First edition title page
|Published||1857 (Dix, Edwards & Co.)|
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade is the ninth book and final novel by American writer Herman Melville, first published in New York in 1857. The book was published on April 1, presumably the exact day of the novel's setting. The Confidence-Man portrays a Canterbury Tales-style group of steamboat passengers whose interlocking stories are told as they travel down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans. According to scholar Robert Milder its reputation has been rising: "Long mistaken for a flawed novel, the book is now admired as a masterpiece of irony and control, though it continues to resist interpretive consensus." After the novel's publication, Melville turned from professional writing and became a professional lecturer, mainly addressing his worldwide travels, and later for nineteen years a federal government employee.
The novel's title refers to its central character, an ambiguous figure who sneaks aboard a Mississippi steamboat on April Fool's Day. This stranger attempts to test the confidence of the passengers, whose varied reactions constitute the bulk of the text. Each person including the reader is forced to confront that in which he places his trust.
The Confidence-Man uses the Mississippi River as a metaphor for those broader aspects of American and human identity that unify the otherwise disparate characters. Melville also employs the river's fluidity as a reflection and backdrop of the shifting identities of his "confidence man."
The novel is written as cultural satire, allegory, and metaphysical treatise, dealing with themes of sincerity, identity, morality, religiosity, economic materialism, irony, and cynicism. Many critics have placed The Confidence-Man alongside Melville's Moby-Dick and "Bartleby, the Scrivener" as a precursor to 20th-century literary preoccupations with nihilism, existentialism, and absurdism.
Melville's choice to set the novel on April Fool's Day underlines the work's satirical nature and potentially reflects Melville's worldview, once expressed in a letter to his friend Samuel Savage: "It is—or seems to be—a wise sort of thing, to realise that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of joke, especially his misfortunes, if he have them. And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed round pretty liberally & impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it."
The work includes several satires of 19th century literary figures: Mark Winsome is based on Ralph Waldo Emerson while his "practical disciple" Egbert is Henry David Thoreau; Charlie Noble is based on Nathaniel Hawthorne; Edgar Allan Poe inspired a beggar in the story.
- Milder (1988), 440
- Lynn Horth, ed. Correspondence. The Writings of Herman Melville: The Northwestern-Newberry Edition, Vol. 14, p. 203 (Letter of August 24, 1851). Evanston, IL and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1993. ISBN 0-8101-0995-6
- Delbanco, Andrew. Melville, His World and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005: 248. ISBN 0-375-40314-0
- "Lost in the Desert", New York Magazine, August 23, 1982
- Milder, Robert. (1988). "Herman Melville." Emory Elliott (General Editor), Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-05812-8
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- The Confidence-Man at Project Gutenberg
- Critical reaction to and a publishing history of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade from The Life and Works of Herman Melville
- Online text of the novel from the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library