The Confidence-Man

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The Confidence-Man
Confidence Man 1857 First Edition Title Page.jpg
First edition title page
AuthorHerman Melville
CountryUnited States
Published1857 (Dix, Edwards & Co.)
Media typePrint
Preceded byThe Piazza Tales 
Followed byBattle-Pieces and Aspects of the War 

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, first published in New York on April Fool's Day 1857, is the ninth book and final novel by American writer Herman Melville. The book was published on 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. Scholar Robert Milder notes: "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."[1] 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.


Manuscript fragment from Chapter 14 of The Confidence-Man.

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 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.

The work includes presumed 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.[2]


The novel was turned into an opera by George Rochberg; it was premiered by the Santa Fe Opera in 1982, but was not held to be a success.[3]


  1. ^ Milder (1988), 440
  2. ^ Delbanco, Andrew. Melville, His World and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005: 248. ISBN 0-375-40314-0
  3. ^ "Lost in the Desert", New York Magazine, August 23, 1982


  • Milder, Robert. (1988). "Herman Melville." Columbia Literary History of the United States. Gen. Ed. Emory Elliott. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-05812-8

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