Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Mississippi Operator

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.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Professor's House

I just read Willa Cather’s, The Professor’s House (1925), and from the little commentary I’ve looked at I think my reading differs from that of most.
            In the college town of Hamilton, on the banks of Lake Michigan, 52-year-old Professor Napoleon Godfrey St. Peter, author of Spanish Adventurers in North America, has just built a new house with the cash prize he got for the book. But he doesn’t like the new house and prefers to work in the cramped attic room of the old one, where his window has a view of the distant lake and the ceiling slants down to meet the floor.
            His son-in-law, Louie Marsellus, has just built a sumptuous house on the lake, calling the place “Outland” after Tom Outland, whose gas discovery, willed to his then fiancée Rosamond St. Peter, Louie has successfully promoted and appropriated, along with Rosamond herself, after Tom was killed in the war. They are as unlike Tom as possible, and glory in their material world.
            Tom Outland was St. Peter’s best student, a boy from the West who brought his own history with him. While herding cattle in New Mexico with a friend, Rodney Blake, Tom discovered that the blue mesa near their camp’s cabin held undiscovered cliff dwellings of ancient Indians who last crossed the difficult ford into the canyon below or walked the tiny precarious trail from the mesa top more than three hundred years ago. From the cliff’s huge arched caverns full of dwellings, a spectacular vista spread out of “box canyon below, and beyond into the wide valley.” The dwellings sat in natural excavations in the rock, and at the back of them the ceiling slanted down to meet the floor.
            I don’t want to suggest an equivalence between the professor’s house and the cliff dwellings, but the whole Western scene represents an unrealized dream for the professor, whose only trip to the West was with Tom, who unerringly traced the route described in Fray Garces’ old diary when teacher and student traveled there two years after Tom’s graduation. St. Peter’s Lake Michigan, as he describes it to French friends, is like a sea, but innocent, sheltering. The landscape of Tom’s Indians is beautiful, but its inhabitants are plundered then and now.
            Tom’s dream of preserving the cliff dwellings and their contents disappears when Rodney Blake sells all the artifacts to a German who takes them abroad. But the remains of the young woman Tom and Rodney found and named “Mother Eve” don’t want to leave her old cliff house for a new place. As Rodney explains, “She went to the bottom of Black Canyon and carried Hook’s best mule along with her. They had to make her box extra wide, and she crowded Jenny out an inch or so too far from the canyon wall.”
            The professor’s dream of somehow preserving the past and his own autonomy with it disappears when he is almost killed in his old room because a storm blows out his stove flame and also blows shut his one window while he sleeps. When he recovers he realizes he must join his family in earnest, since he long since has made his choices.