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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

April 4, 2012: Melville’s Confidence Man

[This week, in honor of April Fool’s Day, I’ll be highlighting various American Studies connections to the holiday—not just to foolishness, but to pranks, jokes, and humor. This is the third in the series. As always, suggestions and guest posts welcome—no fooling!]

On one of American literature’s most unique and interesting, and, yes, foolish, works.

I don’t think too many 21st century Americans read or even know about the mid-19th century movement known as Southwestern Humor, and that’s too bad. Besides representing some genuinely American folktales and mythologies—I vaguely remember reading stories about Mike Fink in childhood anthologies featuring Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Pecos Bill and the like, but I wonder if any of those characters remain on our cultural radar in any meaningful way—the Southwestern humor stories are just plain funny, both in their outlandish events and in their ability to capture story-tellers’ voices and effects. T.B. Thorpe’s “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (1854) is not only a clear predecessor to Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1867); it’s also nearly as great an act of literary and local color story-telling and humor. You could do a lot worse, in this April Fool’s week, than spending some time reading Thorpe and his peers.

At first glance, Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857) seems likewise inspired by, or at least parallel to, Thorpe’s story: both works are set on Mississippi River steamboats, and both feature multiple acts of story-telling, comprising communal conversations that are constituted out of such competing stories. Melville even ups the humor ante on two interconnected levels: he published his novel on April 1, and set it on the same day, which had for at least a few years been known as April Fool’s Day. Yet as anyone who has read Melville knows, the author’s sense of humor tended more to the dark and cynical than to the light and folktale-like; he expressed this perspective on humor very clearly in an 1851 letter to his friend Samuel Savage, writing that “It is—or seems to be—a wise sort of thing, to realize that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of joke, especially his misfortunes, if he have them. And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed round pretty liberally and impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it.” And in The Confidence Man, the joke that gets passed round is both dark and, like much of Melville’s work, extremely prescient of ongoing American and philosophical concerns.

It would be very foolish of me to spoil the details of Melville’s novel, which is, at least by Melville’s standards, brief and very read-able, and well worth your time. So I’ll just say that what his titular confidence man does, both by joining the steamboat’s community and through his particular voice and identity, is to draw out the complexities of such crucial and complex themes as trust and deception, interpersonal relationships and our own needs and goals, and the role of stories and performance in constructing and negotiating identities. The novel’s other characters represent a wide cross-section of American and human existence, and are not reducible simply to what the confidence man reveals about them; yet they can no more escape those revelations than they can determine with certainty who this mysterious figure is—or, for that matter, who any of their compatriots are at their core, what they know and what they can believe about their community and its stories. If that sounds pretty funny to you, in the truest sense of why we laugh and whom we’re laughing at, then you and Melville’s Man will get along just fine.

Next in the series tomorrow,


PS. Any funny stories or works you’d recommend?

4/4 Memory Day nominee: Dorothea Dix, for more on whose amazing and inspiring life and work see the post at that link!

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