Herman Melville flourishes his pen as medieval architectural artists flourished churches, commanding parishioner’s attention and losing the very same attention as eyes turn to moldings and stained glass crucifixion scenes. The proverbial tree lost for the forest resembles precisely the type of slight Melville actuates in his novel–his 19th century adjectival verbosity is lost for the 21st century reader’s short attention span–proving the tree adage with Melville’s wordy forest. In “The Confidence-Man,” Melville has set up a main character (the con man) whose identity shifts from one chapter to the next. When approaching the broader vision of the novel the reader notices this consistent character shift and at times becomes lost in the slight-of-hand.
Through the kaleidoscopically attired professional lens of the 19th century, Melville introduces readers to a collection of seemingly varied characters, who lead seemingly varied lives and whose commonalities seemingly are merely time and place. The entire novel questions “confidence” as that condition in which human beings offer their trust to other human beings. Melville challenges the conditions of trust and informs readers that most often confidence is given based on personal biases. Melville spends chapter after chapter building up, breaking down, and rebuilding character confidences. It is through this building up and breaking down of identities that the reader is introduced to the politics, religions, and basic lifestyles of the characters onboard the Fidele. Though the overlying tone is one of questioning confidence, there are two undercurrents that play off each other in Melville’s cyclic building up and breaking down of individual perspectives: 1) the role of attire; and, 2) the role of professionalism.
The Role of Attire
While Melville alternates between dialogical and descriptive initial character introductions, he consistently returns to the costumes of the characters as if espousing an infomercial on typecasting and costuming. The perception of attire as merely an aspect of stereotyping allows the reader to envision differences between otherwise similar beings based on socially created classifications. The novel begins with the introduction of “a man in cream-colors” who is described “in the extremest sense of the word, [as] a stranger” based on the “titters, whispers, [and] wonderings of the crowd” (9). This initial opening of the individual facing the stereotypical crowd mentality sets the reader up for a tit-for-tat operation that continues throughout the novel as each stereotype is examined apart from the crowd. The “man in cream-colors” is exposed as handicapped by an inhospitable crowd, his differences from society are highlighted and contrasted to the barber who is held as socially acceptable. The differences between the barber and the deaf man are in the perceptions of the crowd.
The character examinations begin with physical descriptions (bearing and attire), peek with descriptive professional titles (barber, cripple, clergyman, company president, etc), and conclude with common descriptions of each character being conned (miser waiting for triple return on money, Missourian waiting for a ‘good boy,’ etc.). Melville’s understanding of the 19th century social hierarchy allowed him to exemplify the idea that regardless of how individuals are perceived (by themselves or society) all are capable of conning or of being conned. The beggar is aware of his appearance and works his trade just like the slave, the barber, and the company president. In this sense, the act of conning is a matter of perception affected by individual appearance and social exchanges. Further, perception is the con perpetuated by the individual in their relationship with their contemporary society. (Or, if you prefer, working for survival is the con of life.)
The Role of Professionalism
Throughout the ages European societies used clothing to denote class statuses and religious affiliations, this appearance driven system–rooted deep in “civilized” psyches–had already been adopted into American culture by the 19th century. Melville would have been well accustomed with contemporary American culture and the habit that related professions in much the same light as Europeans viewed class status/religious affiliations. Melville would have been familiar with systematic categorizing as derived from generations of immigrants who arrived with European class-conscious biases that were later Americanized into profession-conscious biases. The American bureaucracy served to institutionalize the classification of people based primarily on race, but as indicated in the exchanges between Pitch, “the Missourian,” and the “five-dollar suit” wearing “Philosophical Intelligence Office” man, these classifications were further based on the perceptions of bureaucrats and their exchanges with “patrons” (Ch 22).
The better the individual’s ability to affect the perception of society, the better the individual’s ability to effect the con of said society. Susan M. Ryan states, in the Norton excerpt “From Misgivings: Melville, Race, and the Ambiguities of Benevolence,” that
“professional beggars…engaged in a variety of passing. They faked destitution or illness, pretended to be blind, or borrowed hungry-looking children to make their appeals seem more urgent, all because they preferred such deceptions to working for a living, or so the story goes…Such duplicity, because it called into question the validity of donors’ perceptions and judgments, worked to unsettle the hierarchies structuring benevolent exchange” (407).
Ryan–paraphrasing Ginzberg–goes onto explain that “the professionalization of donors” was promoted through literature as a way of combating “the professionalization of beggars” (407). In reality these professionalizations also created new fields for con-men. Many of the cons represented by Melville involve intercession on behalf of the poor, the professionalization of charities opened the door for roving con-men (beggars and interceders, alike). The interceder (con-man) goes through cycles of suspicion and confidence with each potential donor. Their initial relationship is built on perceptions derived from appearance and bearing, but, the continuation of their relationship is built on the perceived notions of identity based on disclosed employment.
That’s All Great, But What Does it Mean?
Melville used the dialogue of his day (political, religious, and professional) to reflect back to his readers the fictional stereotypes they themselves made reality through their own vestments and employments. As long as societies have used clothing to designate social rank, there have existed cross-dressers (of any sort). Ryan talks of beggars as “passing,” a term used (in cross-dressing scholarship) to denote one type of person who wears the attire and assumes the bearing of an opposite type of person (male-female, rich-poor, slave-master). Melville has skillfully adapted the art of passing for his purposes, he has applied the deceitful skill to his ever-changing main character (the confidence man) and he has used the passing technique to move the reader in and out of each chapter while passing the con from one character to the next. The whole book could almost be described as a con baton run in the survival relay race, where the finish-line of life isn’t a matter of work, attire, or perception, but one of confidence, or the lack thereof. Any way you cut it, trying to garner confidence is hard work.
Melville, Herman. “The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade.” Norton Critical Edition, 2nd Ed. Editors: Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 2006.
Ryan, Susan M. “From Misgivings: Melville, Race, and the Ambiguities of Benevolence.” Norton Critical Edition, 2nd Ed. Editors: Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 2006.