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Uploaded by : Marc Lafia | 01/27/09

Herman Melville's "The Confidence Man"

If you really want to understand the heart of darkness that defines American society, it is necessary to read Herman Melville. While Melville has the reputation of being a combination yarn-spinner and serious novelist, he is above all a profound social critic who sympathized with the downtrodden in American society. In his final novel, "The Confidence Man," there are several chapters that deal with the "Metaphysic of Indian-Hating" that, as far as I know, are the first in American literature that attack the prevailing exterminationist policy.

"The Confidence Man" is set on a riverboat called the "Fidèle," that is sailing down the Mississippi. As the title implies, the boat is loaded with con men who are either selling stock in failing companies, selling herbal "medicine" that can cure everything from cancer to the common cold, raising money for a fraudulent Seminole Widows and Orphans Society or simply convincing people to give them money outright as a sign that they have "confidence" in their fellow man. The word "confidence" appears in every chapter, as some sort of leitmotif to remind the reader what Melville is preoccupied with: the meanness and exploitation of his contemporary America. Because for all of the references to the need for people to have confidence in one another, the only type of confidence on the riverboat is that associated with scams.

For Melville, the act of scamming represents everything that is wrong in American society in the decade preceding the outbreak of the Civil War. It is a time when the power of capital is transforming the American landscape, turning everything into a commodity. In Chapter 9, titled "Two business men transact a little business," shares in something called the Black Rapids Coal Company are proffered. The man who is being enticed to buy the shares is a bit worried because there was a "downward tendency" in the price of the stock recently, just as there has been in vast numbers of securities on the global exchanges in 1998.

The stock seller tries to reassure his customer: "Yes, there was a depression. But how came it? who devised it? The bears,' sir. The depression of our stock was solely owing to the growling, the hypocritical growling, of the bears."

When the potential buyer asks him "How, hypocritical?," the stock seller answers:

"Why, the most monstrous of all hypocrites are these bears: hypocrites by inversion; hypocrites in the simulation of things dark instead of bright; souls that thrive, less upon depression, than the fiction of depression; professors of the wicked art of manufacturing depressions; spurious Jeremiahs; sham Heraclituses, who, the lugubrious day done, return, like sham Lazaruses among the beggars, to make merry over the gains got by their pretended sore heads -- scoundrelly bears!"

Scoundrelly bears? I suppose that's as good an explanation for recent woes on Wall Street as any.

When the stock market was becoming the big craze in the 1850s, much of the speculation was fueled by prospects of American business penetrating into the heartlands west of the Mississippi. In order to facilitate this penetration, it was necessary to remove the indigenous peoples who had inconveniently come to dwell on these lands over the past ten thousand years. The founding fathers of the United States endorsed their removal wholeheartedly. As David Stannard has written in "American Holocaust," the slave-owning "democrat" Thomas Jefferson wanted to show the Indian no mercy:

"...in 1812, Jefferson again concluded that white Americans were 'obliged' to drive the 'backward' Indians 'with the beasts of the forests into the Stony Mountains'; and one year later still, he added that the American government had no other choice before it than 'to pursue [the Indians] to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.' Indeed, Jefferson's writings on Indians are filled with the straightforward assertion that the natives are to be given a simple choice--to be 'extirpate[d] from the earth' or to remove themselves out of the Americans' way."

Agreement with Jefferson's sentiments were practically universal in American society. I would hazard a guess that moral objection to slavery ran stronger than defense of indigenous rights. Given the overall support for what amounts to a policy of genocide against the Indian, Melville's thoughts on the subject appear strikingly at odds with the mainstream.

The subject appears in the course of a discussion between two men on the deck of the riverboat about the infamous "Indian-hater" John Moredock. Moredock was the son of a woman who was killed by a small band of Indians, who, according to the narrative, "proved to belong to a band of twenty renegades from various tribes, outlaws even among Indians, and who had formed themselves into a maurauding crew." Moredock eventually tracked down this band and killed them all. But he became consumed with hatred for all Indians in the course of his vendetta. This is what Melville calls the "metaphysics of Indian-hating." It took over Moredock's life. He proved so adept at Indian killing that he eventually joined the army, where he rose rapidly in the ranks on the basis of his exterminationist skills. However, after he became a colonel, his Indian hating became an obstacle to further career growth in government, because other skills besides blind aggression are necessary. Melville writes:

"At one time the colonel was a member of the territorial council of Illinois, ends at the formation of the state government, was pressed to become candidate for governor, but begged to be excused. And, though he declined to give his reasons for declining, yet by those who best knew him the cause was not wholly unsurmised. In his official capacity he might be called upon to enter into friendly treaties with Indian tribes, a thing not to be thought of. And even did no such contingency arise, yet he felt there would be an impropriety in the Governor of Illinois stealing out now and then, during a recess of the legislative bodies, for a few days' shooting at human beings, within the limits of his paternal chief-magistracy. If the governorship offered large honors, from Moredock it demanded larger sacrifices. These were incompatibles. In short, he was not unaware that to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition, with its objects -- the pomps and glories of the world; and since religion, pronouncing such things vanities, accounts it merit to renounce them, therefore, so far as this goes, Indian-hating, whatever may be thought of it in other respects, may be regarded as not wholly without the efficacy of a devout sentiment.'"

Now does this portrait of a man totally consumed in hatred remind you of any other in literature? It should because John Moredock is almost identical in motivation to Captain Ahab who wants to murder whales instead of Indians. While Moredock is ready to abandon election to higher office, Ahab is willing to destroy a ship and her crew, including himself, in order to kill Moby Dick. This monomaniacal drive to exterminate Indians and whales is very much symbolic of mid-19th century America.

In a powerfully ironic fashion, hatred of Indians and obsessions with whales is still very much part of our national psyche as the Makah get ready to go out and hunt for a gray whale. All of the Indian haters in the United States have decided to put the Makah in their gunsights as the Makah themselves get ready to put one gray whale in their own. What would Melville have made of this drama?

I will attempt to answer this question in an extended essay on Melville, whales and indigenous peoples that will be a chapter in the book on I am working on, titled "Marxism and the American Indian." I will go on record at this point to state that Melville would have been a supporter of the Makah and an enemy of industrial whaling. My arguments are in part based on my interpretation of "The Confidence Man" and "Moby Dick." They are also based on other writings, where Melville makes his solidarity with the American Indian explicit.

In a review of Francis Parkman's "The California and Oregon Trail," written in 1846, Melville takes note of Parkman's hatred of the Indian:

"...when in the body of the book we are informed that is difficult for any white man, after a domestication among the Indians, to hold them much better than brutes; we are told too, that to such a person, the slaughter of an Indian is indifferent as the slaughter of a buffalo; with all deference, we beg leave to dissent."

And what is the dissent based on?

It is based on our belonging to one race, the human race. Melville says, "We are all of us--Anglo-Saxons, Dyaks and Indians--sprung from one head and made in one image. And if we reject this brotherhood now, we shall be forced to join hands hereafter."

(The "Confidence Man" is online at http://www.melville.org/)

  • Title:
    Herman Melville's "The Confidence Man"
  • Artist:
    Herman Melville
  • Year:
    n/a
  • Description:
    "The Confidence Man" is set on a riverboat called the "Fidèle," that is sailing down the Mississippi. As the title implies, the boat is loaded with con men who are either selling stock in failing companies, selling herbal "medicine" that can cure everything from cancer to the common cold, raising money for a fraudulent Seminole Widows and Orphans Society or simply convincing people to give them money outright as a sign that they have "confidence" in their fellow man. The word "confidence" appears in every chapter, as some sort of leitmotif to remind the reader what Melville is preoccupied with: the meanness and exploitation of his contemporary America. Because for all of the references to the need for people to have confidence in one another, the only type of confidence on the riverboat is that associated with scams.
  • Disciplines and Movements:
    Fiction and Literary Theory
  • Themes and Tags:
    expansive, sublime, repetition, overflowing, lyrical, grand and baroque

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