In The Confidence Man, what type of commentary does Melville make regarding slavery?
In 1857, when Herman Melville's The Confidence Man was published, the United States were still fighting internally about the rights of blacks in society, and whether slavery was a moral or immoral institution. In the same year, the historic Dred Scott Decision ordained blacks could not be made citizens, and that Congress could not grant freedom to them; this was one of the most important events on the path to the Civil War.
Melville's novel, therefore, represents the common assumptions and prejudices of the time. At the beginning of the book, a crippled slave named Black Guinea is begging for money, which he catches in his mouth. A drover asks after him:
"Der Black Guinea dey calls me, sar."
"And who is your master, Guinea?"
"Oh sar, I am der dog widout massa."
"A free dog, eh? Well, on your account, I'm sorry for that, Guinea. Dogs without masters fare hard."
"So day do, sar; so dey do. But you see, sar, dese here legs? What ge'mman want to own dese here legs?"
"But where do you live?"
"All 'long shore, sar; dough now I'se going to see brodder at der landing; but chiefly I libs in der city."
"St. Louis, ah? Where do you sleep there of nights?"
"On der floor of der good baker's oven, ser."
"In an oven? whose, pray? What baker, I should like to know, bakes such black bread in his oven, alongside of his nice white rolls, too. Who is that too charitable baker, pray?"
"Dar he be," with a broad grin lifting his tambourine high over his head.
(Melville, The Confidence Man, etext.virginia.edu)
The conversation is at once sad and illuminating. The drover is not a bad man or a racist by modern standards; in fact, he seems genuinely sympathetic to Guinea's plight, and it is interesting that the description of a "dog without a master" comes first from Guinea's mouth and is then repeated. For his part, Guinea is cheerful enough, although fully resigned to his station in life. Some of the other travelers are not so pleasant; aside from their amusement at Guinea acting as a dog and catching their pennies in his mouth, some of them throw buttons instead. Melville, then, does not make a direct statement regarding his personal feelings on slavery, but points out the hypocrisy of the common folk (whose bred racism is not their own fault, but that of society) while showing up the sort of person who would take pity without actually doing anything to help. This is another example of the novel's vicious satirical bend.
It is also worth noting that Black Guinea is probably the Confidence Man in disguise. This in itself is a comment on how he believes black people are meant to be regarded, and in fact he is borne out in that assumption.