Saturday, April 1, 2023

Quote of the Day (Herman Melville, on an American ‘Confidence Man’ on April Fool’s Day)

“At sunrise on 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….

“From the shrugged shoulders, titters, whispers, wonderings of the crowd, it was plain that he was, in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger.

“In the same moment with his advent, he stepped aboard the favorite steamer Fidele, on the point of starting for New Orleans. Stared at, but unsaluted, with the air of one neither courting nor shunning regard, but evenly pursuing the path of duty, lead it through solitudes or cities, he held on his way along the lower deck until he chanced to come to a placard nigh the captain's office, offering a reward for the capture of a mysterious impostor, supposed to have recently arrived from the East; quite an original genius in his vocation, as would appear, though wherein his originality consisted was not clearly given; but what purported to be a careful description of his person followed.”—American novelist and poet Herman Melville (1819-1891), The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857)

In a case of life imitating art, The Confidence-Man was published by Dix, Edwards & Co., on April Fool's Day. Its first chapter, excerpted above, took place on this same day, featuring a swindler out to bilk passengers on a Mississippi steamboat.

Best known to his contemporary public for tales based on his own experience in the South Pacific in the early 1840s, Herman Melville wrote this satire without ever journeying on the great river that divides America into east and west. 

Now regarded as perhaps the most modernist of his fiction, it mystified readers at the time, failing so dismally that Melville would never publish another novel in his lifetime. (His masterful novella, Billy Budd, would not be released until 1924, more than 30 years after the author died virtually forgotten.)

But Melville had anticipated, by more than a quarter-century, Mark Twain’s shrewd depiction of “The Duke and the Dauphin,” two con men plying their trade along the Mississippi in Huckleberry Finn. Even the name of the ship where Melville’s protagonist (as you might guess, the “mysterious impostor” of the passage), “Fidele” (Latin for “faith”) hints at the credulity exploited all too easily among these passengers into the American Heartland.

In this cavalcade of conning, the reader comes across promoters of stock in failing companies, peddlers of fake medicine, even collectors for a fraudulent Seminole Widows and Orphans Society. In an American society built on mobility, people can shed their old misfortunes at will—or, more negatively, gull a new set of suckers.

One sentence in the novel captures the dual qualities that enable these shysters to operate--not just self-belief but also deceit: "Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions.” 

In 2023, Melville’s ship of fools now encompasses an entire nation, all ready to fall for the next Internet hoax or the phantom electoral fraud claim. George Santos and Donald Trump differ from Melville’s “man in cream-colors” only in how much higher they aimed.

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