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The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman…

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

by Herman Melville

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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
Baffling—and funny as hell if you're patient with all the dialogue. Once I got into the feel of the story, which was about midway through, it turned from a confusing slog into gloriously snowballing absurdity. If you're struggling through the beginning, as I sure was, have some you'll-know-what and try to hang on at least until the P.I.O. comes up; that chapter marks, probably not by chance, the exact midpoint of the book, and the second half presents more continuity than the first.

Really, this book is fun. It looks back to Tristram Shandy and forward to William Gaddis, and hitting the increasingly wacky twists in the second half I was more than once reminded of Graham Chapman's principle for sketch development, "How can we make this madder?". ( )
  defaults | Oct 6, 2017 |
I liked this story conceptually: the idea of a confidence-man in different guises. Some of the discussions were interesting. Overall, though, I felt like I had to slog through it to get to the end. If you are a fan of Melville, then reading this may be worth your while. If you are new to Melville, read something else first. ( )
  ktlavender | Jul 17, 2017 |
Herman Melville must have had royal fun writing The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). One imagines him laughing at his desk as the titular character passes through his costume-changes and works his serial frauds, each of the latter based on cajoling, shaming, or arguing his credulous marks into demonstrations of "confidence." Whether construed as trust, faith, sympathy, charity, generosity, fraternity, or something else, a show of "confidence" features a handing-over of cash. If such transactions were all the novel offered, it might be an amusing trifle fit for one reading and oblivion. Happily, The Confidence-Man is cunningly layered with satiric set-pieces that variously mock most of the 19th Century's conventional pieties, particularly its widely-held belief in human progress and implicit trust of the means designed to achieve it. If Emerson's Transcendentalism is not spared ridicule, so are more practical "philosophies" revealed as convenient and modish fictions by which men (and, presumably, women, although Melville does not single out any females as confidence-tricksters) flatter themselves and deceive their fellows. All aboard the Mississippi riverboat Fidèle eagerly participate in this vital dialectic.

Indeed, many of the characters we meet aboard the Fidèle seem to be types of confidence-men--and because the "confidence man" of the title is a chameleon in aspect and address, even possibly a shape-shifter (or just an expert of costume and disguise), it is easy to become lost in the narrative's shell-game of "now he's here, now he's there; first this one, now that one." For this reason, an ideal reading of this novel would be accomplished in single, total-immersion session that enabled the reader, to the best of his or her ability, to hold the entire thing in mind at once. Setting the book aside, and inevitably losing the string of a conversation (and a sense of the narrative's unity) amid the bits & pieces of one's own clamoring daily life diminishes the effect of Melville's fiction to such an extent that the bewildered, disoriented reader is likely to blame the book and, in exasperation, pronounce it "disorganized," "incoherent," "hodgepodge," and/or "disingenuously oblique." Alas, it is more likely the reader's life, not Melville's book, that fits these descriptives. By withholding one's full and sustained attention from the masquerade, the reader short-changes the book and cheats himself of a healthy dose of knowing laughter.

Is the deaf-mute dressed in cream colors who steps aboard the Fidèle early on the morning of April 1st a pious fraud sent as vanguard to soften the crowd for the main operator's advent and the deployment of his stratagems? Or is this meek-seeming young man merely that, and his rough handling by said crowd, even as he preaches charity via slate-board and chalk, a figurement of spiritual crucifixion? He survives in body, retires to a lonely spot, falls asleep, disappears--has he been raptured away? Has he disembarked unnoticed? Or has he assumed a fresh avatar of imposture?

A Negro cripple; a gentleman with a weed; a man dressed in gray and white; an agent of the Black Rapids Coal Company; an herb-doctor; a man with a brass plate, and so on, each possessed of a silver tongue and a parcel of plausible lies, engage a series of (more or less) innocent bystanders in innocuous-seeming conversation, all tending in short order toward violations of privacy and a personal appeal: "Give me twenty dollars." If the audacity of these proceedings is not insulting, it certainly is hilarious. Witness the con man's colloquy with "A charitable lady" (Chapter 8):

"You interest me," said the good lady, in mild surprise. "Can I in any way befriend you?"

"No one can befriend me, who has not confidence."

"But I--I have--at least to that degree--I mean that--"

"Nay, nay, you have none--none at all. Pardon, I see it. No confidence. Fool, fond fool that I am to seek it!"

"You are unjust, sir," rejoins the good lady with heightened interest; "but it may be that something untoward in your experiences has unduly biased you. Not that I would cast reflections. Believe me, I--yes, yes--I may say--that--that"

"That you have confidence? Prove it. Let me have twenty dollars."

"Twenty dollars!"

"There, I told you, madam, you had no confidence."

The lady was, in an extraordinary way, touched. She sat in a sort of restless torment, knowing not which way to turn.

If this is not a species of seduction, what is? The assumption of superiority, followed closely by feigned uninterest and overt rejection, resulting in the capture of the lady's interest, the winning of her solicitude, the gaining of her acquiescence and eventual submission. Meretricious talents of recent times have pretended to have discovered such technique as a foolproof means of luring charitable and uncharitable ladies to the destination most desired. A certain serviceable scrivener (whose name cannot appear in proximity to Herman Melville) was sometime ago notorious for limning the "Game" and how adept practitioners played it. Guess what, lad? It is not new. You have discovered nothing that has not been well-known since male has admired female, howevermuch your ignorance of your predecessors permits you to flatter yourself with a notion of originality.

But I digress. Serial ingratiation, deception, and solicitation tend to give Melville's narrative a static quality; the confidence-man's object is unvarying and each mark seems to be merely another dupe in a line of dupes. And yet, the procession is altogether amusing and Melville's ingenious variations of what is, essentially, a single-minded purpose are always entertaining and often dazzling. By the time we arrive at Chapter 24, A philanthropist undertakes to convert a misanthrope, but does not get beyond confuting him, we have played spectator to a parade of adaptable shams, each tailoring the tenor and tone of his address to the susceptibilities and demeanor of each audience of one. This core chapter, occurring almost exactly at the middle of the printed book, draws a bright line between healthy skepticism and presumptuous imposture. The misanthrope is proof against every specious argument; rebuffed, the confidence-man retreats without admitting defeat, his mask firmly in place.

Although Melville's last novel makes no appeal to the reader's emotions and will move no one to tears unless they are tears of laughter, it is a vastly satisfying performance by a great writer who continues to be unappreciated for his humor. The beautiful thing about this novel is its artful yet direct capacity to speak truth to power--the "power" here being the power of positive thinking, elsewhere encountered as uncritical, easy optimism. It is deeply satisfying to hear one plain-speaking dissenter after another give the lie to the confidence-man's facile and eloquent assurances of the essential goodness of humankind, the benevolence of nature, the blessings of progress, the nobility of the common man, and so forth. In its stone-cold delineations of real life's palpable circumstances, this book is a brightsider's nightmare. Only the most fatuous optimist--or a disingenuous one--could read it and believe that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. The brilliance of Melville's rendition is the superficial plausibility of the con man's rich and various appeals; at first blush (and without thinking) the reader is nearly taken in. Reasonable counterarguments, however, posed by potential dupes expose the sophistry of the confidence-man's representations--set-downs he often reverses by assuming an air of moral offense in the face of such demonstrable impoverishment of trust, confidence, optimism, etc. Thus shamed for allowing his better judgement (and it is better) to gainsay the spirit of an optimism felt to be peculiarly American, the dupe, knowing better but feeling bad, antes up his cash; he, she is, in a word, seduced; and in another, much less congenial word, raped--in mind, feeling, and wallet. It is a queasy realization, the reader's creeping sense that each victim is complicit in his or her exploitation. That no one's body is coerced or violated is some comfort, yet a cold one. Understandings have been misled, sensibilities abused, and compassion practiced upon by purveyors of false faith and blandishments. It is Herman Melville's triumph, and his genius, to make such cynical presumption delightful. ( )
1 vote bookie53 | Jul 26, 2015 |
Could not find this as gripping or revelatory as his other "later" works: Bartleby, Benito Cereno, or Billy Budd, all of which I love. The prose is so tortuous and the conceit so clearly drives what there is of a story that there's little motivation to stay engaged with it once you get the idea. Still, it's always a mistake to underestimate Melville. And I wondered if the all-dialogue form, as well as the huckster theme, might have inspired that other American master of cynicism and despair, William Gaddis. ( )
  CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
432. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, by Herman Melville (read 15 May 1952) On May 14, 1952 I said to myself: Melville can grow very dull and loquacious regardless of what anyone says. The style is scarcely one I can praise. ( )
  Schmerguls | May 13, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Herman Melvilleprimary authorall editionscalculated
Johnson, Jonathan EastmanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lewis, R. W. B.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Matterson, StephenEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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At sunrise of 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.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140445471, Paperback)

Onboard the Fidele, a steamboat floating down the Mississippi to New Orleans, a confidence man sets out to defraud his fellow passengers. In quick succession he assumes numerous guises - from a legless beggar and a worldly businessman to a collector for charitable causes and a cosmopolitan' gentleman, who simply swindles a barber out of the price of a shave. Making very little from his hoaxes, the pleasure of trickery seems an end in itself for this slippery conman. Is he the Devil? Is his chicanery merely intended to expose the mercenary concerns of those around him? Set on April Fool's Day, The Confidence-Man (1857) is an engaging comedy of masquerades, digressions and shifting identity, and a devastating satire on the American dream.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:06 -0400)

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Male, female, deft, fraudulent, constantly shifting: which of the `masquerade' of passengers on the Mississippi steamboat Fide?le is `the confidence man'?

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