Striking Through the Mask: Part Five (The Confidence-Man)

by Ezekiel Fry

Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade is a difficult book. Okay, there. It is out of the way. The easy part, the difficult part, has been established from the outset. It is now our job to turn to the book itself, and the ambiguities within it—not the ambiguities that swirl around it. The Confidence-Man presents a vision of a steamer departing from St. Louis and progressing down the Mississippi towards New Orleans. The important factor in this assessment is the word towards. The Fidele never arrives at its destination. It stops at several defined locations throughout the course of the book, but at the close of the book it still remains, shifting downwards, towards the mouth of the Father of Waters, in transition and flux. The final sentence of the book highlights this quality, “Something further may follow of this masquerade” (Melville 350). There is a beginning, but, and this is especially true if we are looking at The Confidence-Man as a novel, there is no defined ending; the journey, from St. Louis to somewhere in between, is the book. This feature is readily applied to the late 20th century’s so-called “Post-Modern” movement in both literature and visual art and what the critic H. Bruce Franklin calls “the Theater of the Absurd” (Melville XV). This is certainly true to some degree. It is true that the form with which The Confidence-Man plays is quite similar to the works of the latter-half of the 20th century, but, as the poet Charles Olson intimates, form is but an extension of content. There is something—beyond the revolutionary construction of the book itself—that ties The Confidence-Man to the works of post World War II writers (and chroniclers of the American experience in particular) and this connection is to be found in the content—not the form—of the book. It is to be found in the intrinsically American discussion that constitutes the book. Whether read as complex religious allegory or social commentary the experience that Melville endeavors to create is so wholly American that it may as well be wrapped in a bloodied, warped and stretched Stars and Stripes. It is this American discussion for better or worse that creates the book.
Much like Moby-Dick’s Pequod, the Fidele can be viewed as a floating embodiment of the motley United States. The characters, in all their guises, which filter in and out of the setting are as varied and representative as the many peoples of the country. Unlike the Pequod however, the Fidele’s departure point is U. S. soil, and its journey (and supposed destination) runs, not away from the land, but through the very heart of it. The Mississippi, as is so artfully illustrated later in the 19th century by Twain, is true to its name—Father of Waters. It meanders more or less down the entirety of the country, serving as both a literal and metaphoric heart to the nation’s being. The journey begins in daylight, on the southern soil of St. Louis across the river from the northern soil of Illinois, the contrast of the two halves of the nation are present from the beginning. The journey however ends in the depths of night, somewhere within the darkness of the slave-south. As the ship passes Cairo, and the Ohio, it leaves behind the side of freedom and plunges into the slave-south fully. Within the book this passage is an eerie, ghostly descent into a world of death and shadows. The river itself seems not to have changed, but the lands which definitely surround the water have changed dramatically, giving the world of the Fidele an entirely different feeling from Cairo onward. There is no continuity, no certainty, even upon the Father of Waters. The land is in flux as much as the river itself. The north and the south are contrasted, as they have always been and will remain even to this day, and the figures which step forward into the light of dialogue are equally contrasted, or perhaps conflicted (or afflicted) is the proper word here, and in the American sense I believe it is.
In the first chapter of The Confidence-Man, a mute walks aboard the Fidele. He holds a placard up to the masses which displays Biblical verses. With each silent display the crowd becomes increasingly agitated with the mute. He responds by erasing the previous verse from his slate and putting forth a new one. This process culminates in a violent attack upon the mute and his subsequent lapse into slumber (presumably for the duration of the book) (Melville 3-9). This figure, due to both his dress and manner, may be viewed as Christ and his silent pleas to the masses as the lost word of spiritual truth, but by examining the figure, and his interactions with the crowd, through the lens of America, something else becomes visible. Here is a silent figure, only capable of communicating through the written word, perhaps beyond the scope of life itself—dead as it were. He uses words of power, but cannot voice them, cannot alter them but to change their referential point, and cannot fight back with the violence of the moment—in all truth he exists outside of even the most basic reality of the moment. He is at once the “lamb-like figure” and the silent, inert, and unmoving presence of the Constitution (Melville 9). The crowd dismisses him for the flavor of the moment, a written placard describing a notorious confidence man on the river. The past is swallowed up, the foundation—be it religious or socio-political—is pushed aside and violently forgotten, left to slumber in a corner. If Christ is asleep for the duration of the book, then the Constitution, and its vital qualities, is asleep as well. The Fidele exists as an equivalent of Antebellum America, moving boisterously after red-herrings and seemingly momentous nothings while violently dismissing the fundamentals of the country itself. Everyday is All Fool’s Day.
With the Constitution in hibernation, as much a symbol of the potential of humankind as Christ himself, the confidence man is given free-reign aboard the ship. A mockery of duty is played out amongst the many variations of this swindler or pacifier. As Christ, or the artist, the philosopher, the philanthropist, or the doctor, seek to give humanity purpose and happiness, so too does the confidence man, disguised as all these things, seek to subdue the tensions of the passengers aboard the Fidele. Using fraudulent logic and playing upon the sentimentalities of the passengers these artful figures look for “confidence” again and again. They seek to lessen doubt and ease the passage, even while apparently stealing money from their patient’s pocket. Most importantly, they attempt to obscure Truth with ease and comfort. The confidence man wishes to reestablish “a confidence in man” among his fellow travelers, but he wishes to do so, as Ellison will echo one hundred years later in Invisible Man, “outside of history” without the foundation of the Constitution. Religious supplication and social optimism are used to gloss the lurking serpent of a silent, and yet restless conscience.
This conscience is finally brought out of its slumber, if only for a moment, in the final chapter of the book. As the Fidele winds its way southward conversations abound concerning the qualities of humanity for good or ill, but there is never a firm conclusion as to how much confidence one (perhaps the reader) ought to put in humankind. The debate rages, but nothing is clear. Within the light of the solar lamp the Cosmopolitan finally touches upon the Truth. He begins to discuss some troublesome pieces he has found in the Bible with an old man. These selections draw into question his unflinching confidence in man (and religion). The old man (who may very well be the confidence man as well) quickly dismisses the Cosmopolitan, stating:

“Ah! Cried the old man, brightening up, “now I know. Look,” turning the leaves forward and back, till the Old Testament lay flat on one side, and all the New Testament flat on the other, while in his fingers he supported vertically the portion between, “look, sir, all this to the right is certain truth, and all this to the left is certain truth, but all I hold in my hand here is apocrypha.” (Melville 337)

The doubts that have so plagued the Cosmopolitan’s seemingly sincere love of humanity are thrust aside as belonging to a doubtful section of the fundamental scripture. The old man holds the doubtful part of the text in his had, pulling it apart from the “certain truth” of the Old and New Testaments, further emphasizing its place in the canon, but also subtly attempting to remove it from the book. This curious moment mirrors the process of the book itself, and, in a broader sense, the passage of the United States from concept into contradictory reality. To quote the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Here is the apocryphal moment in the foundation of the United States, the doubtful part. The document, like the book in the old man’s hand, holds truth on either side of the doubtful section, but the worrisome bit cannot be removed without shattering the document entirely. As this interplay is happening, in the dead of the night, passengers begin to awaken to the conundrum being discussed, and, much like their reaction to the “lamb-like figure” at the outset of the voyage, they want to hear nothing more. They wish for the argument to remain asleep. The argument however, as embodied by the two interlocutors, cannot sleep. Neither the Cosmopolitan, nor the suspicious old man, reach any ultimate conclusion regarding the quality of humanity. They are headed towards sleep (apparently) at the conclusion of the text, but there is no certainty that they shall rest. All discussion remains in flux, much like the masquerade itself, and the river.

*pagination for The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade is from the most excellent Dalkey Archive edition. If you are interested in reading this book I highly suggest acquiring this edition. (And don’t read the introduction first!)