Saturday, March 05, 2011

Sold Down the River

Excerpt from the "May" chapter of my book in progress, Forever Voyaging: A Writer's Year-Long Adventure with Herman Melville.

THE NEXT BOOK I READ was the last full novel Herman Melville ever wrote, entitled The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). [Biographer] Laurie Robertson-Lorant described this novel as a “funhouse whose mirrors reveal human character as inconsistent, unscrupulous, and unreliable,” but also called it “a tour-de-force of topical satire and teleological razzle-dazzle.” If you’re not really sure what the hell that even means, welcome to this portion of Forever Voyaging. You will feel right at home.

It seems fitting that this novel had to do with hucksterism, shady dealings, deception, and disillusionment. I can assure the reader that my grasp of the book floated on the same route as the fortunes of all the suckers in this novel, literally sold down the river. Of the two Melville works of fiction that I struggled with mightily during my experiment – this book and his final novella, Billy Budd, Sailor The Confidence-Man is the one I found the most baffling. I admit here and now that from the point of view of astute literary criticism, I am not the man for the job. But then I am fairly sure I will have long lost those readers who were seeking as much in the first place.

No, I probably will raise far more questions than provide answers about this unique and erratic novel. Indeed, one could argue that The Confidence-Man can hardly be called a novel at all. Our old friend Professor Bill Spengemann, featured in the last chapter, took this idea further and made the case that Melville didn’t really write any novels – Typee and Omoo were travelogues, Redburn was a memoir in hiding, Moby-Dick more of a biological treatise. I don’t know if I agree with the professor, but I can accept that The Confidence-Man seems to lack some of the ingredients that normally flavor a novel’s broth.

It has no discernable “plot,” for one. It has neither an easily identifiable narrator, nor a single protagonist the reader can get behind. It contains very little exposition, but is, rather, related mostly through dialogue. One reviewer described the book in this way: “a novel it is not, unless a novel means forty-five conversations held on board a steamer, conducted by passengers who might pass for the errata of creation.” I am not sure if I can articulate what “the errata of creation” refers to, but the fact that the reviewer steered so far from using the word “characters” in his description is telling enough.

The Confidence-Man seems to hearken back to an experience Melville had had twenty years earlier, when he travelled west for a time with a friend of his named Eli Fly. They had made their way out as far as the Rocky Mountains, but at one point they took a trek in a steamboat heading south down the Mississippi. Melville later published an account of this journey in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. One gets the impression that Melville and Fly had the opportunity to meet and/or observe a lot of colorful characters on that one ride – people that stuck in the former’s mind, at least, long enough to be memorialized in his final novel. Not all of those characters would have been reputable. Indeed, there was a well-known book in this period of history called The Flash Times of Alabama and Mississippi by a man named Joseph Baldwin, containing the general observation of the times that “swindling was raised to the dignity of the fine arts.”

At the outset of the story, a “lamb-like man” in “cream colors” and “unaccompanied by friends” boards a riverboat, soon to head south down the Mississippi River, ironically named the Fidèle. (Interestingly enough, Melville at one point employs the phrase “great white bulk” to describe the boat; the reader cannot help but wonder if this was intended as a “wink-wink” reference to his own masterpiece, Moby-Dick.) We are never given much information on who this unnamed man is, but when he steps on board, he passes underneath a placard hung on the wall offering a reward for the capture of “a mysterious imposter, supposed to have recently arrived from the East.” This is enough to at least suggest less-than-honorable intentions on the part of the stranger without saying as much directly. Meanwhile, nearby, as the new passenger climbs on, the boat’s barber, William Cream (!), is just in the act of hanging up a sign of his own outside the door of his shop. The sign reads NO TRUST.

When I came across these opening lines, it led me to make an interesting association that may owe its existence to nothing more than coincidence. But the description of the man’s clothing as being in “cream colors” for me brought immediately to mind a passing stranger without a backstory in a very different novel that was written and published almost exactly one century later. A key incident near the conclusion of the great American novelist Flannery O’Connor’s 1960 novel The Violent Bear It Away (also her last) concerns the arrival from out of nowhere of a drifter, a passing stranger who picks up the story’s young protagonist, Francis Marion Tarwater, on a country road and ends up taking reprehensible advantage of him. I remembered from reading the novel a few times that O’Connor described this man as driving a “cream-colored car.” Both of these men appear outfitted, in a sense, in these “cream” tones – close to an ironic white – and neither has honorable intentions.

It may seem a tenuous connection at best, and yet it is a somewhat peculiar color with which to describe either a suit or a car. I also knew that O’Connor was steeped enough in Melville’s work to make mention of him in her letters on occasion and in lectures she made to college students during the 1950s and 60s. It’s interesting to consider the possibility of whether O’Connor had any thought of Melville or of The Confidence-Man while she wrote her own final novel.

Regardless, once this nefarious wanderer, who may or may not be wanted on criminal charges, steps aboard the Fidèle, he joins a stream of salesmen and charlatans who seem to have no other purpose for being there, or for traveling anywhere, other than to try to hawk things off on others. Gaining people’s confidence only to double-cross them was, in Robertson-Lorant’s analysis, “Amerca’s national pastime.” Throughout the length of the boat’s journey down the river, everyone is selling something: shares in “World Charity;” stock in the “Black Rapids Coal Company;” real estate in a development called “New Jerusalem;” quick medicines such as “Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator” or my personal favorite, “Samaritan Pain Dissuader;” even a fantastical invention called “the Protean easy chair.” There is even one man on board the vessel who claims to be an “agent” of the rather dubious but wonderfully-named outfit called the “Philosophical Intelligence Office.”

In setting his tale on board a boat traveling its meandering way downriver towards an unknown destination – perhaps “destiny” is a better word – Melville joined himself to a storytelling tradition that was not new, but it was in the process of inserting itself into the American literary heritage. It will be hard to read Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) again, for example – not to mention his Life on the Mississippi – without thinking of The Confidence-Man, even though the storylines are dissimilar. William Faulkner wrote his own tale centered around a motley crew gathered together on a boat in his second novel, Mosquitoes (1927). Although not written by an American, there are times when Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) resembles Melville’s earlier book, especially near the end. Even today some adventurous novelists are still recalling the dead-and-gone era of steamboats, in overlooked novels such as Tim Gautreaux’s The Missing (2009), and the great and essentially Melvillean writer Stephen Wright’s dazzling Civil War novel The Amalgamation Polka (2006), which will receive separate attention later in this book.

With regard to the title of the The Confidence-Man, when I went into the novel I was prepared to believe that Melville was the first guy to use the term “confidence man,” and thus could be given credit for just about every story that came after with “con man” or “con artists” in it. But the truth is that he did not come up with it, as I learned through Melville’s esteemed biographers. In 1855, there were many stories appearing in American newspapers nationwide about a man named “William Thomson,” who traveled around the country swindling people every which way he could, and referred to himself using more than a dozen aliases. Melville had long taken an interest in hucksters and hucksterism; another fascination of his was P.T. Barnum, whose career Melville paid attention to throughout his lifetime. One resourceful New York journalist referred to the ubiquitous Mr. Thomson in an article as a “confidence-man,” and for whatever unknown reason, the term arrowed itself into the American lexicon.

Certainly around the time The Confidence-Man was written, there was a kind of bum-rush in America towards every kind of “get rich” scheme imaginable. It is a craze that has never really waned ever since; anyone suffering from insomnia, or who has had an infant under their care, and has surfed the television channels after midnight can attest to this. Of course, many conservative-types of Melville’s day – people like his rigidly straitlaced mother, for example – saw this as indisputable evidence of the start of a monumental moral decline in the United States. One could certainly advance an argument for this, but the decline would have to be characterized as a long and slow one that does not seem to be getting close to the bottom even today.

If none of this seems all that intriguing or even very original, I would point out to the reader that while The Confidence-Man is hard to characterize as a riveting read, it does seems to be more than just a “this place is going to hell in a handcart” kind of rant. Melville was too powerful of a thinker and too curious an explorer to simply wring his hands over the course of a 300-page novel about how he saw his country going to seed. It seems clear that his motives and intentions ran deeper, but articulating why this is so or how I know is a more complicated enterprise. I can explain it by saying it is a sense one gets while reading the novel, which is true, but it’s probably not sufficient for me to leave it there.

Even though most of the novel is related in other people’s voices – and where there is narration, the tone is like a documentary voice-over, from the point of view of an observer – one does not get an impression of particular detachment on the part of the author. Melville does not write this story in the journalistic or even diagnostic tone that he had written books like Israel Potter in, with anything related to himself far removed. The Confidence-Man feels like a novel written by a man who is deeply embroiled in the world he is creating. I don’t mean that literally, of course. Melville didn’t actually write the book from the cabin of a riverboat, recording all the sights and sounds. Yet one can almost hear the writer’s unanswered questions rattling off in an unknown voice behind every page of the book.

Even though Israel Potter had sold decently – not briskly, as none of Melville’s books had been literal best-sellers, with Typee coming the closest – it had not brought Melville the esteem he felt he had earned by this stage in his career, and it certainly did not help him to transcend his mounting financial challenges. When you read about his life, in what is clear to us now as the twilight of his career as a fiction writer (with the final exception of Billy Budd), you realize that it was around this time when Meville began to lose heart. At least in terms of writing stories, his spirit and his confidence seemed to be on the cusp of a precipitous slide.

This may be one reason why the novel fails to compel the way earlier books like Mardi and Moby-Dick, and Typee as well, were able to. If you were stuck outside on a winter’s night with insufficient protection from the elements, but carrying with you a copy of Mardi or Moby-Dick by some random happenstance, you could lay these books on the turf in front of you and warm your hands by the fire continuously engulfing them. If you only had The Confidence-Man with you and no gloves, you would need to keep hunting for shelter.

It’s not easy to tell why Melville’s mood shifted so much between his writing of Israel Potter and The Confidence-Man, which were, after all, only a couple of years apart. But I feel like I can understand it on some level. There’s only so long a writer can continue to write new and interesting stories if she feels as though none of her writings are being appreciated or even read. She may become overwhelmed by a sense that, no matter how much she challenges herself or changes direction, if no one reads her work, all of that effort has amounted to nothing. And each story she writes takes something out of her; each requires its own pound of flesh. There is a limit to how much flesh a writer can pony up without expecting something in return, and if that never comes, something will have to give.

I get this. I had been writing fiction for twenty years, and had come up with many stories, a few pretty good ones, but since no one had ever agreed to publish one up through 2010, I was feeling a lot like this myself. At some point, no matter how much the writer believes in himself, doubt creeps in. Will anyone, ever, give a shit about what I have to say? Do I even have anything to say? Perhaps I have spent twenty years saying what has already been said a billion times before. Do I have a voice, or not? This is a question that no one this side of heaven can definitively answer.

I believe that this profound quandary was what another esteemed but troubled American novelist, Ernest Hemingway, was talking about when he wrote in his brief acceptance of the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature that “if he’s a good enough writer, he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.” I think Melville certainly felt the weight of this challenge the more that he wrote. In my reading, The Confidence-Man reflects his increasing frustration, after all the work he had done hunting the leviathan of ultimate truth and understanding, at being no closer to finding answers.

(c) 2011 by Jude Joseph Lovell