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53 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An American Classic on the Nature of Trust
Why read a book from 1857 which flopped so badly as commercial literature that Melville stopped writing and ended his career as a customs official? Because this book masterfully explores the entire nature of trust, confidence and cons. Though the setting is a riverboat on the Mississippi River just before the U.S. exploded into Civil War, its insights cross cultural...
Published on October 3, 2006 by Charles Hugh Smith

versus
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not the volume the image represents
The image of the book on the web is that of the Northwestern University edition. Open the contents on the web page and you get the H. Bruce Franklin edition. The edition supplied is neither. It is a hard bound reprint without the scholarly material offered by Northwestern or Franklin. Amazon does a poor job of delineating between editions.
Published on August 16, 2010 by Joseph Moless


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53 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An American Classic on the Nature of Trust, October 3, 2006
By 
Charles Hugh Smith (Berkeley, CA United States) - See all my reviews
Why read a book from 1857 which flopped so badly as commercial literature that Melville stopped writing and ended his career as a customs official? Because this book masterfully explores the entire nature of trust, confidence and cons. Though the setting is a riverboat on the Mississippi River just before the U.S. exploded into Civil War, its insights cross cultural boundaries.

This is not an easy book to read for several reasons. First, it is undoubtedly one of the first "post-modern" novels which breaks from traditional narrative storytelling. ( Another example: Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground.) The Confidence-Man is a collection of 45 conversations between various people on the riverboat--beggars, absurdly dressed frontiersmen, sickly misers, shysters, patent medicine hucksters, veterans (of the Mexican-American War) and the "hero" in the latter part of the book, the Cosmopolitan.

In typical Melville fashion, you also get asides--directly to the reader, in several cases, as if Melville felt the need to address issues of fiction outside the actual form of his novel. The lack of structure, action and conclusion make this a post-modern type book, but if you read each conversation as a separate story, then it starts to make more sense.

For what ties the book together is not a story but a theme: the nature of trust and confidence. In a very sly way, Melville shows how a variety of cons are worked, as the absolutely distrustful are slowly but surely convinced to do exactly what they vowed not to do: buy the "herbal" patent medicine, buy shares in a bogus stock venture, or donate cash to a suspect "charity."

In other chapters, it seems like the con artist is either stopped in his tracks or is conned himself. Since the book is mostly conversations, we are left to our own conclusions; there is no authorial voice wrapping up each chapter with a neatly stated ending. This elliptical structure conveys the ambiguous nature of trust; we don't want to be taken, but confidence is also necessary for any business to be transacted. To trust no one is to be entirely isolated.

Melville also raises the question: is it always a bad thing to be conned? The sickly man seems to be improved by his purchase of the worthless herbal remedy, and the donor conned out of his cash for the bogus charity also seems to feel better about himself and life. The ornery frontiersman who's been conned by lazy helpers softens up enough to trust the smooth-talking employment agency owner. Is that a terrible thing, to trust despite a history of being burned?

The ambuiguous nature of the bonds of trust is also explored. We think the Cosmopolitan is a con-man, but when he convinces a fellow passenger to part with a heavy sum, he returns it, just to prove a point. Is that a continuance of the con, or is he actually trustworthy?

The book is also an exploration of a peculiarly American task: sorting out who to trust in a multicultural non-traditional society of highly diverse and highly mobile citizens. In a traditional society, things operate in rote ways; young people follow in their parents' traditional roles, money is made and lent according to unchanging standards, and faith/tradition guides transactions such as marriage and business along well-worn pathways.

But in America, none of this structure is available. Even in Melville's day, America was a polyglot culture on the move; you had to decide who to trust based on their dress, manner and speech/pitch. The con, of course, works on precisely this necessity to rely on one's senses and rationality rather than a traditional network of trusted people and methods. So the con man dresses well and has a good story, and an answer for every doubt.

The second reason why Melville is hard to read is his long, leisurely, clause upon clause sentences. But the book is also peppered with his sly humor, which sneaks up on you... well, just like a good con.
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33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quite an Original, November 14, 2001
By 
Quite an Original
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade
I am specifically reviewing the Northwestern University Press edition of Melville's "The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade."
There is a Norton Critical Edition of this novel edited by Hershel Parker, but it doesn't seem to be offered by Amazon.com. It is offered at at W.W. Norton's website... The Hendricks House edition edited by Elizabeth Foster is another good edition, but it seems to be out of print at the moment.
On November 12, 1856 Herman Melville and Nathanial Hawthorne took a walk among the sandhills near Liverpool, England. They smoked cigars, and Hawthorne wrote about a week later that Melville spoke of Providence and futurity, and he, Melville, had pretty much made up his mind to be annilated.
"The Confidence-Man" is the last novel that Melville published during his lifetime. I agree with Newton Arvin, who called "The Confidence-Man" "one of the most infidel books ever written by an American; one of the most completely nihilistic, morally and metaphysically."
About 150 years after the book was first published, and about fifty since the book was first taken seriously by literary critics, The Confidence-Man is not a settled matter. In fact there remains excessive discord among readers and critics about the worth of this novel. Some compare it to Swift's "Tale of the Tub," others will tell you that this book is static and formless.
The idea is simple enough. On April 1 a devil in the guise of a deaf mute goes aboard a Mississippi river steamboat, and begs for charity. In rapid succession he transforms himself into a crippled Black man, a man with the weed, the man in the grey coat , the gentleman with the big book, the man with the plate and finally the Cosmopolitan. In these different guises he gulls and diddles people. He asks for trust. He is not always successful, but he can take solace in his failures. The reason for the devil's failures is the cyniscim, mistrust and mysandry of his marks. It is their human failings that accounts for his failures. And that's not so bad for the devil.
Melville's control of his material was never greater. I recommend the Northwestern Newberry edition because it contains draft fragments of chapter 14. You can see how carefullly Melville wrote this novel. The blandness of the prose is deliberate. If you read the surviving drafts you will see how Melville purposedly silenced and muted his message. Perhaps Melville was too successful for even close readers get lost sometimes.
At the end there is an increase of seriousness. An old man closes his Bible and asks for a life preserver. The Cosmopolitan hands the old man a chamberpot which appears to be full, and calls it a life preserver. The Cosmopolitan then extinguishes the lamp, and then leads the other into the darkness.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Classic Exploration of Trust and the Con, October 3, 2006
By 
Charles Hugh Smith (Berkeley, CA United States) - See all my reviews
Why read a book from 1857 which flopped so badly as commercial literature that Melville stopped writing and ended his career as a customs official? Because this book masterfully explores the entire nature of trust, confidence and cons. Though the setting is a riverboat on the Mississippi River just before the U.S. exploded into Civil War, its insights cross cultural boundaries.

This is not an easy book to read for several reasons. First, it is undoubtedly one of the first "post-modern" novels which breaks from traditional narrative storytelling. ( Another example: Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground.) The Confidence-Man is a collection of 45 conversations between various people on the riverboat--beggars, absurdly dressed frontiersmen, sickly misers, shysters, patent medicine hucksters, veterans (of the Mexican-American War) and the "hero" in the latter part of the book, the Cosmopolitan.

In typical Melville fashion, you also get asides--directly to the reader, in several cases, as if Melville felt the need to address issues of fiction outside the actual form of his novel. The lack of structure, action and conclusion make this a post-modern type book, but if you read each conversation as a separate story, then it starts to make more sense.

For what ties the book together is not a story but a theme: the nature of trust and confidence. In a very sly way, Melville shows how a variety of cons are worked, as the absolutely distrustful are slowly but surely convinced to do exactly what they vowed not to do: buy the "herbal" patent medicine, buy shares in a bogus stock venture, or donate cash to a suspect "charity."

In other chapters, it seems like the con artist is either stopped in his tracks or is conned himself. Since the book is mostly conversations, we are left to our own conclusions; there is no authorial voice wrapping up each chapter with a neatly stated ending. This elliptical structure conveys the ambiguous nature of trust; we don't want to be taken, but confidence is also necessary for any business to be transacted. To trust no one is to be entirely isolated.

Melville also raises the question: is it always a bad thing to be conned? The sickly man seems to be improved by his purchase of the worthless herbal remedy, and the donor conned out of his cash for the bogus charity also seems to feel better about himself and life. The ornery frontiersman who's been conned by lazy helpers softens up enough to trust the smooth-talking employment agency owner. Is that a terrible thing, to trust despite a history of being burned?

The ambuiguous nature of the bonds of trust is also explored. We think the Cosmopolitan is a con-man, but when he convinces a fellow passenger to part with a heavy sum, he returns it, just to prove a point. Is that a continuance of the con, or is he actually trustworthy?

The book is also an exploration of a peculiarly American task: sorting out who to trust in a multicultural non-traditional society of highly diverse and highly mobile citizens. In a traditional society, things operate in rote ways; young people follow in their parents' traditional roles, money is made and lent according to unchanging standards, and faith/tradition guides transactions such as marriage and business along well-worn pathways.

But in America, none of this structure is available. Even in Melville's day, America was a polyglot culture on the move; you had to decide who to trust based on their dress, manner and speech/pitch. The con, of course, works on precisely this necessity to rely on one's senses and rationality rather than a traditional network of trusted people and methods. So the con man dresses well and has a good story, and an answer for every doubt.

The second reason why Melville is hard to read is his long, leisurely, clause upon clause sentences. But the book is also peppered with his sly humor, which sneaks up on you... well, just like a good con.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars have confidence, April 7, 2006
Hardly any action, absurd labyrinthine plot, hilarious mis-pronunciation of the word 'herbs'. I want to convey just how uncanny it is that a book can be both a disturbing vortex of meaninglessness AND a jolly good read AT THE SAME TIME. I don't want to sound pretentious, but there's no way around it: Melville's final and supremely unpopular novel pushes the conceptual boundaries of the traditional novel genre, the act of writing itself, and indeed the very idea of representation. What is at stake here is the foundation of Western thought and self-fashioning. Meanwhile, following along with the ruses and rhymes of the trickster con-man (or con-men) and the sly narrator makes for a very amusing trip.

I just hope nobody ever tries to make a movie out of this.

PS make sure you get the oxford classics edition because the introduction essay is especially good; it points out all sorts of interesting stuff about the novel's composition and resonances with American culture and intellectual history in a lucid and enlightening way.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Melville and his Masques, November 26, 1999
Set aboard a Mississippi side-wheel steamer in the 1850s, Melville's novel charts the progress of the American character at a time when the old frontier was giving way, albeit slowly, to a new, urban frontier.
"The Confidence-Man" works at so many different levels that it is no wonder Melville's readers weren't quite sure what to make of his ninth novel. It is a call-and-response of idealism suborned for the purposes of sheer humbuggery, material theft and moral sophistry.
I think readers would do well to always keep the word "confidence" in mind as they read the novel; it recurs time and again in different contexts throughout the book. Melville's purpose is to highlight the rift between what things seem to be and what they truly are. It is eerily existential in tone and readers familiar with Kierkegaard and Camus will be delighted by Melville's keen appreciation for the absurdity of the human condition.
The wretched reception of "The Confidence-Man" undermined what little was left of Melville's own self-confidence as a writer whose work could support his family. In one sense, this was a grievous shame, because Melville lived for nearly four more decades and, presumably, could have spent that time producing more great literature had his contemporaries simply recognized the intellectual genius of his work.
In another sense, though, "The Confidence-Man" is a fitting send-off to a literary career hobbled by critical inattention and plain bad luck. Melville's America is not an America where dreams come true (note how China Aster is destroyed by his) and where confidence -- optimism -- is rewarded or even warranted. Yet, it is an America recognizably closer to the one we live in than those crafted by Melville's contemporaries -- Emerson, Thoreau, Irving.
"The Confidence-Man" is a very complex novel of ideas. This particular edition is very useful because it provides fairly thorough annotation throughout the book. I would highly recommend it for use in a graduate course on American intellectual history, particularly juxtaposed against Emerson and Tocqueville's analyses of American society and culture.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ., January 29, 2005
By 
FK (New London, CT) - See all my reviews
As I read this book, I didn't catch all the subtleties of it, and could never be precisely sure whether each confidence man was evil or not- it seemed ambiguous, or at least, the author never once allows the reader to find out definitively that the 'vicitms' are being gulled. However, by the end of the book, this becomes more clear as the second half settles into sxome extremely thought-provoking conversations and exchanges. After reading literary reviews online, the book in its totality makes even more sense as in retrospect its sublte points become clearer.

That being said, the writing is absolutely superb. Although far more wordy than Hemingway, one cannot avoid comparing to Hemingway's writing, which, like this, is extremely controlled, restrained and pointed. As you read this, you cannot avoid the feeling that the author spent hours on each sentence.

It is therefore very much so worth reading, but don't expect it to be easy. It's certainly not your verbose, nineteenth century romanctic glop, but it can be difficult, as some readers appear to have found it. But try it.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Melville's Enigmatic American Testament., June 7, 2000
With "The Confidence-Man," Melville offered a final novelistic expression of his hopes, doubts, and frustrations about the American nation on the verge of Civil War in the late 1850's.
Many critics and reviewers take a negative point of view on this novel, saying that the narrative instability and episodic nature of the novel represents Melville's anger with the increasingly poor reception of his later novels, including the brilliant "Moby-Dick".
Over the course of the novel's first half, we are presented with a string of characters who spout the virtues of charity and trust, all supposedly different manifestations of one Confidence-Man. The confidence-man engages passengers of the riverboat Fidele from St. Louis to New Orleans in philosophical, literary, personal, and business-related conversations. This is the heart of the novel, even in the second half, where only one confidence-man appears. As in Cervantes' "Don Quixote," you are able to tease out more about the ambiguous purposes of the novel through speeches rather than actions.
At points amusing, horrifying, and sad, "The Confidence-Man" is difficult, if not impossible to categorize in any simple fashion. An extremely worthwhile read, especially if you read it as a prophetic work of the American Civil War and try to figure out for yourself if Melville thought things would turn out alright, or if the US was due for an apocalyptic judgment.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Melville's Least Understood Masterpiece, February 17, 2000
The Confidence Man is without question the most revolutionary work of nineteenth century fiction--enormously experimental, provocative and simply bizarre. The experimentations with flatenned characterizations; the episodic, even repetitive plot structure; and the sheer power of its hallucinatory narration make this novel a post-modern work before there was even modernism. Greatly ignored in its own day, and for much of ours, the Confidence Man is central to an understanding of narrative history and the evolution of this tortured genius who, after his novel Pierre, seems to have transformed narrative conventions in a way that few readers have ever grasped. A brilliant, absolutely central work that makes the much-lauded experimentations of near-contemporary American writers seem puny by comparison.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The Confidence Man" by Herman Melville, May 29, 2010
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After Herman Melville's tales of mountainous waves, disease, apparitions, murders, suicides, cannabalism, tropical storms, tsunamis, hallucinations, lightning strikes, hangings, volcanic eruptions, starvation, giant whales and every form of terror possible on the high seas and land, "The Confidence Man" is Melville's most violent work.

It begins with an April day, the first, "April Fool's Day" on a paddle-wheeled river boat heading downstream from St. Louis, Missouri to New Orleans, Louisiana. The river is wide, 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) at certain points, but a river boat is generally thought to be a reassuring form of travel.

This is not the case, not once in the 45 chapters which follow. The concentration of psychological violence is so intense that the reader is unaware of its insidious presence which manifests itself continually in its different disguises.

In Chapter 14, in a brief aside, Melville gives the reader a kind of passepartout to his novel, when he describes the first stuffed platypus from Australia, the so-called "duck-billed beaver", which many naturalists refused to recognize as a separate species and preferred to conclude that the bill had been ably glued on.

In a letter to his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in 1851, Melville writes: "Let any clergyman try to preach the Truth from its very stronghold, the pulpit, and they would ride him out of his church on his own pulpit bannister."

Obviously for many this is a totally unacceptable view of the human race. Incomprehension and
denial are natural defensive reactions. But considering that 153 years have passed since the
publication of "The Confidence Man" and considering the accumulated evidence we have at hand, this prophetic novel provides the ONLY credible conclusive appraisal of the human condition.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Melville's modernist tour of America's stream of humanity, February 16, 2007
By 
"The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade" is, as its title would suggest, a satirical farce. In spite of its wit and the occasional laugh, however, it is the hardest of all Melville's works to follow, in no small part because its lead character keeps changing his identity--and that is assuming, by the way, that there's just one lead character to begin with. If at times the novel feels like a patchwork, it's because it is: Melville merged a number of stories and travel pieces originally intended for magazine publication into a continuous, claustrophobic cyclorama.

Set on the Mississippi River on April Fool's Day, "The Confidence-Man" follows the interrelated episodes and adventures of a stream of passengers who board and disembark a steamboat. Many of the confidence men (and their prophetic counterparts) may be the same person in various disguises. (Melville's deliberate obfuscation on this point has launched a hundred academic papers.)

The various scoundrels, shills, suckers, and shape-shifters are a parade of American types: "men of business and men of pleasure; parlor men and backwoodsmen; farm-hunters and fame-hunters; heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters." Everyone on board is trying to sell something or to swindle someone or to raise money for a charity or to find a job or to convince a fellow passenger of his own integrity. A persistent theme is the typically American monomaniacal pursuit of money.

"I am neither prophet nor charlatan," says a peddler of medicine to a sick man. "But again I say, you must have confidence." Yet only a fool would have confidence, and this insecurity leads to an irrational paranoia. Nobody can trust anyone: "it is one of the imbecilities of the suspicious person to fancy that every stranger, however absent-minded, he sees so much as smiling or gesturing to himself in any odd sort of way, is secretly making him his butt."

For obvious reasons, "The Confidence-Man" is considered the precursor of the modernist novel. As an academic exercise, it's both intriguing and (to use a technical term) "mind-blowing." And there is certainly a steady stream of quotable aphorisms and clever anecdotes. Yet I also found the novel to be frustrating: somewhat like entering a labyrinth from which there is no hope of escape or solution--and at the end of the book you're still stuck in the maze. The farce is a lot of fun initially but it becomes a bit maddening and repetitive after reaching one too many of the novel's narrative dead ends.

As one of Melville's contemporary reviewers noted, the novel makes as much sense if the chapters are read in reverse order, and the "characters" are distinguishable not by their personalities as much as they are defined by their wholly predictable actions and reactions. Halfway down the Old Muddy, after meeting the Melville's umpteenth American stereotype, I realized that the novel had no Bartleby or Nippers, nor, for that matter, would readers be introduced to a K. or an Olga. Instead, "The Confidence-Man" is like Kafka without characters.
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The Confidence-Man (Modern Library Classics)
The Confidence-Man (Modern Library Classics) by Herman Melville (Paperback - September 9, 2003)
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