THE CONFIDENCE-MAN (392 pp.)Herman MelvilleHendricks House ($4).
Herman Melville was in hock to his publishers and out of favor with his pubic. Moby Dick had provoked mixed reviews; its successor, Pierre, got savage ones. His readers wanted him to spin more of his early, popular South Sea romances such as Typee and Omoo. Exhausted and distraught, Melville developed neurotic mental tics and jumpy relatives made tentative moves to have him declared insane. His wife was soon to voice her special qualms in a letter to her mother: "Herman has taken to writing poetry. You need not tell anyone, for you know how such things get around." In despair, and doubting even his creative powers, Melville in 1856 wrote The Confidence-Man, as black-biled a novel as exists in American literature.
Published for the sixth time in English, it nonetheless remains the least known work of the U.S.'s greatest novelist. What the book needs, and ably gets in an introduction by Elizabeth S. Foster, a perceptive Melville specialist, is a key to its structure and a path through its symbols.
Practical Joke. The Confidence-Man is a satiric picaresque allegory that indicts not only man's inhumanity to man, but, as Melville saw it, God's as well. The theme and mood of the novel are caught in a line from Moby Dick: "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke." The setting for Melville's vast practical joke 'is a Mississippi riverboat, named Fidèle, on a run from St. Louis to New Orleans. The day is April Fool's Day. The characters are a bustling "congress of all kinds of that multiform pilgrim species, man . . . farm-hunters and fame-hunters, heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters and still keener hunters after all" these hunters." The multiform hunters are uniform prey; they exist only to be duped.
An unworldy stranger prepares the way for the confidence-man, the master-duper. Silently, the stranger scrawls some words on a slate and holds it up for the passengers to see: "Charity thinketh no evil," "Chanty endureth all things," "Charity never faileth." Close by, the ship's barber opens his shop for the day and he too hangs up a sign: "No trust."
The Wall Street Spirit. A string of episodes fleshes out the mordant meaning of this dumb show. A Negro cripple named Black Guinea squats on his deformed legs and begs for his supper by singing an idiotic little tune, winning the crowd's favor by catching pennies, and more than a few buttons, in his mouth. A mean-spoken cynic promptly accuses the cripple of shamming, and after a vain, mumbling plea for "confidence," Black Guinea slinks off the boat at the next landing. Black Guinea is the first of many disguises assumed by the confidence-man and the clue to Melville's bitter moral. He mulcts the fools who believe in him, but can only be exposed by knaves who have no jot of faith in any man.