The Confidence-Man

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Some literary critics have reckoned Herman Melville's (1819–1891) The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) the author's "second best" book, after MobyDick (1851); it is certainly one of his most provocative and problematic. The Confidence-Man bears little resemblance to Melville's sea epic, at any rate. Unlike Ishmael, the third-person narrator is detached and almost antiseptically cryptic. Except for those three chapters (14, 33, and 44) where he steps outside of his narrative to address the reader directly, the narrator retires behind his "smoky" prose, deals in cunning ambiguities and double purposes, and offers his readers precious little help in untangling the snarled intricacies of his highly episodic narrative. One knows that the story takes place on April Fools' Day on a Mississippi riverboat named the Fidèle somewhere above Cairo, Illinois. One knows as well that the boat stops occasionally to discharge and take on a wide array of passengers and that in an oddly disorganized way these travelers constitute a diverse sampling of that "multiform pilgrim species, man" (p. 9). Beyond that, the reader cannot be very sure about much of anything that happens in the book.

The title implies that the confidence man is a single figure, but individual readers must decide whether that figure is one character or several and, if the latter, how many disguises he assumes. On four occasions, one schemer attempts to swindle another confidence man, and one has to determine which figure is engaged in the central masquerade. Is the "man in cream-colors" (p. 3), a deaf mute who writes passages of scripture on his slate in the opening chapter, one of the avatars of the confidence man? If so, he seems to be indifferent to conning anyone out of anything. Is Black Guinea, the crippled Negro who plays his tambourine and begs for the stray coins passengers might toss his way, the same figure as the man with the weed who follows upon Guinea's exit? The narrator does nothing to clarify these uncertainties. More to the point, what is this novel (if it is a novel) all about? Ahab's purposes in Moby-Dick may be quite mad, but at least they are unmistakable. The confidence man, by contrast, seems equally interested in conning his fellow passengers out of a few pennies, a major investment, or the price of a shave. It is more certain that The Confidence-Man is some sort of social and philosophical satire, but for many readers the extent and object of that satire may be murky, indeed. A description of the genesis and background of this book may help to clarify some, but by no means all, of these mysteries.


The phrase "confidence man" entered the English language on 8 July 1849. A New York Herald article titled "Arrest of the Confidence Man" described the duping of numerous New Yorkers, including one Thomas McDonald, by a man whose supposed name was "William Thompson." The man approached the targets of his swindle and bluntly asked, "Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?" Like other unwary victims, McDonald, supposing some joke involving friends of his, had given the stranger his watch. As luck would have it, he spotted the swindler weeks later and had him arrested. The original confidence man instantly became a topic for commentary. One journalist compared the criminal to a Wall Street broker, and Melville's friend Evert Duyckinck, writing in the pages of the Literary World in August 1849, observed that the success of these appeals to confidence testifies to the charitable humanity of the average American. Melville himself no doubt read the original Herald article, for in his novel the cosmopolitan offers to hold the watch of the skeptic Pitch, but at the time Melville was involved in writing White Jacket (1850) and at any rate apparently did not immediately see anything literary in the figure. The same criminal, now calling himself "Samuel Willis," was apprehended in 1855 in Albany, New York. This time his ploy involved pretending prior acquaintance with a jeweler, introducing himself as a fellow Freemason; he managed to persuade the man to give him six or seven dollars.

In most of his longer works, Herman Melville used sources to flesh out narratives that were at least in part based on his own experience. Melville had a natural respect for the "fact," but he was accustomed to alter or otherwise embellish his sources in order to dramatize what he might call the "significances" of actual occurrences. Almost always, Melville, stylistically at least, improved the prose sources from which he borrowed. The passages below reprint excerpts from a brief newspaper article Melville was undoubtedly familiar with, though he may have read a reprinted piece that appeared in the Springfield Republican on 5 May 1855. In any event, the resurfacing in 1855 of the "original" confidence man, who was first apprehended on the streets of New York City in 1849, evidently stimulated him to write a full-length novel about this figure and, more generally, about confidence games and venality abroad in the land.

He called into a jewelry store on Broadway and said to the proprietor: "How do you do, Mr. Myers?" Receiving no reply, he added "Don't you know me?" to which Mr. M. replied that he did not. "My name is Samuel Willis. You are mistaken, for I have met you three or four times." He then said he had something of a private nature to communicate to Mr. Myers and that he wished to see him alone. The two men walked to the end of the counter, when Willis said to Myers, "I guess you are a Mason,"—to which Myers replied that he was—when Willis asked him if he would not give a brother a shilling if he needed it. By some shrewd management, Myers was induced to give him six or seven dollars.

(Anonymous, "The Original Confidence Man in Town," Albany Evening Journal, 28 April 1855)

"How do you do, Mr. Roberts?"


"Don't you know me?"

"No, certainly." . . .

"If I remember, you are a mason, Mr. Roberts?"

"Yes, yes."

Averting himself a moment, as to recover from a return of agitation, the stranger grasped the other's hand; "and would you not loan a brother a shilling if he needed it?"

(Melville, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, chap. 4, p. 21)

The 1855 reemergence of the confidence man occurred when Melville was casting about for literary material, and once again the figure received some attention in newspaper and magazine articles that the author probably read. Melville was certainly familiar with at least some of these reports and with the second swindle, for in chapter 4 of The Confidence-Man he has John Ringman "renew" his acquaintance with Mr. Roberts and claim to be a fellow Mason. What separated the confidence man from other swindlers and made him known as a true "original" was his blunt appeal for the confidence of potential victims (without reference to get-rich-quick schemes, miracle cures, and the like) and his apparent indifference to both the risks he took and the amount of money he might gain as a consequence. Melville several times has his own confidence man, in one or another disguise, make overtures that recall the original prototype, but the part of a voluble apostle of confidence is mostly reserved for the role of Frank Goodman, the cosmopolitan, who dominates the final half of the book. It was in this manifestation of the confidence man that Melville sought to create a true literary original.

The author insists in chapter 44 that if one means something more than mere oddity by the word "original," then original characters are scarce indeed—he instances Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Milton's Satan as examples of true originals—and he further acknowledges that such a character is more often found than created: "Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure" (p. 238). A truly unique character is more than "singular," or rare, however—"while characters, merely singular, imply but singular forms so to speak, original ones, truly so, imply original instincts" (p. 239). He elaborates the comparison: an original character "is like a revolving Drummond light," that rays away from itself, "everything is lit by it. . . . there follows, upon the adequate conception of such a character, an effect, in its way, akin to that which in Genesis attends upon the beginning of things" (p. 239). Melville's thoughts here were recorded well after he began his novel, and they seem to testify to the high literary ambitions he eventually had for his title character. At the outset, though, his own conception of the confidence man appears to have been as the timely vehicle for a rich and sardonic social satire.


After the disappointing sales and reviews of Moby-Dick and Pierre (1852), Melville had turned to magazine writing, and there is, to use Leon Howard's word, something very "magazinish" about The ConfidenceMan. Melville freely interpolates five freestanding tales into his novel, and the main narrative itself moves by fits and starts toward some uncertain conclusion; the encounters between and among characters are highly dramatized, the subject matter is topical, and at least at first blush there appears to be very little of the "weighty" writing that had been his ambition in earlier novels but that he had deliberately avoided his most recent novel, the serialized historical fiction Israel Potter (1855). Potentially, if it too had been serialized, The Confidence-Man could have been extended indefinitely, with Melville having his central figure don yet another disguise and practice yet another familiar deception. The narrator surveys at his leisure the rich variety of characters who populate the decks of a Mississippi riverboat and who sometimes yield and sometimes resist the importuning of a glad-handing stranger anxious to sell them a bill of goods. The opening chapter rather overtly dramatizes the terms of moral and social conflict Melville meant to examine. The deaf-mute man in cream colors writes upon a slate for all to see passages from 1 Corinthians ("Charity thinketh no evil," "Charity believeth all things"); as if in answer, the boat's barber hangs over his door "no trust." The barber means that he will accept no credit for his services, but Melville clearly intends to convey a broader skepticism about placing one's confidence in a stranger. It is between those two poles that Melville meant to enact his drama of faith and skepticism. Each encounter between the confidence man and his potential victim (sometimes, ironically, yet another con man who has his own designs upon him) poses what Melville would call in Billy Budd a "moral emergency." Each successive confidence game is a lose-lose situation. If a passenger resists the appeals of the schemer, he might be deemed callous, unfeeling, or misanthropic. If he falls for the ploy, the man is gullible, idealistic, and foolish.

The original confidence man may have provided Melville with the germ for his novel, but confidence men and confidence games abounded in antebellum America. The author might also have drawn on literary antecedents as well as didactic and polemical tracts in fleshing out his book. James Fenimore Cooper in Home as Found (1838) and Charles Dickens in Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843) dealt with certain kinds of land fraud in the United States; Augustus Baldwin Longstreet in Georgia Scenes (1835) and Johnson Jones Hooper's Some Adventures of Simon Suggs (1846) supplied their sketches with criminal schemes and schemers in colorfully humorous ways; and a multitude of "reformed" swindlers (including gamblers, counterfeiters, Wall Street brokers, and the like) detailed in their autobiographies the sorts of deceptions they had practiced before they were redeemed from that wayward life. However he came by the information, Melville was familiar enough with the schemes and argot of the underworld to create in The Confidence-Man an atmosphere of venality, chicanery, and double-dealing that is at once comic and vaguely sinister.

From the very beginning Melville surveys the types and practices of swindlers abroad in the land. The man in cream colors may or may not be a confidence man, but at any rate the deaf and dumb act was a familiar ruse—the Yankee peddler William Avery Rockefeller, the father of John D. Rockefeller, had used that tactic more than once. Melville has the president of the Black Rapids Coal Company offer the college sophomore a chance to invest in "New Jerusalem." He also makes casual reference to gambling, counterfeiting, bandits, pickpockets, and sham charities dedicated to "international improvement." The herb doctor's "Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator" and his "Samaritan Pain Dissuader" promise quick relief from pain and suffering. The man in gray claims to have invented the "Protean easy-chair," which will comfort the most restless body and perhaps soothe the "most tormented conscience." In her introduction to a 1954 edition of the novel, Elizabeth Foster suggests the natural cure-all may have reference to the once-popular "Dr. Brandreth's Pills" and the "Protean easy-chair" may be a send-up of a reclining chair a Philadelphia manufacturer displayed at the Crystal Palace in 1851. The representative of the "Philosophical Intelligence Office" was also a familiar type; an intelligence office was an antebellum employment agency, and cartoons and jokes concerning the dubious practice of promising to supply one with a laborer or apprentice for an advance fee often appeared in magazines and newspapers.

In sum, Melville presents in The Confidence-Man a veritable rogue's gallery of impostors and swindlers who prey upon the unwary sympathies or desires of fellow passengers. The author refers at least casually to nearly every shady scheme of the time, and he seasons his narrative of self-fashioning and double-dealing with underworld slang. The name Charlie Noble itself is a punning contradiction—a "charlie" in nineteenth-century parlance was a thimblerigger, or cheat, and anything but "noble." The comic encounter between the cosmopolitan and the barber in chapter 42 is a tissue of such puns. Almost as a dare, the cosmopolitan asks the barber if he is able to "shave" (that is, "cheat") him; the barber replies, "No broker more so, sir" (p. 226) (a "broker" was a pandering retailer, or Yankee peddler). From that point forward, their conversation is a battle of wits interlarded with puns on such underworld terms as "customer" (a victim), "barber" (any sort of cheat, but more usually a gossipy kind), "lather" (smooth talk), and "brush up" (flattery). In the end, the cosmopolitan prevails, for he convinces the barber to take down his sign of "no trust" and then exits without paying for his shave.


Considered as social satire, The Confidence-Man is an antic and freewheeling comedy. One discerning contemporary reviewer recognized that the book did not abide by novelistic conventions and that it was a mistake to read it in that way. Instead, he described it as a "Rabelaisian patchwork": "The oddities of thought, felicities of expression, and wit, humor, and rollicking inspirations are as abundant and original as in any of the productions of this most remarkable writer" (Leyda 2:570). Melville attempted to capitalize upon a contemporary interest in the original confidence man and to provide an olio of shams and deceptions that might be practiced on the streets of New York or on a riverboat on the Mississippi. To that degree, he succeeded in delivering the sort of social satire that is most comprehensible and most retrievable when viewed through the lens of American history. But Melville, as he almost always did in his better books, also probed his material for what he called in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne their "significances." Modern readers have tended to be more alert to the sly depth and intricacy of Melville's ambiguities than to those moments, frequent enough, when he straightforwardly addressed his own era and dealt with popular issues and concerns. Even so, Melville's deep-diving intelligence and his own high literary aspirations are not without their historical interest.

Particularly in the latter half of the novel, the confidence man, in the guise of the cosmopolitan, appears far less interested in bilking his victims for petty cash than in serving as an evangelist of confidence itself. Virtually every character the cosmopolitan encounters dramatically embodies the paradoxes of human nature. The Missouri bachelor, Pitch, fancies himself a skeptic, but he finds he has "unwittingly been betrayed into being an unphilosophical dupe" (p. 129). Charlie Noble, a confidence man himself, means to ask Frank Goodman for a loan, but when Frank is the first to make application for charity, Charlie Noble undergoes a radical transformation: "Out of old materials sprang a new creature. Cadmus glided into the snake" (p. 180). Similarly, the novel's grandly spiritual transcendentalist figures Egbert and Mark Winsome are at length revealed to be "practical" mystics—self-serving, hard-hearted, and callous. The boat's barber, as already noted, suspends his customary practice of "no trust" and is perplexed by his own lapse into confidence. The old farmer in the concluding chapter of the novel is presented as a perfectly innocent Christian, "untainted by the world, because ignorant of it" (p. 241). His purchase of a door lock, a counterfeit detector, and a money belt, however, contradicts his professed faith in a benevolent and superintending Providence.

The upshot of these transformations, Melville seems to be saying, is that human nature itself is something of a masquerade, and deceivers may themselves be self-deceived. Declared misanthropes are discovered to be secret philanthropists. Would-be "boon companions" are in fact conniving enemies. Transcendentalists are really Yankee peddlers. Professing Christians are, unknown even to themselves, unbelievers. It is in this sense that Melville's satire broadens out and dramatically discloses the "caprices" of the human heart. More than once, the author suggests that literature itself may be something of a confidence game. In chapter 14 he has his narrator observe that readers demand consistent characters but at the same time know that in view of the "inconsistencies" of human nature human personality is past finding out. The superficial or beguiling novelist, who by representing human character always in a clear light "leaves it to be inferred that he clearly knows all about it" (p. 70), is in fact practicing a swindle on his readers. Likewise, in chapter 33, Melville says that "it is with fiction as with religion"; the common reader wants "another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie" (p. 183).

Taken together, these comments, and many like them, express Melville's objection to the literary culture of his day, and that culture is also an object of satire. Various critics and scholars have detected satiric portraits of many nineteenth-century literary figures in the pages of The Confidence-Man, from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Edgar Allan Poe to Horace Greeley, Fannie Kemble, Bayard Taylor, and Joel Barlow. One may push this line of reasoning too far, and it is probably more judicious to think of certain characters aboard the Fidèle as "type exponents" of literary figures, to use Harrison Hayford's phrase (p. 350). One does know, at any rate, that Melville was deliberately satirizing the writing of James T. Hall and in particular his account of the Indian-hater Colonel John Moredock in chapter 26, "Containing the Metaphysics of Indian Hating." The story of China Aster has unmistakable reference to a homiletic journal for children by that name, and Melville displays his particular disgust for the sort of pabulum that passes for moral instruction. The more secure point is that Melville was, if not satirizing, certainly registering his contempt for a literary culture that seemed to play fast and loose with its reader's fears and hopes and to foster attitudes toward life that were neither realistic nor prudent.

Finally, there is the question of faith in the book, an ingredient that probably has less to do with the religious ethos of America than it does with Melville's own religious uncertainties. At all events, a book that begins with passages from St. Paul and ends with the cosmopolitan and the old farmer puzzling over disturbing statements in the Apocrypha, while the whole narrative takes place on a riverboat not so coincidentally named the Fidèle, is not wholly preoccupied with secular concerns. In fact, some critics have tended to read The Confidence-Man as a religious, or perhaps as an antireligious, allegory in which the title character is actually Satan. Such a reading may be too stark. Nevertheless, Melville does seem to be conflating the sorts of confidence one offers or withholds on deck with the sort of faith upon which the old man and the cosmopolitan meditate in the boat's library at the conclusion of the book. The old man remarks how comforting it is to trust "in that Power which is alike able and willing to protect us when we cannot ourselves" (p. 250). The cosmopolitan assents to the sentiment, but Melville has shown throughout his novel how vulnerable and ambiguous faith of any sort might be.

See alsoBattle-Pieces;Confidence Men; Moby-Dick;Religion; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody; Typee


Primary Works

Anonymous. "The Original Confidence Man in Town." Albany Evening Journal, 28 April 1855. Reprinted in The Confidence-Man, edited by Hershel Parker, pp. 228–229. Norton critical edition. New York: Norton, 1971.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. 1851. Edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1987. Quotations from the novel in the text are from this edition.

Secondary Works

Bergmann, Johannes Dietrich. "The Original Confidence Man: The Development of the American Confidence Man in the Sources and Backgrounds of Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade." Ph.D. diss., University of Connecticut, 1968.

Foster, Elizabeth S. Introduction to The Confidence-Man:His Masquerade, by Herman Melville. New York: Hendricks House, 1954.

Halttunen, Karen. Confidence Men and Painted Women: AStudy of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830–1870. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Hayford, Harrison. "Poe in The Confidence-Man." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 14 (1959): 207–218. Reprinted in The Confidence-Man, edited by Hershel Parker, pp. 344–353. Norton critical edition. New York: Norton, 1971.

Howard, Leon. Herman Melville: A Biography. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1951.

Kuhlmann, Susan. Knave, Fool, and Genius: The ConfidenceMan as He Appears in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973.

Lenz, William E. Fast Talk and Flush Times: The ConfidenceMan as a Literary Convention. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985.

Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951.

Lindberg, Gary. The Confidence Man in American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Quirk, Tom. Melville's Confidence Man: From Knave to Knight. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Trimpi, Helen P. Melville's Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1987.

Wadlington, Warwick. The Confidence Game in AmericanLiterature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Tom Quirk

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The Confidence-Man

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