Background and Critical Context

By the time he finished The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville had written all the novels he would finish, and with the exception of Billy Budd (which would not be published until 1924), he was done with prose in general. Born August 1, 1819, he had first flashed upon the literary scene in 1846, with the publication of his narrative of South Pacific adventure, Typee. He soon followed this with another work in the same vein, Omoo (1847). Both drew on his own experiences as a sailor--especially the first, which recounted and embellished how he and his shipmate Toby Greene jumped ship for an island in the Marquesas, and lived among a tribe virtually untouched by the Western world. These works were well-appreciated by his audience and they gave him an initial recognition and popularity that would give him the confidence he would need in developing his more serious later work. Mardi (1849) marks the first of the more evident departures that would lead Melville away from the fairly uncomplicated but entertaining genre of travel narrative, toward the more metaphysical and symbolic Romance which would culminate in his masterpiece, Moby Dick or, The Whale (1851). Yet philosophy and symbolism were not necessarily what his audience preferred or even wanted, and Melville was plagued throughout the rest of his career by critics and reviewers who urged him to return to what they all thought he did best, writing simple adventure yarns. As Portland's Daily Advertiser would put it in a review of The Confidence-Man: "We prefer the earlier works of Melville, when he gave us fascinating and simply-drawn stories, without the obtrusion of personal theories" (8 April 1857).

Market pressures had compelled Melville--ostensibly, at least--to return after Mardi to a more straightforward Typee-like narrative, in which mode he produced Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850). As rich as these works are at times, Melville himself seems to have thought of them as little more than ways to make money, relatively inconsequential compared to the kind of book that would follow with Moby Dick. The reception of Moby Dick would only help clarify the problem he had described to Hawthorne earlier in 1851: "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned.--it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches." In Melville, economic pressures seem to have come against his own self- directed pressure of achieving artistic greatness or originality, so that his work would become a crucible for his re-defined, literary self. As he writes later in the same letter, "What reputation H.M. has is horrible. Think of it! To go down to posterity is bad enough, any way; but to go down as a 'man who lived among the cannibals'!" (Letter to Hawthorne, June 1851). Earlier, in "Hawthorne and His Mosses," (1850) he had written of the fictional roles and ventriloquial measures an artist was forced to take in realizing his work as "the great Art of Telling the Truth." He had also pointed out that there was a difference between "Shakespeare" and "only master William Shakespeare of the shrewd, thriving business firm of Condell, Shakespeare & Co..."; that is, a great author would be defined by nothing else but the greatness of his work. His readers would recognize no special quality in the historical figure himself, but would instead read that quality into the author. For Melville, then, fiction was increasingly becoming a medium not only of hidden and only partly glimpsed "Truth," but of self-definition and at times perhaps even self-transcendence. Always in his fiction, as Edgar Dryden states, his "narrators are, in some way, portraits of the artist at work". [1]

. If fiction and its author were indeed as co-creative as Melville seemed to suppose, one could hardly fault his frustration at having a public which only accepted the kind of work that he himself saw as flat and uncomplicated--and thus which only accepted him as a flat and uncomplicated author. One might even have been able to see coming his economically disastrous act of rebellion, Pierre (1852). In a way, for a man looking to get at the "sane madness of vital truth," the popular response to Pierre could hardly have better proven his artistic point; one New York periodical gave the headline "Herman Melville Crazy." In any event, Pierre was a tortured attempt to put into Gothic form the kind of heights and depths he'd reached with Moby Dick, but by most critical accounts, it was out of control, draining irrevocably Melville's reputation as a popular author.

Beginning in 1853 Melville started writing a number of shorter works for Harper's and Putnam's magazines, the second of whose stories--including "Bartleby the Scrivener" and Benito Cereno--were collected as The Piazza Tales (1856). Israel Potter (1855), his Revolutionary historical fiction, was also initially published in serial form for Putnam's. Newton Arvin has pointed out the thematic "homogeneity" of this period, identifying "two or three motives" that suggest an interrelation of biographical concerns with Melville's "fictional," authorial identity: "ideas of failure, bankruptcy, anticlimax, the miscarriage of hopes, and a willful withdrawal from the life of men; . . . the closely related motive of exile, desertion, forlornness, or sterility; and . . . the motive of treachery, fraudulence, and falsity." [2] If this hints at perhaps an overly Moby-centric view of Melville's later fiction, critics also have often noted the heightened stylistic control that Melville achieved during this phase of his career. Even if Melville could not regain the romantic grandeur of Moby Dick or the deep psychological extremes of Pierre, he seemed continually to be developing his use of narrative structure and, in general, his awareness of language. With The Confidence-Man, it was precisely through this heightened control of language and style, and through his developed sense of narrative as a communicative and transactive skill, that Melville would add one of the true master strokes to his aggregative portrait of self- defining work.

Melville's publishers, Dix & Edwards, had enough of a sense of humor that they published The Confidence-Man on April 1st, 1857. This was an April's Fool's referent that meshed better with his work than Melville could have anticipated, as the joke shifted from text to publishing house itself a few weeks later when Dix & Edwards folded. [3] For this reason, in America, there were relatively few reviews, while only a few of these could be considered favorable. The Exeter News-Letter, and Rockingham Advertiser (6 April 1857), saw the novel as "another of [Melville's] pleasant stories, written in his own peculiarly graphic and unique style," while the Boston Evening Transcript (3 April 1857) had this as its most specific comment: "We commend this book as a unique affair." Many of the reviews, however, were less pleased with the book, their comments ranging from bemusement to hostility, often with a seemingly puzzled disappointment that Melville persisted in choosing to write material so different from Typee and Omoo. The Troy Budget (20 April 1857) claimed that The Confidence-Man "is not a novel. It wants the connection, the regular plot and great part of the machinery that is found in the regular novel"; the New York Journal (July 1857) wrote that, through the "innumerable shapes" of the Confidence Man, "dogmatizing, theorizing, philosophising and amplifying upon every known subject are 'piled up' for forty-five chapters in the most eccentric and incomprehensible manner"; the Cincinnati Enquirer (3 February 1858), stated, "'Typee,' one of, if not the first of his works, is the best, and 'The Confidence-Man' the last, decidedly the worst. So Mr. M's authorship is toward the nadir rather than the climax...."

The reviews in England were generally more charitable, perhaps because many of them largely saw it as a satirical attack on what the Saturday Review called the American "money-getting spirit" (23 May 1857). The Spectator (11 April 1857) noted the satirical quality, but argues that it "stops short of any continuous pungent effect; because his plan is not distinctly felt, and the framework is very inartistical; and also because" no one outside of Melville's U.S. could appreciate "what appear to be local allusions." The Athenaeum (11 April 1857) while calling the book "not exceptionally meritorious," exhibited some appreciation for Melville's work: "although his style is one, from its peculiarities, difficult to manage, he has now obtained a mastery over it, and pours his colours over the narration with discretion as well as prodigality." The London Illustrated Times (25 April 1857), however, demonstrated what seems to have been the most prevalent contemporary feeling about The Confidence-Man, when it stated that "the book belongs to no particular class, but we are almost justified in affirming that its genre is the genre ennuyeux." But for the modern-day literary critic, the London Critic (15 April 1857) provides a more prescient and valuably cautious commentary:

...there is a vividness and an intensity about his style which is almost painful for the constant strain upon the attention; and The Confidence-Man is that of all his works which readers will find the hardest nut to crack.
We are not quite sure whether we have cracked it ourselves--whether there is not another meaning hidden in the depths of the subject other than that which lies near the surface. ...

Still, even such respectful puzzlement was lost to the Melville revival of the 1920s, when the Melville of Moby Dick came to be seen for the literary marvel he was. Raymond Weaver, in his 1921 Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic, called The Confidence-Man "a posthumous work," while both Van Wyck Brooks and John Freeman, in 1923 and 1926 respectively, referred to it as "an abortion." While Carl Van Vechten did praise it in 1922 as "the great transcendental satire," he was basically alone in the sentiment, and the next few decades saw little improvement in its reception. Such harsh denouncements as those of Brooks and Freeman abated, but CM still had trouble getting much critical attention, and on the whole it was still considered to have failed. Lewis Mumford's 1929 biography of Melville discussed CM as a product of Melville's disturbed mental state, while Yvor Winters in 1938 concentrated on its thematic affinities with Pierre--both works propounding a "truth" of "absolute ambiguity"-- but wrote that CM is "tediously repetitious as narrative." In 1950 Newton Arvin's critical biography, like Winters, echoed the remarks of London's Illustrated Times almost a hundred years earlier, exchanging for the "genre ennuyeux" a "monotone of blackness." [4]

Richard Chase's 1949 essay on The Confidence-Man provided an important turning-point for literary critical treatment of the work, which Chase called Melville's "second-best book." From about this point, critics were more willing to take it seriously as an important and accomplished work, so that books and articles dealing with it began to grow--steadily at first, then seemingly exponentially up through the 1980s as Melville criticism sought less-charted imaginative territory beyond the canonical Moby Dick and Billy Budd, as more attention was paid to CM's explorations of representation and epistemology, and to its seemingly deconstructive tendencies, and as interest has taken hold in the con-man as a peculiarly American trope. [5] Elizabeth Foster's was the first critical edition (1954), providing a valuable and thorough Introduction, as well as a full explicative set of Explanatory Notes, helping establish a textual foundation upon which later critics and critical editions would build. After the late 1950s, a range of interpretations of and critical perspectives toward the book developed, along with such new editions as those by H. Bruce Franklin (1967), Hershel Parker (1971), Harrison Hayford, Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (the Northwestern-Newberry edition, 1984), and Stephen Matterson (1990). Among the modern critical appraisals of The Confidence-Man, still one of the most striking is that of H. Bruce Franklin, who makes the notable claim that it is "Melville's most nearly perfect work." [6] As controversial as the statement was at the time, and as contrary as it was to the previously dominant view of the book as an "abortion," Franklin's comment does help focus on the richness of the work. What is more, and more fitting, is that the depth and variety of subsequent interpretations have mirrored the potential infinitude of meanings dramatized through the book's metafictional theme of narrative and interpretation. The uncertainty that echoes through the text also echoes in the voices of its interpreters. Assumptions about even some of the most basic elements of plot become investments as equivocal as any act of "confidence" within the book.

But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.
--1 June 1851, Melville to Hawthorne.


The Metafiction of The Confidence-Man || The Confidence-Man as Hypertext

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