Rereading Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) left me with a familiar, nonplussed feeling: what in the world did I make of this book when I read it at twenty or twenty-five or whenever it was?
Melville’s ninth and last novel happened to be published on April 1st, the day on which the book’s action takes place. Melville is not subtle about his Ship of Fools situation on a riverboat, the Fidèle, bound downstream from St. Louis to New Orleans. The narrator introduces a succession of men who separate other passengers from their money and whose theme is confidence, which expands from the idea of simple trust to include charity, fellow-feeling, optimism, and generally what keeps society going. A seemingly crippled black man who calls himself Guineau, a man wearing mourning in his hat, a man in a grey coat, and a florid man carrying a book are the first apparent manifestations of the confidence-man.
A snake-oil salesman—actually he sells the Samaritan Pain Dissuader and Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator—is there for a few chapters, suddenly departing the salon and then returning to give half his earnings to charity in the form of a man with a bandaged face. The salesman turns into the Natural Bone-setter when interviewing a crippled man on deck who tells him one story of his crippling, hobbles away to beg with another story, and comes back. The herb-seller gives him several boxes of his ointment, but the cripple insists on paying. Next the salesman sells a box of his herbs for two dollars—instead of the 50 cents he’s been charging—to an old coughing miser who invested his money with the man with the book.
A Missouri frontiersman shows up. “Because a thing is nat’ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?” he says to the old man. He expresses the cynical view about confidence. Knaves and fools are like horses and oats—there are more of the latter, and they get eaten by the former. “You are the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man,” he says to the herb-doctor when the latter will not commit to being an outright abolitionist.
The herb-doctor leaves at Cape Girardeau and is replaced by a “round-backed, baker-kneed man” with a brass plate around his neck engraved PIO, for, he says, Philosophical Intelligence Office. He talks the frontiersman, after “Tusculan Disputations,” into giving him three dollars plus passage money to send him a boy in two weeks (the frontiersman has admitted he keeps trying boy after boy, to the tune of thirty), and then the PIO man goes ashore at Cairo. “Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions. Without it, commerce…would, like a watch, run down and stop” he says as he is going. Such talk about the necessity of confidence is the constant tune of the confidence-men in this book, and it is, any reasonable person must admit, true. The irony that those who preach confidence are least worthy of our bestowing it on them does not mean that living without trust is a prudent, much less humane, way of proceeding.
A sort of parti-colored Harlequin figure that the narrator sometimes calls the Cosmopolitan, sometimes the Philanthropist, who is soon identified as Frank Goodman, engages with the frontiersman next, and we suspect him for a fraud when he says he never could abide irony. When the frontiersman leaves, a young man in a purple vest, later identified as Charles Arnold Noble, proceeds to compare the frontiersman with an Indian-hater named Colonel Moredock, for several chapters. Charles invites Frank to a glass of wine, and drinks very little himself. When Frank asks Charlie for a loan of fifty dollars, Charlie acts as if he’s been bitten by a snake.
A chapter intervenes in which the narrator intrudes to defend the verisimilitude of his characters. Then Frank tells the story of Charlemont, who at 29 suddenly turned from affable to morose. Charlie leaves, and a cold stranger warns Frank against him. A “crazy beggar” interrupts them and gets a shilling from Frank, nothing from the cold one, who says Charles is “a Mississippi operator”—that is, a confidence-man. The cold one, whose name is Mark Winsome (he refers to himself in the 3rd person), has disciples, and introduces one of them, Egbert, to Frank and then leaves. Frank asks Egbert to play his old friend Charlie in a dialogue, then asks him for a loan. Egbert/Charlie refuses with many specious excuses, some connected with the “philosophy” of Mark Winsome. Then he says the experience of China Aster would dissuade him from the loan. We have to have the story then, and the movement of the book sometimes resembles that of the Thousand Nights and a Night in this respect of succeeding characters and stories that must be immediately told. China Aster was a candle-maker destroyed by accepting “a friendly loan.” The cosmopolitan rejects the cold philosophy of Mark Winsome and his disciple. Then he proceeds to cheat the barber out of a shave by getting him to take his “no trust” sign down.
In the last chapter, the cosmopolitan, disturbed at finding the quotations casting doubt on his optimism and trust (quoted to him by the Mark Winsome disciple) in the bible, has an old man point out to him that they are in the Apocrypha. The cosmopolitan brings up the verse in Proverbs, “For the Lord shall be thy confidence.” As the lamp light wanes he leads the old man to his berth, with the suggestion that “Something further may follow of this Masquerade.”
There really is nothing hypocritical about the cosmopolitan’s optimism about trust and confidence as a feature of human beings—or such an attitude as expressed by any of the earlier manifestations of the confidence-man on the Fidèle. Such confidence is the necessary condition for their plying their livelihood. And there seems to be the suggestion that the person who is never fooled by the con man is lacking something human. Trust is the necessary condition of business, as the PIO man points out. It may also be a necessary condition for most human interaction.