The Confidence Man

The Confidence Man

by Herman Melville

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Long considered Herman Melville's strangest novel, The Confidence-Man is a comic allegory aimed at the optimism and materialism of mid-nineteenth-century America. A mysterious shape-changing Confidence-Man approaches passengers on a Mississippi River steamboat and, winning over his not-quite-innocent victims with his charm, urges them to implicitly trust in the cosmos, in nature, and even in human nature -- with predictable results. A satiric and socially acute work that was to be a further step away from his sea novels, The Confidence-Man represented a departure for Melville. Yet it confused and angered reviewers who preferred to pigeonhole him as an adventure writer. Some have argued the book was a joke on the readers loyal to his sea stories, but if so, it backfired. Dismissed by critics as unreadable, and an undoubted financial failure, The Confidence-Man's cold reception undermined Melville's belief in his ability to make a living writing works that were both popular and profound, and he soon gave up fiction. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that critics rediscovered the book and praised its wit, stunningly modern technique, and wry view that life may be just a cosmic con game. This text of The Confidence-Man is an Approved Text of the Center for Editions of American Authors (Modern Language Association of America).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781425065416
Publisher:, Limited
Publication date: 11/28/2007
Edition description: Large Print Edition
Pages: 412
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Herman Melville was born in August 1, 1819, in New York City, the son of a merchant. Only twelve when his father died bankrupt, young Herman tried work as a bank clerk, as a cabin-boy on a trip to Liverpool, and as an elementary schoolteacher, before shipping in January 1841 on the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific. Deserting ship the following year in the Marquesas, he made his way to Tahiti and Honolulu, returning as ordinary seaman on the frigate United States to Boston, where he was discharged in October 1844. Books based on these adventures won him immediate success. By 1850 he was married, had acquired a farm near Pittsfield, Massachussetts (where he was the impetuous friend and neighbor of Nathaniel Hawthorne), and was hard at work on his masterpiece Moby-Dick.

Literary success soon faded; his complexity increasingly alienated readers. After a visit to the Holy Land in January 1857, he turned from writing prose fiction to poetry. In 1863, during the Civil War, he moved back to New York City, where from 1866-1885 he was a deputy inspector in the Custom House, and where, in 1891, he died. A draft of a final prose work, Billy Budd, Sailor, was left unfinished and uncollated, packed tidily away by his widow, where it remained until its rediscovery and publication in 1924.

Date of Birth:

August 1, 1819

Date of Death:

September 28, 1891

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Place of Death:

New York, New York


Attended the Albany Academy in Albany, New York, until age 15

Read an Excerpt

The Confidence-Man

His Masquerade

By Herman Melville Dalkey Archive Press

Copyright © 2007 Herman Melville
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781564784544

Chapter One

A mute goes aboard a boat on the Mississippi

At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a man in cream-colors, at the water-side in the city of St. Louis.His cheek was fair, his chin downy, his hair flaxen, his hat a white fur one, with a long fleecy nap. He had neither trunk, valise, carpet-bag, nor parcel. No porter followed him. He was unaccompanied by friends. From the shrugged shoulders, titters, whispers, wonderings of the crowd, it was plain that he was, in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger.In the same moment with his advent, he stepped aboard the favorite steamer Fidèle, on the point of starting for New Orleans. Stared at, but unsaluted, with the air of one neither courting nor shunning regard, but evenly pursuing the path of duty, lead it through solitudes or cities, he held on his way along the lower deck until he chanced to come to a placard nigh the captain’s office, offering a reward for the capture of a mysterious impostor, supposed to have recently arrived from the East; quite an original genius in his vocation, as would appear, though wherein his originality consisted was not clearly given; but what purported to be a careful description of his person followed.As if it had been a theatre-bill,crowds were gathered about the announcement, and among them certain chevaliers, whose eyes, it was plain, were on the capitals, or, at least, earnestly seeking sight of them from behind intervening coats; but as for their fingers, they were enveloped in some myth; though, during a chance interval, one of these chevaliers somewhat showed his hand in purchasing from another chevalier, ex-officio a peddler of money-belts, one of his popular safe-guards, while another peddler, who was still another versatile chevalier, hawked, in the thick of the throng, the lives of Measan, the bandit of Ohio, Murrel, the pirate of the Mississippi, and the brothers Harpe, the Thugs of the Green River country, in Kentucky—creatures, with others of the sort, one and all exterminated at the time, and for the most part, like the hunted generations of wolves in the same regions, leaving comparatively few successors; which would seem cause for unalloyed gratulation, and is such to all except those who think that in new countries, where the wolves are killed off, the foxes increase.Pausing at this spot, the stranger so far succeeded in threading his way, as at last to plant himself just beside the placard, when, producing a small slate and tracing some words upon it, he held it up before him on a level with the placard, so that they who read the one might read the other. The words were these:—“Charity thinketh no evil.”6As, in gaining his place, some little perseverance, not to say persistence, of a mildly inoffensive sort, had been unavoidable, it was not with the best relish that the crowd regarded his apparent intrusion; and upon a more attentive survey, perceiving no badge of authority about him, but rather something quite the contrary—he being of an aspect so singularly innocent; an aspect, too, which they took to be somehow inappropriate to the time and place, and inclining to the notion that his writing was of much the same sort: in short, taking him for some strange kind of simpleton, harmless enough, would he keep to himself, but not wholly unobnoxious as an intruder—they made no scruple to jostle him aside; while one, less kind than the rest, or more of a wag, by an unobserved stroke, dexterously flattened down his fleecy hat upon his head. Without readjusting it, the stranger quietly turned, and writing anew upon the slate, again held it up:—“Charity suffereth long, and is kind.”Illy pleased with his pertinacity, as they thought it, the crowd a second time thrust him aside, and not without epithets and some buffets, all of which were unresented. But, as if at last despairing of so difficult an adventure, wherein one, apparently a non-resistant, sought to impose his presence upon fighting characters, the stranger now moved slowly away, yet not before altering his writing to this:—“Charity endureth all things.”Shield-like bearing his slate before him, amid stares and jeers he moved slowly up and down, at his turning points again changing his inscription to—“Charity believeth all things.”and then—“Charity never faileth.”The word charity, as originally traced, remained throughout uneffaced, not unlike the left-hand numeral of a printed date, otherwise left for convenience in blank.To some observers, the singularity, if not lunacy, of the stranger was heightened by his muteness, and, perhaps also, by the contrast to his proceedings afforded in the actions—quite in the wonted and sensible order of things—of the barber of the boat, whose quarters, under a smoking-saloon, and over against a bar-room, was next door but two to the captain’s office. As if the long, wide, covered deck, hereabouts built up on both sides with shop-like windowed spaces, were some Constantinople arcade or bazaar, where more than one trade is plied, this river barber, aproned and slippered, but rather crusty-looking for the moment, it may be from being newly out of bed, was throwing open his premises for the day, and suitably arranging the exterior. With business-like dispatch, having rattled down his shutters, and at a palm-tree angle set out in the iron fixture his little ornamental pole, and this without overmuch tenderness for the elbows and toes of the crowd, he concluded his operations by bidding people stand still more aside, when, jumping on a stool, he hung over his door, on the customary nail, a gaudy sort of illuminated pasteboard sign, skillfully executed by himself, gilt with the likeness of a razor elbowed in readiness to shave, and also, for the public benefit, with two words not unfrequently seen ashore gracing other shops besides barbers’:—“No trust.”An inscription which, though in a sense not less intrusive than the contrasted ones of the stranger, did not, as it seemed, provoke any corresponding derision or surprise, much less indignation; and still less, to all appearances, did it gain for the inscriber the repute of being a simpleton.Meanwhile, he with the slate continued moving slowly up and down, not without causing some stares to change into jeers, and some jeers into pushes, and some pushes into punches; when suddenly, in one of his turns, he was hailed from behind by two porters carrying a large trunk; but as the summons, though loud, was without effect, they accidentally or otherwise swung their burden against him, nearly overthrowing him; when, by a quick start, a peculiar inarticulate moan, and a pathetic telegraphing of his fingers, he involuntarily betrayed that he was not alone dumb, but also deaf.Presently, as if not wholly unaffected by his reception thus far, he went forward, seating himself in a retired spot on the forecastle, nigh the foot of a ladder there leading to a deck above, up and down which ladder some of the boatmen, in discharge of their duties, were occasionally going.From his betaking himself to this humble quarter, it was evident that, as a deck-passenger, the stranger, simple though he seemed, was not entirely ignorant of his place, though his taking a deck-passage might have been partly for convenience; as, from his having no luggage, it was probable that his destination was one of the small wayside landings within a few hours’ sail. But, though he might not have a long way to go, yet he seemed already to have come from a very long distance.Though neither soiled nor slovenly, his cream-colored suit had a tossed look, almost linty, as if, traveling night and day from some far country beyond the prairies, he had long been without the solace of a bed. His aspect was at once gentle and jaded, and, from the moment of seating himself, increasing in tired abstraction and dreaminess. Gradually overtaken by slumber, his flaxen head drooped, his whole lamb-like figure relaxed, and, half reclining against the ladder’s foot, lay motionless, as some sugar-snow in March, which, softly stealing down over night, with its white placidity startles the brown farmer peering out from his threshold at daybreak.


Excerpted from The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville Copyright © 2007 by Herman Melville. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1A mute goes aboard a boat on the Mississippi3
Chapter 2Showing that many men have many minds7
Chapter 3In which a variety of characters appear10
Chapter 4Renewal of old acquaintance18
Chapter 5The man with the weed makes it an even question whether he be a great sage or a great simpleton24
Chapter 6At the outset of which certain passengers prove deaf to the call of charity28
Chapter 7A gentleman with gold sleeve-buttons35
Chapter 8A charitable lady43
Chapter 9Two business men transact a little business46
Chapter 10In the cabin52
Chapter 11Only a page or so58
Chapter 12The story of the unfortunate man, from which may be gathered whether or no he has been justly so entitled60
Chapter 13The man with the traveling-cap evinces much humanity, and in a way which would seem to show him to be one of the most logical of optimists64
Chapter 14Worth the consideration of those to whom it may prove worth considering69
Chapter 15An old miser, upon suitable representations, is prevailed upon to venture an investment72
Chapter 16A sick man, after some impatience, is induced to become a patient77
Chapter 17Towards the end of which the Herb-Doctor proves himself a forgiver of injuries84
Chapter 18Inquest into the true character of the Herb-Doctor89
Chapter 19A soldier of fortune93
Chapter 20Reappearance of one who may be remembered101
Chapter 21A hard case106
Chapter 22In the polite spirit of the Tusculan disputations114
Chapter 23In which the powerful effect of natural scenery is evinced in the case of the Missourian, who, in view of the region round about Cairo, has a return of his chilly fit129
Chapter 24A philanthropist undertakes to convert a misanthrope, but does not get beyond confuting him131
Chapter 25The Cosmopolitan makes an acquaintance139
Chapter 26Containing the metaphysics of Indian-hating, according to the views of one evidently not as prepossessed as Rousseau in favor of savages144
Chapter 27Some account of a man of questionable morality, but who, nevertheless, would seem entitled to the esteem of that eminent English moralist who said he liked a good hater152
Chapter 28Moot points touching the late Colonel John Moredock156
Chapter 29The boon companions160
Chapter 30Opening with a poetical eulogy of the Press, and continuing with talk inspired by the same167
Chapter 31A metamorphosis more surprising than any in Ovid179
Chapter 32Showing that the age of magic and magicians is not yet over180
Chapter 33Which may pass for whatever it may prove to be worth182
Chapter 34In which the Cosmopolitan tells the story of the gentleman-madman184
Chapter 35In which the Cosmopolitan strikingly evinces the artlessness of his nature187
Chapter 36In which the Cosmopolitan is accosted by a mystic, whereupon ensues pretty much such talk as might be expected189
Chapter 37The mystical master introduces the practical disciple197
Chapter 38The disciple unbends, and consents to act a social part200
Chapter 39The hypothetical friends202
Chapter 40In which the story of China Aster is, at second-hand, told by one who, while not disapproving the moral, disclaims the spirit of the style208
Chapter 41Ending with a rupture of the hypothesis221
Chapter 42Upon the heel of the last scene, the Cosmopolitan enters the barber's shop, a benediction on his lips225
Chapter 43Very charming231
Chapter 44In which the last three words of the last chapter are made the text of the discourse, which will be sure of receiving more or less attention from those readers who do not skip it238
Chapter 45The Cosmopolitan increases in seriousness240

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The Confidence Man 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
MeditationesMartini on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"If he's Satan, he's also Krishna."

It was difficult to get on top of this book and balance, to feel confident in your hermeneutic agency. on the one hand, it's dreamy, allusive, full of hints of this and that, in particular Melville's fixations with the mystic history of the West, the mystic history of the East, the relation between our relations with one another and our relations with God, and the infinite possibilities of the American West as a canvas on which to play them out for good or heartbreak (Martin Chuzzlewit is referenced). The fabulous riverboat Fide¿le definitely fits in the midsummer night or rabbit hole or a dark carnival or a broom ride over Moscow vein--things are different and you have no idea how, or who to trust, and trust, of course, is the thing.

On the other hand, it has an idee fixe quality--we are being manipulated, and by an operator so refined that it's hard even to catch hold sometimes, hard to recognize what valences the succession of encounters is stoking and how to engage in dialogue with them. Someone said, in a con game you always want to make sure to look where your attention is being directed away from, but I found that difficult--you get so befuddled that you grab onto whatever oar Melville extends, and you feel passivized. Just as the confidence-man always wins, pretending to engage straightfaced, always walks away with the purse, the monologic masquerading as the dialogic--so I sometimes felt like Melv was operating on levels that left me unsure how to proceed except by grabbing the low-hanging fruit, and that that was just what I was meant to do, and sometimes that sent me on an intoxicating ride as per the above and other times it just felt like being carried along by the river.

And so there's a magician's-nephew fascination to the tricksy and portentous with which the book is chock a block, but I'm left feeling a bit pawnlike, and also a bit like stuff flew over my head. it makes me think that there are some books that just demand more time; it makes me think that if Henry James were able to imply significance better instead of just wheezing dimly like he do I would like him better. I'll remember the characters most of all--the Confidence-Man like flies in honey; the Cosmopolitan, who feels friendly and good in a way that the C-M doesn't and that's more suspicious yet; barber and his sign, NO TRUST; the miser, the woodsman, the wicked takedown of Emerson and Thoreau. The Krishna angle--the way the C-M gives us the change to believe! and absolve our conscience, bare a clean breast to a world that's gonna take us for whatever we're worth under any circumstances--that fascinates, and I'd like to go through again with it more in mind. Joyce is here too, and the anxiety of words always meaning more than you can exhaust and never matching up properly to things, even with the nest of intentions. This book is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle sailing down the Mississippi.

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