Herman Melville’s work was largely forgotten during his own lifetime, and it was only in the 1920’s that this author began to receive his due, for the first time, as one of the most important writers the United States has ever produced. The Confidence Man: His Masquerade was still not appreciated, however, until some thirty years later. As Moby Dick (1851) appealed to modernists in the 1920’s because of its symbolic investigations of human evil and its experimental form, so The Confidence Man, the last of Melville’s novels published in his lifetime (Billy Budd, Foretopman was published posthumously in 1924), found its audience in the post-World War II readership’s cynicism, sense of the absurd, and interest in language play. Its dense structure, paradoxes, and puns remind the reader less of Melville’s contemporaries than of such postmodern authors as Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges.
Yet The Confidence Man is a work deeply rooted in its own time. Gertrude Stein once wrote that no writer is ahead of his or her time, but a unique writer’s understanding of his or her own time may not be understood by others also living in that moment: The writer may be living in the present while all others are still living in the past. This is certainly true of Melville in The Confidence Man. For while the United States remained obsessed with its own promises of freedom and democracy, Melville was interested in showing how the manipulation of the language of freedom and democracy could become the true discourse of the nation. Incidental historical references make clear to the reader the historical correlative of ruse, swindle, and appearance that Melville is interested in exposing. The hoaxes of circus showman P. T. Barnum and the financial panics and wildcat banking of the nineteenth century manipulated public trust for profit. In The Confidence Man, hucksters and con artists try to sell one another bogus stock, swindle one another out of services, and rob one another of whatever property they might have. The masquerade in the title suggests that the novel is not interested in describing a single individual but rather a type. The American confidence man dons any number of masks, but one thing always remains the same: He is trying to sell something, and to do so he must gain the trust of his potential victim. As one character says: “Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions....
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