Books: The Misanthrope

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After this, the confidence-man's masquerades multiply fast. He appears as a businessman and shakes down a merchant for a loan, by convincing him that he is an old acquaintance. He gulls a sympathetic gentleman with a billion-dollar worldwide relief scheme ("Missions I would quicken with the Wall Street spirit"). Ever extolling the power of positive thinking, the confidence-man takes the form of an herb doctor with a cure-all called the Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator ("Health is good, and nature cannot work ill").

Riverboat Devil. What Melville aims at in these episodes is a scathing, nihilistic critique of every reigning belief of 19th century America: shallow assumptions about perpetual progress, Christian hypocrisy and pretensions, easy optimism about man, nature and the universe, Emersonian uplift and self-seeking self-reliance, and the hard-driving spirit of commerce in all things. But Melville will not stop until he can debunk the goodness and glory of God. In a final episode, an old man sits reading the Bible by the light of a solitary lamp. A young sharper (not the confidence-man) exposes the old man's imperfect faith by selling him a lock and a money belt, and giving him a counterfeit-detector as a bonus. The confidence-man gently chides the old fellow, "since in Providence, as in man, you and I equally put trust." "Let me extinguish this lamp," he says, and as he leads the old man off into the darkness, the confidence-man is no longer a smooth-talking Iago turned riverboat swindler, but the Devil himself holding the whole earth in his black hand.

As a novel, The Confidence-Man is a near miss, one of those pregnant and provocative failures that prove more rewarding to read than a whole litter of lesser writers' tidy but empty triumphs. Austere and philosophical, it sometimes seems all head and no tale. Despite its dire point of view, the book jests and jostles with life, and really belongs with the sardonic comic charades of Swift, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, and Ben Jonson's Volpone. Like them, it is a kind of cosmic hangover suffered by a man who—having drunk overfull of the human race—swears off mankind. Melville's nausea ran so deep that he did not write another novel for 32 years. In the end he did make his peace with the universe, a serene and affirmative one, in the classic pages of his final masterpiece, Billy Budd.

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