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THERE WAS literary justice in the first appearance of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade being on April Fool’s Day, 1857: This Melville novel recounts the happenings on that very day aboard the Fidèle, a Mississippi riverboat.

Yesterday, SimanaitisSays discussed how newspaper accounts of a deceitful New Yorker coined the term “confidence man” in 1849. In less than a decade, Melville had responded to this confidence scam and other social ills of the era in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Today, our meta-review discusses the book’s relevance, back then and today.

Image and annotated bibliography from summarizes its plot: An unnamed and shape-shifting con man tests the confidence of riverboat passengers, each of the latter being of particularly dubious character. Among them, there’s a merchant of quack medicine, a fund raiser for a bogus Seminole Widows and Orphans Society, and a crooked stock broker. Often the question is raised, just who is scamming whom?

Is this sounding as timely as today’s headlines yet?

Here’s a quote from the book that gives a flavor of its discourse: “Money, you think, is the sole motive to pains and hazard, deception and devilry, in this world. How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?”

Participants in offer a variety of ratings for the book, some of them five star, a few only one star. Generally, they agree The Confidence-Man: His Masquerde is symbolic of American cultural history, yet not without relevance today.

Matt, giving it a five, writes, “Combustible, brilliant, dialectical, like a Marx brothers film in the mid American 19th Century.” Adam, another five-star rater, calls it “An American Book of Job or Canterbury Tales (Antebellum Tales?) filled with Melville’s erudite musings, digressions, and ability to stretch a metaphor into unusual and contradictory shapes.”

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, by Herman Melville, Dover Thrift Editions, 2017. Image and commentary from notes that contemporary criticism of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade was mixed. The Worcester, Massachusetts, Palladium, April 22, 1857, wrote, “Even the most partial of Mr. Melville’s friends must allow that the book is not wholly worthy of him.” On the other hand, the London Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, July 1857, wrote, “The Confidence-Man shows him in a new character—that of a satirist, and a very keen, somewhat bitter, observer.” shares an essay “Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence Man.’ ” It observes there are several chapters dealing with the “Metaphysic of Indian-Hating,” as far as the essayist knows, the first in American literature questioning “the prevailing exterminationist policy.” An analogy is made with Melville’s Captain Ahab “who wants to murder whales instead of Indians.”

By contrast, Melville is quoted as saying, “We are all of us—Anglo-Saxons, Dyaks and Indians—sprung from one head and made in one image.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. jlalbrecht64
    May 15, 2018

    Following from my comment yesterday and the above – it is my lay person’s opinion that the con man (actually con-man/thief) I knew was only partially or even tangentially motivated by money. The guy was clearly smart enough to hold a real job. I deduced – from multiple comments he made before his con-man status was revealed – that a lot of his motivation was proving he was smarter than people with more money than he had. Proving his superiority by being able to deceive people into giving him money basically for nothing, or stealing without being caught (even providing a patsy!).

    Many times since I wondered why he didn’t go into sales or marketing. I know a very dishonest guy who basically has only one talent – self-marketing – and he got elected president!

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