Saturday, April 01, 2023

'The People in a Fiction'

At the author’s request, Dix, Edwards, & Co. of New York City published Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade on April 1, 1857—April Fools’ Day. It would be the last novel he published during his lifetime, though Melville would live another thirty-four years. He would go on to write stories and poetry, and the short novel Billy Budd which wouldn’t be published until 1924. 

The Confidence-Man, which opens on April Fools’ Day, is more interesting in theory than as a story a reader outside a graduate seminar might enjoy. It’s clever and bitter but comically earnest. Idea trumps narrative momentum. The joke was on Melville, and his writing career has since become an allegory of bitterness, philistine neglect and penury for subsequent American writers.


In American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931), Constance Rourke never mentions The Confidence-Man but writes of Moby-Dick that it is a “comic travesty” in which “humor becomes sardonic.” Is there any other kind? Moby-Dick remains Melville’s greatest work because, Rourke writes, “that terror and sense of evil and impending death which had often been  part of the comic legends of the country are relentlessly uncovered.” All true but Moby-Dick also has a compelling story, one that keeps the reader’s attention despite the digressions on cetology. Our host, Ishmael, is himself a sort of muted confidence man, often a stand-up comic.


The Confidence-Man has its enthusiasts, mostly among academics. Chapter 33, “Which May Pass for Whatever It May Prove to Be Worth,” comes off like premature postmodernism and its self-consciousness is almost too clever for its own good:  


“And as, in real life, the proprieties will not allow people to act out themselves with that unreserve permitted to the stage; so, in books of fiction, they look not only for more entertainment, but, at bottom, even for more reality, than real life itself can show. Thus, though they want novelty, they want nature, too; but nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed. In this way of thinking, the people in a fiction, like the people in a play, must dress as nobody exactly dresses, talk as nobody exactly talks, act as nobody exactly acts. It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.”

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