The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade


By Scott Atkins

This project will involve a number of stages in adapting Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man to hypertext format. The first of these is to digitize, spell-check, and edit the entire text of the first American edition--the 1857 Dix, Edwards, & Co. This phase has already been completed, its emendations checked against those of the five critical editions listed below. From here I will establish a set of annotations, a single file of notes linkable from the passage to which it refers, and available on its own as a feature of a hypertext appendix. The appendix will then include the annotations, along with manuscript fragments, illustrations, reviews, a chronology, and relevant background material, such as excerpts from James Hall's Sketches of History, Life, and Manners, in the West, from news accounts of the historical `Confidence Man,' from Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad." Both notes and appendix will work to establish a basic historical context for The Confidence-Man, filling interpretive gaps for contemporary readers by explicating what in Melville's society would not have required elaboration-- Biblical allusions, references to historical or political figures and situations, uses of popular literature of the time. Beyond this, I will embed within the text a series of codes that enable the text to be searched thematically. The categories chosen will reflect the interpretive approach set forward in the introduction (described below), and will involve considerations of narrative and metafiction, genre, language, and textuality. This will help extend the critical argument into the text, by inviting the reader to engage more actively its perspective toward the novel.

The primary critical component of this project will then be in the essay that comprises an introduction to this edition. The introduction will begin by briefly outlining the history of critical reception to the novel--from initial confusion and indifference, to later views of it as "posthumous" or an "abortion," to more current understandings of it as one of Melville's most accomplished works. From here I will argue my own critical approach, that a distinctive feature of the novel is its metafictional quality. I will concentrate on the self-referential style that is evinced in the three narrative interpolations (Chps. 14, 33, 44) and in the uses of the story-within-the-story. I will examine the rhetorical ambiguities revealed in Melville's writing. I will focus on how genre is employed and manipulated throughout the novel, and on how all of these features emphasize Melville's underlying argument that, for a cognitive subject in a world of indeterminacies, everything is textual. All of this will lead to a reading of The Confidence-Man that stresses the act of reading itself--reading as interpreting, an uneasy balancing-act of knowing and intuiting that, for all its humor, manifests the epistemological "seriousness" of a communication without definite resolution. This idea of a lack of resolution will then provide the departure for the last component of the essay: a treatment of its specific relevance to the medium of hypertext. The open-endedness of this text, its genric changeability, its periodic and often seemingly non-linear quality--all, I will argue, recommend it to the fluid and tangential mode of text that can "link" from any point to any related point. And perhaps more importantly for a book that so forcefully argues the activity of reading and interpreting, is the increasingly interactive process that hypertext offers; The Confidence-Man is nothing if not a text that engages its reader.

FULL TEXT [WITH NOTES]: The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade


Editions Consulted

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. New York: Dix, Edwards & Co. 1857.

Foster, Elizabeth S., ed. The Confidence-Man. New York: Hendricks House, 1954.

Franklin, H. Bruce, ed. The Confidence-Man. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

Hayford, Harrison, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, eds. The Confidence-Man. Vol. 10 of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1984.

Matterson, Stephen, ed. The Confidence-Man. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Parker, Hershel, ed. The Confidence-Man. New York: Norton, 1971.

Annotated Bibliography

Bellis, Peter J. "Melville's The Confidence-Man: An Uncharitable Interpretation." American Literature 59 (Dec. 1987): 548-569. Argues against the "standard line" of interpretation, which, he states, impose a unifying framework of moral and allegorical readings upon the text, and demonstrate "a considerable degree of interpretive blindness." States that "The Confidence-Man endorses neither belief nor disbelief," but instead subverts all attempts at an interpretation of some underlying "unifying principle." Sees the story of "Indian-Hating" as having been over-emphasized by critics seeking within it a moral understanding, and reads the book's final passage as "a paradigm for all reading," showing that "textual unity and consistency are produced not by interpretation but by exclusion."

Berthoff, Warner. "Herman Melville: The Confidence-Man." Landmarks of American Writing. Ed. Hennig Cohen. New York: Basic Books, 1969. 121-133. Sees as the basic issue of the novel a fundamental and multi-layered uncertainty, because of which nothing--of theme, plot, character--can be taken for granted. Emphasizes the book's style over its "story" as the "chief indicator... of its general import." Reads the Confidence Man as a "promoter of discourse," and thus as a kind of teacher. Argues that the close of the novel marks a definite shift toward kindness, where the cosmopolitan's treatment of the old man demonstrates not a resolution of the book's indeterminacies, but the clearing away of a previous tension.

Bryant, John. "The Confidence-Man: Melville's Problem Novel." A Companion to Melville Studies. Ed. John Bryant. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. 315-350. Provides a synopsis of the novel, presenting a few generally agreed-upon interpretations of specific scenes and characters. Gives a brief history of the book's composition, discusses possible sources, existing manuscript fragments, varying editions. Gives an overview of the range of critical approaches to the text, and suggests different questions surrounding the novel that could be addressed. Makes the point that, with this text perhaps more than any other of Melville's, no critical "answer" might stand resolved and unchallenged.

Cawelti, John G. "Some Notes on the Structure of The Confidence- Man". American Literature 29 (Nov. 1957): 278-88. Examines the structure of The Confidence-Man, specifically in terms of the three narrative "digression[s]." Sees Chps. 14, 33, 44 as providing "a frame of ambiguity within which the enigmatic action of the narrative takes place." States that the narrative interludes help establish a principle of self- contradiction within the text--the "incomplete reversal"--by which representations of "mutually exclusive possibilities" remain unresolved. This in turn is seen as the dramatic enactment of an underlying "inscrutable reality."

Dryden, Edgar. Melville's Thematics of Form: The Great Art of Telling the Truth. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968. 3-29, 149-195. Argues a Melvillean theory of fiction based on a reading of "Hawthorne and His Mosses," where fiction is seen as "the Great Art of Telling the Truth" and "all of Melville's narrator's are, in some way, portraits of the artists at work." Reads The Confidence-Man in terms of its self-referential narrative techniques--mainly its interpolated authorial commentary (chps. 14, 33, 44), and its stories-within-the-story. Sees the narrator as yet another form of the confidence man, each of whose arguments are "ontologically subversive," providing evidence of a Melvillean "metaphysics of emptiness."

Hauck, Richard Boyd. A Cheerful Nihilism. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1971. 3-14, 77-132. Uses Camus's treatment of the "absurd" in evaluating a strain of ambivalent humor throughout American fiction. Sees the Confidence-Man as an "absurd creator" who creates himself and his confidence negatively against a realization of the world's meaninglessness. Sees faith not as "foolish" but as "absurd"--so that "confidence" itself only demonstrates at another level the ambivalence of Melville's "double vision." Confidence is seen here not just as a mode of deception, but as a social necessity, something which "holds the world together."

-----. "Nine Good Jokes: The Redemptive Humor of the Confidence Man and The Confidence-Man." Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. Eds. G.R. Thompson and Virgil Lokke. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue UP, 1981. 245-282. Develops the passage from A Cheerful Nihilism. Emphasizes the creativity of confidence, in reading the "nine good jokes" of Chp. 29 as suggesting nine embodiments of the confidence man (the ninth being the narrator himself). Suggests that the text presents a world in which "the refusal to suspend disbelief is a failure of imagination," and states that the final lesson of the book is that "charity cannot arise from experience and must therefore be continually invented in an act of confidence."

Kemper, Steven E. "The Confidence-Man: A Knavishly-Packed Deck." Studies in American Fiction 8 (Spr. 1980): 23-35. States that the book dramatizes a critique of the "abilities of fiction, language, and individual perception to embody experience truthfully." Notes how the narrator "feign[s] ignorance" in describing a character, relating features only as surmises, even though the features are later seen to be the definitive marks of the character. Examines the use of negatives in "mak[ing] facts insubstantial and inexact," and notes how Melville uses analogy and language in general as a means of self-contradiction.

Kuhlmann, Susan. Knave, Fool, Genius: The Confidence Man as He Appears in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1973. 3-8, 104-129. A treatment of the figure of the confidence man in American fiction, especially as he comes to represent fiction itself as a "useful art"--one with material as well as intellectual consequences. Sees The Confidence-Man as a means by which Melville might comment upon and subvert a number of social and cultural "maxims of his republic." Emphasizes Melville's relation to his audience at the time of composition, so that the confidence man becomes a "mask from behind which an embattled author could address his country."

Lindberg, Gary. The Confidence-Man in American Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1982. 3-47. Treats the appearance of the confidence man throughout American literature, suggesting it as a "covert cultural hero" for America. Reads Melville's "hypothesis" in The Confidence-Man as stating "that American social activity is a confidence game." Notes how Melville's narrator "lacks authority," so that the telling of the story dramatizes a central problem of "develop[ing] a relation between principle and experience." Emphasizes the creative force of the confidence man, whose identity is a series of roles which force those whom he encounters to create and recreate their own social roles.

Selzer, Leon. "Camus's Absurd and the World of Melville's The Confidence-Man." PMLA 82 (March 1967): 14-27. Uses Camus's developments of ideas of the absurd to show how The Confidence- Man dramatizes "lucid reason noting its limits." Notes the novel's lack of an underlying "norm" by which we might "test the integrity of what is presented to us," and argues that the novel is not satirical because "it cannot legitimately be regarded as corrective." Sees the "consciousness" of the absurdity and contingency of the world as the ultimate aim of the book, uncomfortably revealing what Selzer claims is an "ethical nihilism."

Van Cromphout, Gustaaf. "The Confidence-Man and the Problem of Others." Studies in American Fiction 21 (Spr. 1993): 37-50. Concentrates on Melville's "profound engagement with questions of epistemology," reading The Confidence-Man as an exploration of "what philosophy calls other-minds skepticism"--that is, the problem of a human subject knowing the human subjectivity of others. Sees "characterization, ...narrative, and ...theoretical reflections" as the ways in which the book "problematizes the cognitive relationship of the subject others." Argues that the novel calls for the abandonment of "knowledge" as the basis of relations between subjects; claims that "charity provides the novel with its moral norm."

General References

Arvin, Newton. Herman Melville. New York: The Viking Press, 1957.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Doestoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1984.

Berthoff, Warner. The Example of Melville. New York: Norton, 1962.

Fussell, Edwin. Frontier: American Literature and the American West. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1965.

Hayford, Harrison, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, eds. Correspondence. Vol. 14 of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1993.

Hoffman, Daniel. Form and Fable in American Fiction. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1994.

Landow, George. Hypertext. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984.

Lee, A. Robert. "Voices Off, On and Without: Ventriloquy in The Confidence-Man." Herman Melville: Reassessments. Ed. A. Robert Lee. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1984.

Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951.

McDermott, John Francis. The Lost Panoramas of the Mississippi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Mitchell, Edward. "From Action to Essence: Some Notes on the Structure of Melville's The Confidence-Man." American Literature 40 (1968): 27-37.

Ramsey, William M. "The Moot Points of Melville's Indian-Hating." American Literature 52 (1980): 224-35.

Tichi, Cecelia. "Melville's Craft and the Theme of Language Debased in The Confidence- Man." ELH: A Journal of English Literary History. 39 (Dec. 1972): 639-58.

Trimpi, Helen P. Melville's Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1987.

Willeford, William. The Fool and His Scepter: A Study of Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1969.

Wright, Nathalia. Melville's Use of the Bible. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1949.