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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? 

8 comments:

  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.

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

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  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.

    Coincidence?

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  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.

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  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.

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

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

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