Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: Money, Trust, and Deception
Confidence is necessary. Without it, economic transactions, legal contracts, intimacy, morality, and any form of social order would be impossible. Yet, in a world of self-interested strangers and distant institutions, how do we trust, befriend, and believe? Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man depicts one day aboard a New Orleans-bound Mississippi River boat the Fidele. The novel’s unnamed titular character assumes a variety of guises—from legless beggar to worldly “cosmopolitan” to bankrupt divorcee—as he perpetrates a series of petty cons on his fellow passengers. Written in the midst of the U.S.’s rapid industrialization, set on a vessel headed into recently acquired slave territory, Melville’s ninth and final novel satirizes a society in which neighborly norms of community and religion were being increasingly displaced by the impersonality of the cash nexus. With his tricks and backslapping deceits, Melville’s confidence man engineers an existential drama that seems quintessential to capitalist modernity: how do we live when, to quote Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, we “can neither believe nor be comfortable in [our] disbelief”?
In this course, we will read The Confidence-Man in its entirety, alongside primary sources and select secondary readings, as we explore the troubled, and troubling, interdependence of economy and confidence, greed and trust. We’ll attend to the novel’s historical context and formal innovations, and explore the rich variety of readings generated by its ironies, ambiguities, and racially and economically diverse cast of characters. We will ask: what kind of figure is the confidence man–devil, prophet, or, as the critic D. Graham Burnett suggests, messiah? How is distrust conducive to knowledge? Is it existentially necessary, amidst doubt, to have faith? Is it socially necessary, amidst constant uncertainty, to cultivate an aspect of willful ignorance? Is there a difference between a legal transaction and a con? Where exactly is the line between acceptable spin and criminality located? And finally, how can we understand trust, belief and confidence socially? How is it produced, understood, and managed—through race, gender, capital, class, and power?
Course ScheduleSunday, 3:00-6:00pm ET
October 24 — November 14, 2021