The cosmopolitan ruminatingly eyed him awhile, then said: "The best way, as I have heard, to get out of a labyrinth, is to retrace one's steps. I will accordingly retrace mine, and beg you will accompany me. ..." p. 303.

The Confidence-Man as Hypertext

If The Confidence-Man is so open-ended, then, as A. Robert Lee states, it "could with some justice claim to operate as the exemplary postmodern text, subversive of and at all times deconstructing, its own idiom and imagined world." [31] Or, to shift the focus a bit, Gustaaf Van Cromphout writes that "no characteristic of Melville marks his mind more clearly as modern than his profound engagement with questions of epistemology." [32] Modern and Postmodern being arguably equivalent terms, one can see that either label for Melville's work designates its resonance even with understandings and critical approaches of today. In arguing its metafictional quality, the current treatment implies its affinity not only with such Shakespearian tactics as the play within the play, but also with techniques that have come to be associated with "postmodern" texts. If one would attempt to name the features of a (post)modern aesthetic, one would probably call to mind many which belong to Melville's book: a sustained level of ironic self-awareness; a use of disparate genres and textual forms; a "decentered," often non-linear narrative; an end without definite closure.

These last two features are also among those which have been argued as distinctive of hypertext. George Landow has stated that hypertext offers a medium in which the bounds between reader and writer can become blurred, because it is--more than any traditional text is able to be--such an interactive form. Hypertext, Landow claims, questions basic Aristotelian ideas of plot, among them a "fixed sequence" of narrative, a "definite beginning and ending," and "the conception of unity and wholeness." With hypertext, the reader becomes far more active, in that he or she must be the one to bestow closure upon the text, to give meaning to the text by deciding where it ends. [33] A hypertext has hyperlinks; one makes choices as to what direction the narrative takes, what meanings and definite organizational principle the text accrues and manifests. The text is there, while its narrative is left largely up to the reader.

The Confidence-Man is not fully a "hypertext" in this sense, obviously, in that its organizing principle is still very much its author's; or as Landow would say, its author still has far more authority than would a text written for the medium. Nevertheless, in explicating Melville's idea of fiction as evidenced in "Mosses," and then in exploring how it comes into play in The Confidence-Man, I have attempted to underscore the co-creative and interactive process that is here the combined act of reading and writing. That is, if features of postmodern fiction are seen to point toward hypertext, then Melville's portrayal of the fictive process anticipates both. Reading in and of The Confidence-Man is quite dramatically an activity: its internal "ungracious critics" (218) sift through the stories they are told and emerge with meanings that in a sense tell the stories back to their authors/tellers; its "real" readers are challenged at a meta-textual level to consider the process of reading as they themselves practice it, and are invited to engage in the book's indeterminacies and to make choices as to how they will effect meaning from it all. It is only fitting, then, that an edition be provided in a medium which so radically emphasizes an active readership.

There are other, less philosophical or theoretical reasons as well. The Confidence-Man is a book full of allusions, as the almost eighty pages of Elizabeth Foster's "Explanatory Notes" reveal. The benefit of hyperlinks becomes clear here, in that one can both maintain an aesthetic integrity of the text by keeping such numerous notes in a separate file (much as do editions whose notes are found at the back of the book), and yet one can also access them as readily as one may glance at footnotes. The notes themselves are interlinked, so that cross-referencing becomes far more practicable, the relevance and complementarity of different passages made clearer. So too, materials located in the appendix are linkable from both the notes and from this Introduction, making all the textual apparatus more cohesive and again, more usable than the page- turning of a traditional text would allow. SGML as well makes this text searchable, so that one need only enter a keyword to find where the term appears in the book. What all this implies, is that reading here is provided the freedom of being able to follow tangents through variable paths, which can lead to variable perspectives and interpretations. At the same, reading is given potentially more critical structure, provided by the underlying system of links. While one may follow which links one chooses, those that are followed should provide a useful entrance to a complicated work. Finding a way out is the reader's own responsibility.

Background and Critical Context || The Metafiction of The Confidence-Man

scott eric atkins