The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (Dover Thrift Editions,
November 2017). Cover: New Orleans Map, Currier and Ives, 1885
Last night I finished re-reading Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. I had not read it in many years — I first read it in the mid-1970s in a graduate seminar on Hawthorne and Melville taught by the wonderful Professor Elizabeth Schultz at the University of Kansas.
It’s perhaps my favorite Melville book, and a significant influence on my writing; my first solo novel Good News From Outer Space was an attempt to cross the figure of the multiply-disguised Confidence Man from Melville’s book with the shape-changing aliens of classic science fiction.
It all takes place in a single day — April Fool’s Day — on a steamboat that leaves St. Louis for points south, carrying a carnival of American character types, among them a confidence man who assumes eight different disguises as he interacts with, and bilks, various passengers during the the course of the day. It’s been described as a series of sketches or conversations. But that description does not do justice to the ways in which this book deconstructs America — and friendship and society and capitalism and progress and nature and religion and language itself — pretty much anything that any of us put faith in.