Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ah, you are a talking man--what I call a wordy man. You talk, talk. - describing The Confidence-Man

I find it helpful to think about the layers of The Confidence-Man.  Not that the layers are so different than in many other novels.  But: when in doubt, break it into pieces.

The surface, the story.  One day on a riverboat descending the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans.  I do not know how far a riverboat moved in a day.  The boat has made it to Cape Girardeau, Missouri near the middle (Ch. 21).

Passengers board and debark along the way.  “As among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, or those oriental ones crossing the Red Sea towards Mecca in the festival month, there was no lack of variety” (Ch. 2).  A couple of characters are pulled from the crowd to chat or debate or joke around.  They separate; one vanishes, to be mentioned but never seen again, and is replaced with a new sparring partner.  A dances with B, B with C, C with D, and so on in a round dance, until the middle of the novel when Melville settles on a single person, the Cosmopolitan, who stays on the scene while waltzing with the previously unknown X, Y, and Z until the sun rises on the last page.

The bulk of the book is talk – dialogue, argument, story-telling, palaver.  The proportion of the words enclosed in quotation marks is high.  Many chapters might as well be written as plays, as in some famous chapters of Moby-Dick.  "Ah, you are a talking man--what I call a wordy man.  You talk, talk."  (Ch. 22)  That is the novel’s self-description.

The first great trick of the novel takes place at this level.  It turns out that A, C, E, H, and so on, including the Cosmopolitan, are (probably) the same character, a confidence man who is a master of disguise.  The novel has a puzzle aspect, in that I have to figure out who is an avatar of the confidence man and who is not.  Mostly this is not too hard of a puzzle, although there are a couple of ambiguous cases.

The first and second obstacles are visible at this level: no novelistic characters (meaning, no interiority), and no novelistic plot.

If there is little plot, what is the substitute?  Layer two: satire.  The one day of the novel is April Fool’s Day, and the riverboat is a Ship of Fools, the characters a succession of American and universal types.  Misers, capitalists, snake oil doctors, stock brokers, that sort of thing, along with a few real people – Ralph Waldo Emerson, definitely, as well as a disappointingly bland Henry David Thoreau and a cameo by Edgar Allan Poe.  The satire of characters leads to satire of ideas: transcendentalism, prejudices, Christian hypocrisy.  Men are fools and make for good comedy.

Another obstacle, then: some of this stuff is pretty specific to the period.  Researchers have dug up a lot, bless them.

Layer three is allegorical.  The novel is an expression of Melville’s religious doubts, which are not so much atheism as an anguished protest against God.  The confidence man in all his aspects is the Devil, or perhaps Christ.  The sympathies of the book seem to be, especially by the end, on the Devil’s side, even though he is a fraud.  I remind myself that in Moby-Dick it is mad Ahab who is the agent of Yahweh, while the whale and likely Ishmael are in the service of God’s watery enemy, and who sympathizes with Ahab?  Some of the allegorizing is murky.  Scholars argue about exactly how much of its complexity was meant to be visible to a reader other than, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The fourth layer is artistic.  What is there to the novel besides argument?  This is the hardest one of all.


  1. You make this sound so delicious, Tom, although Melville's theological concerns are perhaps not quite my own. Of course, that didn't seem to hinder me in Moby-Dick at all. Thanks for reminding me that I need to get back to reading Typee one of these days so that I can undertake the grand Melville voyage you (and bibliographing Nicole) have traveled so fruitfully before me.

  2. The new post likely makes The Confidence-Man sound much too good. It ain't all written like that.

    I wrote a bit about not caring about Melville's religious crisis, but did not use it. Perhaps later in the week. It is more of a problem with this novel than with Moby-Dick, a much bigger problem.

  3. Sometimes I really like it when allegory and theme are murky. You have to wonder about Melville and a few other authors who have written what seems like deliberately obtuse books. It seems strange. Yet I not only admire these efforts, but I so love exploring them.

  4. Absolutely, absolutely. Some deliberate murk is a fine artistic choice.

  5. I think that the really great works of art tend to resist our efforts to interpret them, are too complex to be easily grasped, which is why they get batted around by readers for centuries. Of course, sometimes a hash of ideas is just a hash of ideas and not art at all, but that's a separate subject. I don't know what "not art at all" really means there.

  6. This is one is too complex to be laboriously grasped. Is there a better antonym for "easily" in this case? Never mind that.

    I don't mind putting moving certain kinds of texts in to a "not art" category - my college calculus textbook, for example. And "bad art" is a huge category. That is the one Melville risks with The Confidence-Man.

    Some scholars argue that Melville is deliberately hiding his argument for essentially political reasons. No one commercial publisher in America was going to publish a novel arguing for atheism in 1857. And there is something to this, but it is not enough. Hiding means contradicting, parodying, confusing, ironizing - and then the idea is not hidden, but transformed into a new idea, perhaps even into art.

  7. How about "too complex to be wholly understood"?

    I think the difference between, say, the possibly-bad art of Melville and, say, the assuredly-bad art of Franzen's Freedom is that Melville was testing his own ideas and really was inviting the reader along for the journey (at least in the books of his I've read), where Franzen offers just a hash of ideas meant to impress someone. I am not sure who that someone is. Nor am I sure why I'm suddenly picking on Franzen.

    It sounds like your Hawthorne quote could be good jacket copy for Confidence Man. Is Melville hiding, or is he working with the ideas, more Jonah and Job stuff? I should read this one; it sounds great. I admire the risks Melville takes.

  8. Yeah, but you gave up the parallel construction. The parallel!

    The risk, me too, I admire it enormously, and with this book the risk seems to have been serious. Melville gave up prose for 35 years.

    Franzen's novel is not a hash but a direct, heartfelt plea to love pigeons. It is meant not to impress but to convert people whose heart's do not overflow with love at the sight of a pigeon.

  9. The novel may be incomprehensible, but if it's at least funny then I'll try it. In any event, nothing could be more taxing than reading William Gaddis' The Recognitions, which I'm currently doing (and enduring)...

  10. It is funny. Some of it is funny.

    Should I tell you what I thought of The Recognitions? Really funny. Hilarious in places. That one was not an endurance test for me. At one point while reading it occurred to me that I had the Bosch tabletop framed and hanging on the wall behind me. That was a funny moment all by itself.