Thursday, 18 August 2016

Melville's The Confidence-Man: who is the con man in chapter 3?

I've returned to Melville- I'm reading The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. What can be a better read now, whilst one follows the elections in the US? 
People who know the book all know that it's about a con man or more in different disguises. What bothers me is, who is the con man in chapter 3? Everywhere I look, people say it's the crippled black man, because he wins people's pity and thus gets money, but is he? What I see in the chapter is that out of nowhere "a limping, gimlet-eyed, sour-faced person", a custom-house officer, appears and loudly says the black man's deformity is a sham, "got up for financial purposes". How does he know? What are those allegations based on? Does he have evidence or anything to back up those claims?After saying it's a sham, the custom-house officer just says "He can walk fast enough when he tries, a good deal faster than I; but he can lie yet faster. He's some white operator, betwisted and painted up for a decoy. He and his friends are all humbugs." but doesn't bother to prove any of his words. He is like a Donald Trump, loudly and confidently throwing out claims and accusations based on nothing, showing no regard for facts. Then he leaves, but before that, has successfully sowed a seed of doubt in everyone's minds. 
Doesn't that make him, rather than the black cripple, a con artist? 


  1. Di,

    Hawthorne, who was for a time a great friend of Melville's worked for a time in Customs. Melville wrote at one time that Hawthorne was able to see the real truth behind the facade of reality.

    Don't know if there's a connection, but it is interesting to think about.

  2. Melville himself had just started (1866) working in a custom-house!

  3. Di,

    After the denunciation by the possible customs official, the black cripple is asked if there is anybody aboard "who could speak a good word for you?"

    The black cripple then responds in the next paragraph with descriptions of a number of men who would speak up for him. What's interesting is that every one of those descriptions fits the con man's disguises in subsequent chapters.


  4. Oh yes. I've just finished chapter 6, and just noticed that too.
    Now I have another theory, but have to wait a bit.

  5. The word "artists" (wordsmiths) intrigues me when used together with "con-man." If I suspect Melville of metafictional games, I wonder where that will take me.

  6. Postscript: I will grab a copy of _TCM_ and try to catch up with everyone. Onward!

  7. Tim,
    Conning is an art.
    But yeah, I know what you mean. Would be fun if you also read this novel.