Herman Melville, “The Confidence-Man” (1857)

“If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life. As elsewhere, experience is the only guide here; but as no one man’s experience can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every case to rest upon it. When the duck-billed beaver of Australia was first brought stuffed to England, the naturalists, appealing to their classifications, maintained that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.” (914)

Well, this is the world we live in to some degree, in constant war with our intellect and education. In The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade Herman Melville dreams up an incredible host of characters on a riverboat on their way South. Some of them certainly do not fit our taxonomy of life—such as the white man posing as a black man—, but they are all rendered so as to appear from life. This novel was Melville’s farewell to the world of publishing. Facing failure after failure since he wrote Redburn, he gave up on the public. He made some money from lecturing but eventually took to simply working at the New York customs office until he retired. His only outlet to the public was a few works of poetry. I still do not know for sure if Melville has spoken his peace or if he had more to say but lost faith in his listeners. As a farewell, The Confidence-Man does not disappoint. It is a brilliant tale and is endless quotable. As I am already prone to over quoting, I will try to avoid the temptation to go overboard.


What makes this novel work is the cast of characters, each of whom has a story, an agenda, or a scheme. In this way, it is a microcosm of mid-nineteenth century democratic America. But in the mixture of people trying to take advantage of each other, sell their scheme or idea, there is a shared solidarity that Melville touched on previously in regards to the ship and its crew, but not seems to come from the shared experiences of all sorts of people. As the narrator points out, the riverboat is a great place to explore the full diversity of humanity because at every stop people get on and others get off. The population is steady but always changing. Perhaps more darkly we could read this as a story of liquidity. As soon as someone bores us we can take comfort in the fact that they will be gone and someone different will be talking to us in a few minutes. Reflecting this impatience, The Confidence-Man never dwells long on one person. Even the styles shift, with short chapters devoted to tangential points of philosophy. The narrator seems to be in the position of someone in a bar, drinking all day, eavesdropping on every conversation. (Maybe the narrator is a bee moving amongst the riverboat.) Whatever the narrator is, it is always able to learn something from the interactions, even to the point of offering commentary.

Melville makes it clear that we are dealing with America in all its diversity and energy. “As pine, beech, birch, ash, hackmatack, hemlock, spruce, bass-wood, maple, interweave their foliage in the natural wood, so these varieties of mortals blended their varieties of visage and garb. A Tartar-like picturesqueness; a sort of pagan abandonment and assurance. Here reigned the dashing and all-fusing spirit of the West, whose type is the Mississippi itself, which, uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pours them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide.” (848) The stories these varied people told revealed many aspects of American life, turning the novel into something closer to an American version of The Canterbury Tales.

The people on the riverboat are more or less equal (in part because there seems to be no end to the masks that people are wearing and no one can know the real status or condition of others). Despite this equality—or maybe because of it—there is a constant give and take as people try to recruit others into their various schemes. One person invented the “Protean easy-chair” during “odd intervals stolen from meals and sleep.” (881) But that is not the limit of his inventiveness. He has also come up with a scheme to reduce poverty in the world by imposing a global progressive income tax that would produce almost one billion dollars a year. (Notice that this plan is not so different from the proposal of Peter Singer to reduce poverty with a 1% voluntary tax on the wealthy people of the world.) It is not a spur of the moment idea, this particular character through long and hard about this scheme. But it exists only in the realm of ideas. He lacks, of course, the power to implement it. The entire thing may be (actually probably is) a scheme. For all the machinations, because no one has power over any of the others, it comes off as a bit of a game. And the concept of “confidence” (required by any schemer) runs through the story as a type of common vocabulary.

Other subplots revealed during this single day on a riverboat reveal a darker side to the American experience. We meet an Indian hater, for instance, who spends considerable time discussing his life-consuming ambition to slaughter Indians in revenge for the murder of his family (a crime for which was already avenged earlier in his life). As is so common in Melville’s work, the dark undercurrent of American democracy and diversity comes in the form of brutal violence and authoritarian sentiments.

“Well, there is sorrow in the world, but goodness too; and goodness is not greenness, either, no more than sorrow is.” (865)

Francis Parkman, “The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” (1849), Part One

“One morning, a piece of plank, standing upright on the summit of a grassy hill, attracted our notice, and riding up to it, we found the following words very roughly traced upon it, apparently by a red-hot piece of iron. MARY ELLIS, DIED MAY 7th, 1845, AGED TWO MONTHS. Such tokens were common occurrence. Nothing could speak more for the hardihood, or rather infatuation, of the adventurers, or the sufferings that await them upon the journey.” (56)


My apologies for beginning my look at Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail with this bit of pathos. Indeed, I am not particularly interested in stressing the hardship and suffering of the trail. Any high school text book can do this adequately. But this makeshift tomb did strike me as an impressive piece of Americana for another reason. The Oregon Trail was created by thousands of working people, from many different nations, men and women, adults and children, through interactions with local people. Sure, the government had a thin role through forts and the occasional army presence, but the trail was a vernacular creation. This tomb was just one of the small relics left behind by these people. Ah, forgive me, I feel I am still within the mythology of the American past: The rugged individual staking out, with courage, the settlement of the West. Is it possible to tell this story (especially through the mind of someone like Francis Parkman) without regurgitating these myths? Nevertheless, let me stand by this. The Oregon Trail, according to Parkman anyway, was created by a motley, international crew of settlers, some Romantic frontiersman, some practical patriarchs and matriarchs, some Indians who through the participation may have helped ensure the end of Indian autonomy in the West. The state seemed distant at best. Perhaps this is really a story of bottom-up vernacular creation. Maybe the myths are correct.


Francis Parkman, the great historian whose epic history of the British and French empires in North America I looked at earlier in the year, experienced the Oregon Trail in 1846, after graduating from law school. He did not go as a settler, but as a reporter. During his investigations he participated in a buffalo hunt with the Sioux. He returned and experienced a collapse in his health, something that would plague him for the rest of his life. Out of his experiences came The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, appearing first in serial formation in 1847 and in book form in 1849 (as The California and Oregon Trail, to profit off the gold rush). He had already hoped to work on Pontiac’s revolt, his first major historical work, and his reportage was a place holding work toward what he felt was a more important historical investigation.

Almost immediately the reader gets a sense of the transnational solidarities of the participants in the Oregon Trail. “The passengers on board the Radnor [the boat Parkman used to navigate the Missouri River before setting off on the land route] corresponded with her freight. In her cabin were Santa Fe traders, gamblers, speculators, and adventurers of various descriptions, and her steerage was crowded with Oregon emigrants, ‘mountain men,’ negroes and a party of Kanzas Indians, who has been on a visit to St. Louis.” (9–10) Some of the characters he describes meeting are almost out of film stereotypes of nineteenth century frontiersmen. Sorry to quote again, it is too lovely. “As I stood at the door of the tavern, I saw a remarkable looking person coming up the street. He had a ruddy face, garnished with the stumps of a bristly red bread and a moustache; on one side of his head was a round cap with a knob at the top, such as Scottish laborers sometimes wear: his coat was of a nondescript form, and made of a gray Scotch plaid, with the fringes hanging all about it; he wore pantaloons of coarse homespun, and hob-nailed shoes; and to complete his equipment, a little black pipe was struck in one corner of his mouth.” (11–12) Parkman’s early impressions seems to have been that the people he was surrounded by (did I mention a large group of Mormons?) were much more interesting than the rather dull environment.

I do not want to give too cheery a picture, however. Fear was real, and Parkman described in on the faces of some of the pioneers he encountered, whether bachelors or entire families. Difficult alliances were formed among groups for protection against Indians, forcing the creation of makeshift councils and decision-making structures.

The infamous conflicts with the Indians are here as well, but Parkman’s narrative shows them for a bit of a facade. He reports violence from time to time, but neither side dared open confrontation if it could be avoided. The Pawnee, for instance, looked upon the wagon trains as a source of income (and the train prepared for theft as simply part of the cost of doing business on the train). Shows of bravado and intimidation occurred, but avoidance of large confrontation was the rule. For example, when Parkman’s group was out hunting for buffalo they ran into a group of Pawnee. “The amazement and consternation were mutual. Having nothing but their bows and arrows, the Indians thought their hour had come, and the fate that they were no doubt conscious of richly deserving, about to overtake them. So they began, one and all, to shout forth the most cordial salutations of friendship, running up with extreme earnestness to shake hands with the Missourians, who were as much rejoined as they were to escape the expected conflict.” (63) On the next page we learn that Parkman bought the friendship of people from the same group with a half-pound of tobacco, while a neighboring group of emigrants lost one man to the Pawnee and were forced to huddle in camp for a day or two. I do not want to give these encounters, based on threats and sometimes violence, a too festive atmosphere, but I get the sense that what was happening was a bit of a game (perhaps like drug dealers and police) that often ensnared people tragically, but when carefully played, left both sides intact. Unfortunately, it seems too few of the emigrants fully understood the rules.

When examining power on the Oregon Trail, it seems there are four forces, but none of them dominate enough to control the other three. One center of power were the emigrants themselves, forming organizations to protect themselves and survive. They were armed, provisioned, and organized (to a degree). A second group was the United States government, but they were largely absent outside of visits to forts. Their power was not projected outward very much, at least not in 1846, when Parkman was there. A third group, more extensive than the government, were transnational corporations such as the American Fur Company (owned by a US citizen, but many of the employees were French-Canadians and Indians). As Parkman said of Fort Laramie, “Here their officials rule with an absolute sway; the arm of the United States has little force; for when we were there, the extreme outposts of her troops were about seven hundred miles to the eastward.” (97) The final group, were the Indians, who seemed—according to this account—more interested in securing a steady income from the emigrants than preventing the migrations entirely. It seems that there is a space here for taking seriously the vernacular organizations formed by the emigrant themselves, but I do not know of any scholarship that does this.

American Fur Compay's Fort Laramie

American Fur Compay’s Fort Laramie

Most of the rest of The Oregon Trail details Parkman’s time living with the Sioux. What we can learn about his attitudes about them and the nature of their society will be reserved for my second post on this excellent example of early American reportage.

Richard Henry Dana, “Two Years Before the Mast,” Chapters 12-23 (Violence, Power, and Diversity)

One striking aspect of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast is just how often the crew seemed to be on the brink of mutiny.  At minimum, the crew was always searching for a way to avoid work but was always careful not to cross a line that would lead to violent confrontation (although this did not always work). This balking at work was called “work Tom Cox’s traverse” according to Dana.  “Send a man below to get a block, and he would capsize everything before finding it, then not bring it up till an officer had called him twice, and take as much time to put things in order again.” (71) It also seems that the plotting of work avoidance was something discussed openly over meals in the forecastle. If liberty days would not be coming from the officers, the crews found ways to seize their own liberty day.


Much of the second section of Two Years Before the Mast covers the Pilgrim and its crew while it stayed on the California coast, trading and engaging in the hide business.  We learn one of the greatest anxieties about sea voyages, particularly to the Pacific in these years, came from fears over the length of the voyage. It was never quite clear how long they would sail up and down the coast before returning home, or worst yet taking a trip to China or other Pacific ports. “All these little vexations and labors would have been nothing,–they would have been passed by the common evils of sea-life, which every sailor, who is a man, will go through without complaint,–were it not for the uncertainty, or worse then uncertainty, which hung over the nature and length of our voyage.” (87) It is strongly suggested that the information was held from the crew.  At the very least, this was how the forecastle seemed to interpret their lack of information. The crews relied on rumors and innuendo to psychologically prepare for the unknown. Lack of communication about things so central to sailors life emerges as one of the major ways that the officers and captains maintained their power over the crews, but it was also one of the potential flashpoints that could lead to resistance. From the perspective of the sailors, a little more respect and openness would have made the voyage, its length, and its odious labor more acceptable. In a sense, they were asking for democratic values to be put in place on the ship.


That the sailors saw themselves as less than free is reflected most directly in chapter fifteen, which describes in brutal detail the confrontation between a “heavy-molded fellow from the Middle States” named Sam and the captain, who proceeded to whip Sam in front of the entire crew as punishment for he “jaw.” When a highly-respected sailor John the Swede, intervened he was also punished. Hitting hard is the heavily racialized language of the exchange, suggesting that the line between slavery and freedom on the ship was slight indeed. Sam protested: “I’m no negro slave.” And the captain replied: “Then I’ll make you one. . . Make a spread eagle of him! I’ll teach you all who is master aboard.” (96—97) After Dana explains in detail the horrors of flogging and the brutal impact it had on the fellow crew members who saw their “brother” abused and humiliated, Dana reveals how the captain relishes the entire display, again in heavily racist language. “I’ll make you toe the mark, every soul of you, or I’ll flog you all, fore and aft, from the boy, up! – You’ve got a driver over you! Yes, a slave driver—a negro-driver! I’ll see who’ll tell me he is n’t a negro slave!” (99-100) And then, almost mundanely, Dana describes the next days labors, which went on smoothly except for the “dark hole” that hovered over the forecastle, the realization that they all lived under a tyranny. The flogging remained an unspoken reality for weeks on the ship. Anyone who brought it up was shut down by the crew, but it was the most present truth for that part of the voyage and perhaps the central even in the entire narrative.


Loading hides on the California Coast

Loading hides on the California Coast

I suppose I only want to say one more thing about the central part of Two Years Before the Mast.  The California coast, due in part to Spanish colonization and the arrival of intense merchant shipping activity, was incredibly diverse and vibrant. Near the hide-processing stations where Dana and the crew worked for long months lived Spaniards, Indians, Hawaiians (Sandwich Island Kanakas), and members of merchant ship crews from may European nations as well as the United States. This required a great degree of cultural flexibility of the crew that Dana presents in striking contrast to the hierarchical and singular nature of the powerful, such as his captain. “The greater part of the crews of the vessel came ashore every evening, and we passed the time in going about from one house to another, and listening to all manner of languages. The Spanish was the common ground upon which we all met; for everyone one knew more or less of that.  We have now, out of forty or fifty representatives from almost every nation under the sun: two Englishmen, three Yankees, two Scotchmen, two Welshmen, one Irishman, three Frenchmen. . . one Dutchman, one Austrian, two or three Spaniards, half a dozen Spanish-Americans and half-breeds, two native Indians from Chili and the Island of Chilow, one Negro, one Mulatto, about twenty Italians, from all parts of Italy, as many more Sandwich Islanders, one Otaheitan, and one Kanaka from the Marquesas Islands.” (153) What brought these people together was global capitalism on the California coast.  They came by different means and via different land and maritime empires but they all reached the coast in service of the God of capital. That service, reflected in never-ending labor and brutal discipline (verging as we have seen toward slavery) was the glue that brought this diverse lot together. Their cultural flexibility, creativity, and openness is striking and, it seems to me, a useful alternative to the mutual indifference and cultural isolation (albeit with the enforcement of respect) of multiculturalism.  Let’s call it solidarity.
Of course there is much more of interest, including his detailed descriptions of the work regimen in the hide trade and the social life in the California settlements (he is brilliant on the relative social and sexual freedom of Spanish-American women).  I may get to some of those questions in my next post.

Herman Melville, “Moby Dick,” The 300th Lay

The first thirty-six chapters of Moby Dick do much more than just set up the plot.  It is true that it is not until the 36th chapter that we are introduced to Ahab’s monomaniacal mission to kill the “white whale.” We are also introduced to the multi-ethnic crew of the Pequod, enjoy some fascinating discussions on religious relativism and its role in community, the exploitative economics of 19th century whaling, and the narrator Ishmael’s motives.


The novel opens with several pages of “extracts” revealing the evolution of interpretations about whales in Western culture.  The opening extracts, from Biblical and Classical texts suggest an evil or malevolent force, much like Ahab’s interpretation of the “white whale” as a “inscrutable malice.” (967)  Later extracts paint a picture of a whale as a scientifically-examined mystery or as a victim of industrial exploitation.  As whaling expanded, whales and whale products became a part of daily life, but it is still used as a symbol, suggesting the inability of humans to fully understand the whale, despite its role in society and centuries of scientific investigation.  Of course, over the course of the novel we will learn that whalers have a unique perspective on whales (going so far as to oppose the scientific designation of whales as mammals).  The transformation of the natural world into commodities to be studied, used, and discarded does nothing to improve our understanding of the plants and animals that share this planet with us.  Managers may spend much of their day around workers, but know little of their needs, desires, or lives.  Meat-eaters consume flesh from animals they are indifferent to and utterly ignorant of.  A butcher may have some additional knowledge, but likely little understanding.  There is no guarantee that a farmer will have a more spiritual or honorable relationship to the land than an city-dweller.  As in most things, the problem is one of power.  In five thousand years of science and technological progress we go from the Bible’s “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” to “he saw the distended jaws of a large Sperm Whale close to the head of the boat, threatening it with instant destruction.” (783, 792)


The novel begins in some familiar territory, a worker (in this case a teacher) bored with his life and seeking a new adventure decides to go on a ship.  Reading only the first chapter, we recognize Ishmael as akin to Typee or Taji.  Redburn and “White-Jacket” were straight up workers, lacking some of these romantic journeying of the characters in the Pacific novels.  Nevertheless, we get a richer and more cynical picture of the human condition in the opening pages of Moby Dick.  Ishmael has no illusions about a better life at sea.  He even claims that all humanity is enslaved and slavery on a whaling ship is not worse than any other.  He addresses the “November in my soul” by becoming a worker.  There is no Typee for him, no Yillah to search for.  He is also resigned to “Fate.” “I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.” (799)  Ahad’s motives are, of course, different.  He is on a quest to destroy and evil and malevolent force.  Those on the top can always redirect the energies into hobbies.  Working folk are lucky if their labors affirm any of their values or pique their interests.

After introducing his motive, Melville introduces Ishmael to Queequeg, a Pacific Islander.  This is the first hint that the interracial, transnational working class community of the whaling ship will play a major role in Moby-Dick.  As in Typee, the narrator begins hesitant to interact with people he deemed a cannibal.  (The tattooing plays a similar role as a facade of savagery as it does in Typee).  Queequeg is not only a Pacific Islander, he is also a pagan, a fact that will test Ishmael’s solidarity and openness.  We are introduced to the rest of the crew in the two chapters titled “Knights and Squires.”  We are introduced to the officers first.  Starbuck is the pure reflection of American pragmatism and capitalistic logic.  Flask  reflects more of the adventuring spirit of the American frontiersman.  Stubbs is the epitome of American cheer and optimism.  These three “knights” had three squires: Queeqeug, Tashtego, and Daggoo.  Together they represent an international working class stretching from Africa to the South Pacific.  In Mardi, Melville took the world and recreated in as a series of islands.  In Moby-Dick, he takes the world with him as the crew of the Pequod.

Pay on the Pequod and other whaling ships was determined by a fraction of the total profits of the voyage, known as “lays.”  Ishmael had hoped his experience in the merchant service would have provided for him a 200th lay, that is 1/200 of the profits.  In one of the most memorable parts of the early sections of this book, we encounter two of the major owners of the ship, Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad, arguing about how severely to exploit Ishmael.  Ishmael, already having decided to sign onto a whaling ship, has little bargaining power.  At worst, he figured a 275th lay would have paid for his clothes.  Bildad wanted to pay Ishmael the 777th lay and Peleg countered with the 300th lay, the amount he eventually agreed to.  The much more valuable harpooner, Queequeg, received the 90th lay.

The same class distinctions that divided the crew of the Neversink in White-Jacket affect the Pequod, particularly in the contrast between the ordered hierarchy on the top and chaotic democracy among the workers.  “Now, Ahab and his three mates formed what may be called the first table in the Pequod’s cabin.  After their departure, taking place in inverted order to their arrival, the canvas cloth was cleared, or rather was restored to some hurried order by the pallid steward. . . . In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constraint and nameless invisible domineerings of the captain’s table, was the entire care-free license and ease, the almost frantic democracy of those inferior fellows the harpooneers.  While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooneers chewed their good with such a relish that there was a report to it.” (953)

There you have it.  In these early chapters of Moby-Dick, Melville describes the dynamics of global capitalism in terms of power, the make-up of the working class, exploitation, and environmental destruction.  This is the setting of his epic.