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The Confidence Man (Norton Critical Editions)

The Confidence Man (Norton Critical Editions) (Paperback) by Herman Melville (Author) Hershel Parker (Editor), Mark Niemeyer (Editor)

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Summary

Book Description

"In The Confidence-Man," writes John Bryant in his Introduction, "Melville found a way to render our tragic sense of self and society through the comic strategies of the confidence game. He puts the reader in the game to play its parts and to contemplate the inconsistencies of its knaves and fools." Set on a Mississippi steamer on April Fool's Day and populated by a series of shape-shifting con men, The Confidence-Man is a challenging metaphysical and ethical exploration of antebellum American society. Set from the first American edition of 1857, this Modern Library paperback includes an Appendix with Bryant's innovative "fluid text" analysis of early manuscript fragments from Melville's novel. -This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Reviews

The great transcendental satire-Carl Van Vechten-This text refers to the Paperback edition.

5 out of 5 stars A Classic Exploration of Trust and the Con, October 3, 2006

By Charles Hugh Smith (Berkeley, CA United States)

Why read a book from 1857 which flopped so badly as commercial literature that Melville stopped writing and ended his career as a customs official? Because this book masterfully explores the entire nature of trust, confidence and cons. Though the setting is a riverboat on the Mississippi River just before the U.S. exploded into Civil War, its insights cross cultural boundaries.

This is not an easy book to read for several reasons. First, it is undoubtedly one of the first "post-modern" novels which breaks from traditional narrative storytelling. ( Another example: Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground.) The Confidence-Man is a collection of 45 conversations between various people on the riverboat--beggars, absurdly dressed frontiersmen, sickly misers, shysters, patent medicine hucksters, veterans (of the Mexican-American War) and the "hero" in the latter part of the book, the Cosmopolitan.

In typical Melville fashion, you also get asides--directly to the reader, in several cases, as if Melville felt the need to address issues of fiction outside the actual form of his novel. The lack of structure, action and conclusion make this a post-modern type book, but if you read each conversation as a separate story, then it starts to make more sense.

For what ties the book together is not a story but a theme: the nature of trust and confidence. In a very sly way, Melville shows how a variety of cons are worked, as the absolutely distrustful are slowly but surely convinced to do exactly what they vowed not to do: buy the "herbal" patent medicine, buy shares in a bogus stock venture, or donate cash to a suspect "charity."

In other chapters, it seems like the con artist is either stopped in his tracks or is conned himself. Since the book is mostly conversations, we are left to our own conclusions; there is no authorial voice wrapping up each chapter with a neatly stated ending. This elliptical structure conveys the ambiguous nature of trust; we don't want to be taken, but confidence is also necessary for any business to be transacted. To trust no one is to be entirely isolated.

Melville also raises the question: is it always a bad thing to be conned? The sickly man seems to be improved by his purchase of the worthless herbal remedy, and the donor conned out of his cash for the bogus charity also seems to feel better about himself and life. The ornery frontiersman who's been conned by lazy helpers softens up enough to trust the smooth-talking employment agency owner. Is that a terrible thing, to trust despite a history of being burned?

The ambuiguous nature of the bonds of trust is also explored. We think the Cosmopolitan is a con-man, but when he convinces a fellow passenger to part with a heavy sum, he returns it, just to prove a point. Is that a continuance of the con, or is he actually trustworthy?

The book is also an exploration of a peculiarly American task: sorting out who to trust in a multicultural non-traditional society of highly diverse and highly mobile citizens. In a traditional society, things operate in rote ways; young people follow in their parents' traditional roles, money is made and lent according to unchanging standards, and faith/tradition guides transactions such as marriage and business along well-worn pathways.

But in America, none of this structure is available. Even in Melville's day, America was a polyglot culture on the move; you had to decide who to trust based on their dress, manner and speech/pitch. The con, of course, works on precisely this necessity to rely on one's senses and rationality rather than a traditional network of trusted people and methods. So the con man dresses well and has a good story, and an answer for every doubt.

The second reason why Melville is hard to read is his long, leisurely, clause upon clause sentences. But the book is also peppered with his sly humor, which sneaks up on you... well, just like a good con.

5 out of 5 stars The Confidence Game: From All Angles, January 25, 2006

By Jon Linden (Warren, N.J. United States) (TOP 1000 REVIEWER) (REAL NAME)       

"The Confidence Man" was Melville's last novel. Like all his novels except "Moby Dick" it was a commercial failure. It is purported to be Melville's personal favorite of his own creation.

Melville takes a very special position in this book. He is an active author who directly interacts with the reader. The book is especially intricate and disguised. Melville tried to show the 'Confidence Game' from all angles. He illustrates those performing the game, those who are victims of the game, and those who are just side players in the game.

In a brilliant fashion, Melville creates his text in such a way so as to leave the reader wondering just who is the player and who is the victim. He recognizes that his uniquely obtuse style in this book is particularly nebulous to the reader. In a technique that is rarely used by any author, Melville directly addresses the reader in two chapters. His words help the reader reach the conclusions that are elucidated.

In the book, Melville seems to try to explain the essence of the Game; in a very interesting manner. He seems to be saying that 'All people are seeking confidence. They are either seeking self-confidence, or they are seeking the confidence of others, or they are preying on other people's confidence.' With this basic premise, Melville shows how the Game is executed and how manipulative it can be. There is no lack of the psychological in this book. Melville writes almost exclusively about the mental machinations that are utilized to play the Game effectively.

The book is highly recommended to those who are interested in the workings of the human mind and how those operations can be persuasive and even dangerous. It is a true classic in every sense of the word. It should not be overlooked.

5 out of 5 stars A book and edition which redefine "fabulous", April 19, 2006

By Another Reader (Watertown, MA USA)

As Melvillians will know (and as new readers will discover), this is an astoundingly modern work in the guise of an 'older' style. Re-reading it in this new edition is especially rewarding: abundant and illuminating notes, essays, and reviews in a beautifully produced book make for a very rich reading experience -- I got much more out of this reading than from earlier encounters with other editions. Highly recommended.


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