The confidence-man : his masquerade

by Herman Melville

Other authorsHarrison Hayford (Editor), Hershel Parker (Editor), G. Thomas Tanselle (Editor)
Hardcover, 1984





Evanston : Chicago : Northwestern University Press ; Newberry Library, 1984.


Male, female, deft, fraudulent, constantly shifting: which of the `masquerade' of passengers on the Mississippi steamboat Fidele is `the confidence man'? The central motif of Melville's last and most `modern' novel can be seen as a symbol of American cultural history.

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
"If he's Satan, he's also Krishna."

It was difficult to get on top of this book and balance, to feel confident in your hermeneutic agency.
on the one hand, it's dreamy, allusive, full of hints of this and that, in particular Melville's fixations with the mystic history of the West, the mystic history of the East, the relation between our relations with one another and our relations with God, and the infinite possibilities of the American West as a canvas on which to play them out for good or heartbreak (Martin Chuzzlewit is referenced). The fabulous riverboat FideĢ€le definitely fits in the midsummer night or rabbit hole or a dark carnival or a broom ride over Moscow vein--things are different and you have no idea how, or who to trust, and trust, of course, is the thing.

On the other hand, it has an idee fixe quality--we are being manipulated, and by an operator so refined that it's hard even to catch hold sometimes, hard to recognize what valences the succession of encounters is stoking and how to engage in dialogue with them. Someone said, in a con game you always want to make sure to look where your attention is being directed away from, but I found that difficult--you get so befuddled that you grab onto whatever oar Melville extends, and you feel passivized. Just as the confidence-man always wins, pretending to engage straightfaced, always walks away with the purse, the monologic masquerading as the dialogic--so I sometimes felt like Melv was operating on levels that left me unsure how to proceed except by grabbing the low-hanging fruit, and that that was just what I was meant to do, and sometimes that sent me on an intoxicating ride as per the above and other times it just felt like being carried along by the river.

And so there's a magician's-nephew fascination to the tricksy and portentous with which the book is chock a block, but I'm left feeling a bit pawnlike, and also a bit like stuff flew over my head. it makes me think that there are some books that just demand more time; it makes me think that if Henry James were able to imply significance better instead of just wheezing dimly like he do I would like him better. I'll remember the characters most of all--the Confidence-Man like flies in honey; the Cosmopolitan, who feels friendly and good in a way that the C-M doesn't and that's more suspicious yet; barber and his sign, NO TRUST; the miser, the woodsman, the wicked takedown of Emerson and Thoreau. The Krishna angle--the way the C-M gives us the change to believe! and absolve our conscience, bare a clean breast to a world that's gonna take us for whatever we're worth under any circumstances--that fascinates, and I'd like to go through again with it more in mind. Joyce is here too, and the anxiety of words always meaning more than you can exhaust and never matching up properly to things, even with the nest of intentions. This book is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle sailing down the Mississippi.
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LibraryThing member yarb
A post-modern masterpiece; a century ahead of its time. Aboard a Mississippi steamboat you can see a pubescent America in the confidence, and lack of it, asked of and offered by the various hucksters, pamphleteers and visionaries. And the novel itself tests the confidence of the reader as each character slides away beneath the muddy prose waters of the river: should I trust him? Will he come back to bite me? Is this the same person who...? And all the while Melville baits his tortuous sentences with crazy vocab and linguistic gems.

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LibraryThing member GaryPatella
I thought this was a great work by Melville. Although the title character is on a boat for practically the entire novel, I think that Melville really stepped out of his seafaring comfort zone in this one. He showed that he is more than a one trick pony.

We see a charlatan putting on various disguises and tricking people out of their money. The different scenarios are very amusing. I think it is a good read.… (more)
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
I felt mixed about Moby Dick and Billy Budd, but there were aspects of the writing I admire, and I also read Benito Cereno today and was impressed. So if I'm not a Melville fan, neither am I a detractor, but The Confidence-man had just about every aspect I do hate in the writer (other than the massive digressions) squared. For one, this is Melville at his least subtle. The title is "The Confidence Man: His Masquerade" and it takes place aboard the Steamer Fidele on April Fool's Day. By the third paragraph we read of a placard about an imposter in the area. And if by then you don't get that the theme is how confidence and trust plays into the ability to be swindled, worry not--the characters will go on and on about the subject in ways no real people converse. I've heard this described as more of a Socratic dialogue than novel. All I can say is I far prefer Plato.… (more)


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