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The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, first published in New York on April Fool's Day 1857, is the ninth book and final novel by American writer Herman Melville. The book was published on the exact day of the novel's setting. The Confidence-Man portrays a Canterbury Tales-style group of steamboat passengers whose interlocking stories are told as they travel down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans. Scholar Robert Milder notes: "Long mistaken for a flawed novel, the book is now admired as a masterpiece of irony and control, though it continues to resist interpretive consensus." After the novel's publication, Melville turned from professional writing and became a professional lecturer, mainly addressing his worldwide travels, and later for nineteen years a federal government employee.
Manuscript fragment from Chapter 14 of The Confidence-Man.
The novel's title refers to its central character, an ambiguous figure who sneaks aboard a Mississippi steamboat on April Fool's Day. This stranger attempts to test the confidence of the passengers, whose varied reactions constitute the bulk of the text. Each person, including the reader, is forced to confront that in which he places his trust.
The Confidence-Man may have been inspired in part by the case of William Thompson, a con artist active in New York City in the late 1840s.
The Mute - A man in cream colors, a tossed look, a linty fair cheek, downy chin, flaxen hair. Looks like a stranger. He writes on a slate an allusion to 1 Corinthians 13.
The Barber - Puts up a sign "No Trust". The Cosmopolitan convinces him to remove the sign, and trust that for one week, all unpaid services would be compensated by himself.
Guinea, an African-American crippled beggar - Catches coins with his mouth. Says he sleeps on the streets. When his honesty is questioned, he gives a list of people who can speak for him: The man with the weed in his hat, the man in a grey suit, the transfer agent, the herb-doctor, the Cosmopolitan, The Agent of the Philosophical Intelligence Office and Thomas Fry, all of these are main characters who may try to deceive each other.
A purple faced drover - Gets the initial information about Guinea.
The man with the wooden leg - Casts doubt on whether Guinea is a genuine cripple.
A country Merchant, Mr. Henry Roberts - A man of generous acts. He is the first to be pushed into believing that he used to know Mr. John Ringman, but that a memory lapse made him forget. He gives him money, then follows the advice to buy stock at the Black Rapid's Coal Company. He later discusses pity with its president, drinks too much champagne with him which leads him to confess that charity and hope are mere dreams.
A Young Episcopal Clergyman - Discusses the genuineness of Guinea, "frozen in cold charity" then "thawed into fluidity" and kind words.
A Methodist minister - Very martial looking, accuses the man with the wooden leg of being a reprobate, and a Canada Thistle.
A gruff boatman - Asks Guinea to go find the people who can recommend him (Guinea), himself.
John Ringman, the Man with the Weed - He tries to convince the country merchant, Mr. Roberts, that they have met before, but that Robert's memory faltered. He then asks for money, and then recommends buying stock at the Black Rapid's Coal Company. He is said to be looking for money to be able to go join his daughter after a disastrous divorce that left him penniless. Later, he tries to convince the sophomore to throw Tacitus away because it is too depressive. He is reading Mark Akenside's "The Pleasures of the Imagination".
The sophomore - A young student reading Tacitus to read the gossip. Later, he wants to buy stock from the Black Rapid's Coal Company. It turns out he likes "prosperous fellows" and despises "gloomy men".
A Well-to-do Gentleman - Is dressed in ruby colored velvet, has a ruby colored cheek. After being accosted by the man in a gray suit, expresses annoyance at all the beggars allowed on the ferry.
The Man in a Gray Suit - This man accosts people to donate to a Widow and Orphan Asylum (Semionles). He accosts several people for donations,
The Hard-Hearted Old Gentleman - A bulky man who accuses the man in a gray suit of hypocrisy.
The Good Man - An elegantly dressed man with white kid gloves and white hands. Melville explains that he is "a good man" for who some might be ready to die for, but not a righteous man. His hands are kept clean by having a black servant do the dirty work for him. He has a disagreement with the man in a gray suit about how to solve the problem of poverty in the world.
A Charitable Lady - She is asked to give $20 to the man in a gray suit, with no knowledge about whether she can really trust him.
John Truman, The President and Transfer Agent for the Black Rapid's Coal Company - Is said to live on Jones street in Saint Louis.
A somewhat elderly person in Quaker dress - spreads around his poetry about confidence in one another.
A little dried up man - Refuses to do anything outside his habits: no wine, no games, etc.
The Shrunken Old Miser - An old sick man who is afraid of losing his last savings. He ends up investing in the Merchant's scheme of tripling returns, and ends up buying boxes from the Herb-doctor, paying in Mexican pistols and not dollars.
Goneril - The wife of John Ringman, the man with the weed. She is said to be a cold hearted person, to physically touch other men in a sly way, to take revenge for jealousy on her own daughter. During the divorce procedures, she dragged her husband to court and took away all of his money. Shortly after, she dies.
The sick man - The man is sick and tired of doctors offering different solutions that never work. The herb-doctor tries to convince him that with confidence, his herbs will work. After a philosophical debate about whether nature is to be trusted, he agrees to try.
The herb-doctor - Tries to sell "Omni-Balsamic-Reinvigorator" and "Samaritan Pain Dissuader". He tries to set the bones of Tom Fry. He gives a percentage of the money he makes immediately, in charity. He helps the Old Miser to stand during a conversation with the Missourian.
The Dusk Giant - A kind of invalid Titan in homespun. He violently attacks the Herb-Doctor, saying that there are pains that only death can ease.
His child - The daughter of the Dusk Giant is bi-racial.
Auburn-haired gentleman - Thinks the Herb-Doctor needs unmasking.
An unhappy-looking woman - Begins to sob when the Herb-Doctor asks if there is anybody who needs charity.
A man with a hooked nose - Thinks the Herb-Doctor is a fool for giving away some of his profit in charity.
A third person with a gossiping expression - Thinks the Herb-Doctor is a prowling Jesuit emissary.
Thomas Fry, aka, Happy Tom, the "soldier" - A beggar dressed in grimy old regimental coat. He passes off as a veteran of the Mexican wars, but claims that his true story, is that he became cripple, in prison, while waiting to testify against a rich murderer. The said murderer got off easily because he had friends, whereas Thomas Fry had no friends and became a cripple for life. When he found out that his brother in Indiana died, he took to begging. However, confident that his personal story wouldn't arouse any pity, he fakes a different story.
Pitch, The Missourian Bachelor - A rather eccentric-looking person, ursine in aspect. He questions the efficiency of the Herb-Doctor's remedies, pointing out that nature brings about many ills, and so is not to be trusted: eye problems, destroyed $10,000 of property, threw hail and shattered windows, He is very skeptical of the goodness of humanity and doesn't have confidence in man: "All rascals", most are "knaves or fools". He makes fun of the Old Miser for being tricked by the Herb-Doctor, argues with the Herb-Doctor about whether nature is fundamentally good and to be trusted, then holds a long conversation about the dishonesty of teenage boys with the Agent of the Philosophical Intelligence Office. The latter, however, convinces the Missourian to try hiring a boy at their agency. Once the transaction is concluded, The Cosmopolitan accosts him, and as he tries to get rid of him, defends his right to be a solitary misanthrope. Throughout the conversation, he shows broad knowledge of "philosophy and books" equal to his obsession with "woodcraft and rifles".
The Agent of the Philosophical Intelligence Office - A work placement agent for teenage boys. He tries to convince the Missourian Bachelor that he should try the services of the Philosophical Intelligence Office. When the latter objects that he has had enough of teenage employees, the agent makes an analogy between a child not having a beard yet, but a beard will grow later in life, and a child who hasn't "evinced any noble quality" will yet "sprout" these qualities, "for, have confidence, it, like the beard, is in him". He also likens baby teeth to "corrupt qualities" in "the man-child", and "the sound, even, beautiful permanent" adult teeth to "sound, even, beautiful and permanent virtues". The baby teeth, like the corrupt qualities are "thrust from their place by the independent undergrowth of the succeeding set" of teeth or virtues. He also likens a teenager to a caterpillar, and an adult to "the natural advance of all creatures" - the butterfly. a teenager is like good wine in maturation. Saint Augustine and Ignatius of Loyola are given as examples of virtuous men who had been rascals when they were young. He succeeds in convincing the Missourian Bachelor to sign up and try a fifteen-year-old boy.
The Cosmopolitan, Francis "Frank" Goodman - A self-styled philanthropist, the Cosmopolitan tries to test the ideas of love evoked in the beginning of the book by the Mute, (the references to 1 Corinthians 13), first by arguing with the Missourian that one should be warm and confiding with all members of humanity, then by testing the strength of Charlie Nobel's commitment to friendship by asking to borrow money, then by doing the same to the disciple of Mark Winsome, Egbert. The latter test leads to a long debate about whether helping friends financially leads to an end of their friendship, and if so, how. Finally, the Cosmopolitan convinces the barber momentarily to trust him to pay all the financial losses that the barber will accrue for removing the sign "no trust", himself not paying for the shave. In the final chapters, he has a discussion with the Old Man about a warning in the Bible about "an enemy" who "speaketh sweetly in with his lips" but whose true intention is to tempt, use and profit from you.
Charles "Charlie" Arnold Noble - Charlie tells the Cosmopolitan Frank that he thinks the Missourian is worse than Colonel John Moredock, then proceeds to tell the story of John Moredock. He then invites the Cosmopolitan Frank to drink some wine together as they discuss the story. Charlie clearly tries to get Frank to drink too much. He agrees to be "best friends" with Frank, but turns cold when Frank reveals that he would like to borrow money from him. Frank brings him back to his normal self by performing a ritual.
Colonel John Moredock - The Indian Hater, the story of a man who spent his life taking revenge on Indians for the murder of his family. He is a kind man and a good citizen outside of his revenge sprees.
Charlemont - The protagonist of the integrated fable told by the Cosmopolitan Frank. He is a young merchant of French descent, with many friends. One day he becomes morose and unfriendly towards everyone, vanishes and isn't heard from for many years. It appears he had gone bankrupt, but his strange behaviour had started several months before. One day he comes back, gay and friendly, dressed in expensive clothes. Everybody wondered at what had happened, but only one friend dares to ask him about it, several years later. It seems that Charlemont knew that his ruin was coming, and didn't want to embarrass his friends into helping him, so he shunned them and moved to Marseilles (France) where he made his fortune again, and then returned, confident that he wouldn't be an embarrassment to his friends. (The Cosmopolitan Frank stresses that there is no moral to this story, it is told entirely to amuse.)
Mark Winsome, The mystic Master - a cold and self restrained man who accosts the Cosmopolitan Frank to warn him that Charlie Noble is "an operator". He encourages Frank to think about what it must be like to be a rattlesnake. He then scares an artist-beggar away with a cold stare. He presents his disciple, Egbert, who is the best example of someone following his philosophy to the end.
Crazy Italian beggar - A haggard inspired looking man who asks for alms by selling a rhapsodical tract. The Cosmopolitan Frank buys his tract and promises to read it. Mark Winsome, the Mystic Master regards him as a scoundrel.
Egbert - Mark Winsome's disciple. He agrees to do a theoretical exercise with the Cosmopolitan Frank: he pretends to be Frank's "best friend" Charlie Noble, and plays the scene where Frank asks for money. Egbert, following his master's philosophy, gives several reasons for not lending or giving money, and tells the story of China Aster as an illustration.
China Aster - The protagonist of an integrated fable. He accepts money from his friend Orchis on a loan, with the aim of investing in his business and making it more profitable. But he doesn't have any business skills, so the money serves to bring about his ruin, through unpaid interest on the loan. The devastation is so great, that his wife even loses her inheritance, his son misses out on school, and he dies of despair. (The moral of the story is that you should never accept a loan from a friend.)
Orchis - China Aster's friend, who wins the lottery and pushes some of it in the form of a loan on his friend.
The Old Man - He sits in the middle of the Gentlemen's cabin, still awake while others try to sleep, reading the Bible. He discusses the trustworthiness of the Apocrypha with Frank, the Cosmopolitan. He ends up buying the different objects sold by the peddler-boy. He gets a "Counterfeit Detector" as a bonus for buying so much, and tries to use it to see if his banknotes are fake. The Detector proves too complicated to use.
The man talking in his sleep - A man sleeping in a berth in the Gentlemen's cabin while the Old Man and the Cosmopolitan Frank have a discussion. His interjections in his sleep coincide very tellingly with the subject of the discussion, most notably attributing the quote from The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach to a description of the confidence man.
The peddler-boy - A boy dressed in rags who sells items for protecting one's money from thieves on a steamer: a traveler's lock, a money belt. His sales technique involves showing the uselessness of the object just sold in order to sell the next object. To those who buy all objects, he gives a "Counterfeit Detector", to detect counterfeit banknotes.