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.

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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)

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.

dana

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.