The Confidence Man

Finally finished reading a book I started the day after Christmas. So, yes, 3 full months to finish 300 pages. This has to be a record for my slowest progress yet. But, I'm glad to say that the effort was worth it.

Melville's last novel is the story of a brief riverboat cruise down the mighty Mississippi, filled with interesting characters, and so much dialogue. God, there is a lot of dialogue. In 300 pages, I would venture a guess at around 250 pages of dialogue. It may have been more successful as a play.

The story tells a series of brief episodes in the lives of people asking for money, and the people who are convinced to give it, by a variety of means. The central concern of the work is the idea of Confidence, that rarest of things, Confidence in our fellow man. And, by showing us the worst of men, who comes bearing the loftiest of ideas, we're left with a feeling of weakness overall.

As the Man with a Weed, or the Cosmopolitan, or the Man from the Coal Company, or the Snake Oil Salesman (are they all the same man? I'm not sure) take people for one ride after another, cynically extolling the Biblical virtue of Confidence in strangers, we know at every moment that they are using this high ideal as nothing more than an opportunity for swindling.

The most interesting aspect of the confidence-game played out time and time again in the novel is the fact that these expert practitioners of the art of seperating sucker from money all do so without making grand promises or sophisticated cons. The method is simple and repetitive: infecting others with the idea that Confidence is supreme among human virtues, and letting the rest follow naturally.

How to resolve the dilemma of confidence, the paradox of trust in an untrustworthy world? Well, it seems that we must all follow a simple unspoken rule: confidence is something seldom asked for with good intentions.