Typee recur to us, and we take up the work with as much confidence in its worth, as we should feel in the possession of a checque drawn by a well-known capitalist. So much greater is the disappointment, therefore, when we find the book does not come up to our mark. Mr. Melville cannot write badly, it is true, but he appears to have adopted a quaint, unnatural style, of late, which has little of the sparkling vigor and freshness of his early works. In fact we close this book -- finding nothing concluded, and wondering what on earth the author has been driving at.... It is not right -- it is trespassing too much upon the patience and forbearance of the public, when a writer possessing Mr. Melville's talent, publishes such puerilities as the Confidence Man. The book will sell, of course, because Mr. Melville wrote it; but this exceedingly talented author must beware or he will tire out the patience of his readers. --New York Dispatch, April 5 1857

Mr. Melville is lavish in aphorism, epigram, and metaphor. When he is not didactic, he is luxuriously picturesque; and, although his style is one, from its peculiarities, difficult to manage, he has now obtained a mastery over it, and pours his colors over the narration with discretion as well as prodigality.... [W]e grow so familiar with the passengers that they seem at last to form a little world of persons mutually interested, generally eccentric, but in no case dull....
Full of thought, conceit, and fancy, of affectation and originality, this book is not unexceptionally meritorious, but it is invariably graphic, fresh, and entertaining. --London Athenaeum, April 11 1857

Mr. Melville has a manner wholly different from that of the anonymous writer who has produced The Metaphysicians. He is less scholastic, and more sentimental; his style is not so severe; on the contrary, festoons of exuberant fancy decorate the discussion of abstract problems; the controversialists pause ever and anon while a vivid, natural Mississippi landscape is rapidly painted before the mind; the narrative is almost rhythmic, the talk is cordial, bright American touches are scattered over the perspective -- the great steam-boat deck, the river coasts, the groups belonging to various gradations of New-World life. In his Pacific stories Mr. Melville wrote as with an Indian pencil, steeping the entire relation in colours almost too brilliant for reality; his books were all stars, twinkles, flashes, vistas of green and crimson, diamond and crystal; he has now tempered himself, and studied the effect of neutral tints. He has also added satire to his repertory, and, as he uses it scrupulously, he uses it well. His fault is a disposition to discourse upon too large a scale, and to keep his typical characters too long in one attitude upon the stage.... The charm of the book is owing to its originality and to its constant flow of descriptions, character-sketching, and dialogue, deeply toned and skilfully contrasted. --London Leader, April 11 1857

We notice this book at length for much the same reason as Dr. Livingston describes his travels in Monomotapa, holding that its perusal has constituted a feat which few will attempt, and fewer still accomplish. Those who, remembering the nature of the author's former performances, take it up in the expectation of encountering a wild and stirring fiction, will be tolerably sure to lay it down ere long with an uncomfortable sensation of dizziness in the head, and yet some such introduction under false pretences seems to afford it its only chance of being taken up at all. For who will meddle with a book professing to inculcate philosophical truths through the medium of nonsensical people talking nonsense -- the best definition of its scope and character that a somewhat prolonged consideration has enabled us to suggest. A novel it is not, unless a novel means forty-five conversations held on board a steamer, conducted by personages who might pass for the errata of creation, and so far resembling the Dialogues of Plato as to be undoubted Greek to ordinary men. Looking at the substance of these colloquies, they cannot be pronounced altogether valueless; looking only at the form, they might well be esteemed the compositions of a March hare with a literary turn of mind. It is not till a lengthened perusal -- a perusal more lengthened than many readers will be willing to accord -- has familiarized us with the quaintness of the style, and until long domestication with the incomprehensible interlocutors has infected us with something of their own eccentricity, that our faculties, like the eyes of prisoners accustomed to the dark, become sufficiently acute to discern the golden grains which the author has made it his business to hide away from us....
... We do, as Mr. Melville says, desire to see nature "unfettered, exhilarated," in fiction we do not want to see her "transformed." We are glad to see the novelist create imaginary scenes and persons, nay, even characters whose type is not to be found in nature. But we demand that, in so doing, he should observe certain ill-defined but sufficiently understood rules of probability. His fictitious creatures must be such as Nature might herself have made, supposing their being to have entered into her design. We must have fitness of organs, symmetry of proportions, no impossibilities, no monstrosities. As to harlequin, we think it very possible indeed that his coat may be too parti-coloured, and his capers too fantastic, and conceive, moreover, that Mr. Melville's present production supplies an unanswerable proof of the truth of both positions. We should be sorry, in saying this, to be confounded with the cold unimaginative critics, who could see nothing but extravagance in some of our author's earlier fictions -- in the first volume of Mardi, that archipelago of lovely descriptions is led in glittering reaches of vivid nautical narrative -- the conception of The Whale, ghostly and grand as the great grey sweep of the ridged and rolling sea. But these wild beauties were introduced to us with a congruity of outward accompaniment lacking here. The isles of "Mardi" were in Polynesia, not off the United States. Captain Ahab did not chase Moby Dick in a Mississippi steamboat. If the language was extraordinary, the speakers were extraordinary too....
It is, of course, very possible that there may be method in all this madness, and that the author may have a plan, which must needs be a very deep one indeed. Certainly we can obtain no inkling of it. It may be that he has chosen to act the part of a medieval jester, conveying weighty truths under a semblance antic and ludicrous; if so, we can only recommend him for the future not to jingle his bells so loud. There is no catching the accents of wisdom amid all this clattering exuberance of folly. Those who wish to teach should not begin by assuming a mask so grotesque as to keep listeners on the laugh, or frighten them away. Whether Mr. Melville really does mean to teach anything is, we are aware, a matter of considerable uncertainty. To describe his book, one had need to be a Hollen-Breughel; to understand its purport, one should be something of a Sphinx. It may be a bona fide eulogy on the blessedness of reposing "confidence" -- but we are not at all confident of this. Perhaps it is a hoax on the public -- an emulation of Barnum. Perhaps the mild man in mourning, who goes about requesting everybody to put confidence in him, is an emblem of Mr. Melville himself, imploring toleration for three hundred and fifty-three pages of rambling, on the speculation of there being something to the purpose in the three hundred and fifty-fourth; which, by the way, there is not, unless the oracular announcement that "something further may follow of this masquerade," is to be regarded in that light. We are not denying that this tangled web of obscurity is shot with many a gleam of shrewd and subtle thought -- that this caldron, so thick and slab with nonsense, often bursts into the bright, brief bubbles of fancy and wit. The greater the pity to see these good things so thrown away....
It will be seen that Mr. Melville can still write powerfully when it pleases him. Even when most wayward, he yet gives evidence of much latent genius, which, however, like latent heat, is of little use either to him or to us. We should wish to meet him again in his legitimate department, as the prose-poet of the ocean; if, however, he will persist in indoctrinating us with his views concerning the vrai, we trust he will at least condescend to pay, for the future, some slight attention to the vraisemblable. He has ruined this book, as he did with Pierre, by a strained effort after excessive originality. ----London Literary Gazette, April 11 1857

The author of Typee has again come upon us in one of his strange vagaries, and calls himself The Confidence Man.... Mr. Melville's Confidence Man is almost as ambiguous as his Pierre, who was altogether an impossible and un-understandable creature. But, in the Confidence Man there is no attempt at a novel, or a romance, for Melville has not the slightest qualifications for a novelist, and therefore he appears to much better advantage here than in his attempts at story books.... Some of the local descriptions in the Confidence Man are as striking and picturesque as the best things in Typee, and the oddities of thought, felicities of expression, the wit, humor, and rollicking inspirations are as abundant and original as in any of the productions of this most remarkable writer. --New York Times Supplement, April 11 1857

Even the most partial of Mr. Melville's friends must allow that the book is not wholly worthy of him. It has a careless and rambling style which would seem to have been easier for the author to write than his readers to peruse. There are bright flashes in it; scintillations of poetic light, and much common sense well expressed, but the book as a whole is somewhat heavy. --Worcester, Massachusetts Palladium, April 22 1857

...[T]he Confidence-Man contains a mass of anecdotes, stories, scenes, and sketches undigested, and, in our opinion, indigestible. The more voracious reader may, of course, find them acceptable; but we confess that we have not "stomach for them all." We said that the book belonged to no particular class, but we are almost justified in affirming that its genre is the genre ennuyeux. The author in his last line promises "something more of this masquerade." All we can say, in reply to the brilliant author of Omoo and Typee is, "the less the merrier." --London Illustrated Times, April 25 1857

There is one point on which we must speak a serious word to Mr. Melville before parting with him. He is too clever a man to be a profane one; and yet his occasionally irreverent use of Scriptural phrases in such a book as the one before us, gives a disagreeable impression. We hope he will not in future mar his wit and blunt the edge of his satire by such instances of bad taste. He has, doubtless, in the present case fallen into them inadvertently, for they are blemishes belonging generally to a far lower order of mind than his; and we trust that when the sequel of the masquerade of the Confidence-Man appears, as he gives us reason to hope that it soon will, we shall enjoy the pleasure of his society without this drawback. --London Saturday Review, May 23 1857

Mr. Herman Melville has also issued a new book, through the publishing house of Dix, Edwards & Co. It is called The Confidence Man. It is the most singular of the many singular books of this author. Mr. Melville seems to be bent upon obliterating his early successes. Typee and Omoo give us a right to expect something better than any of his later books have been. He appears now, to be merely trying how many eccentric things he can do. This is the more to be condemned, because in many important points he has sensibly advanced. His style has become more individualized -- more striking, original, sinewy, compact; more reflective and philosophical. And yet, his recent books stand confessedly inferior to his earlier ones. As to The Confidence Man, we frankly acknowledge our inability to understand it.... The Confidence Man assumes innumerable disguises -- with what object it is not clear -- unless for the sake of dogmatizing, theorizing, philosophizing, and amplifying upon every known subject; all of which, philosophy, we admit to be sharp, comprehensive, suggestive, and abundantly entertaining. But the object of this masquerade? None appears. The book ends where it begins. You might, without sensible inconvenience, read it backwards. You are simply promised in the last line, that something further shall be heard of the hero; until which consummation, the riddle must continue to puzzle you unsolved. --Ann Sophia Stephens, in New York Mrs. Stephens' New Monthly Magazine, June 1857

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

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