The Shifting Nature of Reform Envisioned on the Mississippi Steamer: Exchanges, Masks and Charities in Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man

Carole Lynn Stewart


It was through the Mississippi River that the French first gained their entry into the lower part of North America from Canada. Its control in the hands of foreign powers, first the French and then the Spanish, threatened the communications, internal trade, and geographical integrity of the lands of the United States east of the Mississippi.

Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana in 1803 and thus control of the Mississippi eliminated the foreign threats. The formation of an American civil society had to come to terms in an intense manner with the unsettled issue of the American Revolution, the issue of slavery, the place and situation of the aboriginal populations, and the fundamental destiny of the nation state. The Louisiana Purchase—at least from the point of view of the geographical acquisition of territory—constituted a new beginning of sorts. The debates, discourses, and policies set in motion by the event of the Louisiana Purchase can be seen as yet another form of American Civil Religion, and it is in this Civil Religion that the meanings of American civil society find expression.

In Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, the issues that constitute debates about the nature of “free” exchanges in this era extend backwards to the founding of the nation, and develop into the present as the Mississippi steamboat, the setting of the novel, floats to its New Orleans destination. Melville’s multiple dialogues and duplicitous characters, through their lack of “trust,” question any possible future for the territory of the country during the antebellum period. Because of its difficulty, The Confidence Man is rarely discussed as a key text on these issues, but it is in this book that Melville set forth an analogue to the problems Mark Twain portrayed in his later writings. This can be seen, of course, in Melville’s title, but also in the popularity of the phrase taken from this book, which Melville titled “The Metaphysics of Indian Hating.” Clearly Melville touched on a dynamic that was deeply ingrained in the American psyche and cultural consciousness, since it has been used by critics of American thought, culture, and politics for some time. Two uses of the frame that resonate in critical studies on nation-building can be found in Roy Harvey Pearce’s Savagism and Civilization, and Richard Drinnon’s Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building.1

The Confidence Man was a book that was said to have been Melville’s farewell to narrative and more discursive modes of literature, a “problem novel.” It was ironically first published on April Fools Day, 1857,2 and it continues an investigation of the metaphysical “ambiguities” that Melville raised in other works, especially in the book that immediately followed Moby Dick, then Pierre, or the Ambiguities. It signaled for most readers and reviewers of Melville’s time a breach with sanity and an entrance into obscurity for the author. The ambiguities he raised, however, were also ones of freedom, race, and religious meaning in the construction of an “American” identity and the dominant civil faith or religion. The backdrop for both novels is a series of compromises that come in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase: The Missouri Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scott decision which was first filed in 1847 but was finally decided by the Supreme Court in 1857. These actions reflect territorial and regional tensions around the issue of slavery, creating the political crisis that led to the Civil War. The Confidence Man explores these tensions, deceptions, duplicities, and ambiguities as expressed in the estranged polyglot group of passengers on a Mississippi steamboat as it departs from St. Louis to the “never-arrived-at-port” of New Orleans. Melville’s unfinished journey to “Mecca-New Orleans” suggests a critique of the merchant
port of New Orleans. The possession of New Orleans had been the initial goad that led to the purchase of the entire Louisiana territory.

Ironically and perhaps hopefully, Melville’s satire ends with the line, “Something more may follow this masquerade”3 but we never arrive at a point of satisfaction—a point where satisfying, authentic exchange occurs between various Americans in the country at large or among the pilgrims aboard the metonymical steamer of the expanding continent. It will be the burden of this paper to explore the various levels and meanings involved in what I am referring to as “authentic exchanges” as they are expressed in the novel.

Even the most casual reader of Melville’s corpus cannot fail to observe the locale of geographical waters; Typee and Omoo evoke the waters of the Pacific Ocean while Moby Dick, Benito Cereno, and Billy Budd take place on the high seas of the world. This novel, The Confidence Man, also takes place on water—the great inland waterway of the Mississippi River. As such, one might assume a kind of “domesticated water,” as over against the turbulent waters of the great oceans of the world.

Such “domestication” applied to the Mississippi, however, is deceptive since the River presents its own forms of “wildness” and turbulence. Beginning as a small stream flowing from Lake Itasca in Minnesota, it meanders through the heartland of America for 2,350 miles, through New Orleans, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The River, through its long course, conceals hidden eddies, sandbars, abrupt changes of depth and acute changes of directions; it is a treacherous river; even at its mouth, the levees are unstable, never submitting to the human agencies of engineering for any length of time. And so it is upon the inland waterway of the Mississippi that Melville’s domestic tale of America’s destiny takes place.


II.The Form of the Novel

Some find all of Melville’s novels rather strange. While this may or may not be true, few would deny that The Confidence Man is a rather odd novel. In his novel, Pierre, Melville characterized the problematical situation of American culture at this time with the term, “ambiguities”; in The Confidence Man, the subtitle is “His Masquerade.” The notion of the confidence man is taken from an article published in The New York Herald in 1849.4 This article describes the incidence of a “confidence man” who stole a man’s watch by appearing to be an honest and respectable gentleman. Though Melville makes use of the singular pronoun “his,” the Confidence Man is not one but several, appearing at one time or another in most of the passengers on the steamboat. Masquerading and masking form the thread that runs through all of the manifestations of the Confidence Man. Thus, The Confidence Man, like the Mississippi, is ubiquitous, a floating and fluid phenomenon. The novel does not relate any significant human actions—it is composed of forty-five interrelated conversations woven together in a dialectical and dialogical style. The only real movement in the novel is the movement of the steamboat down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans—stopping in Cairo—and the changes from day to night during the two days recounted. The dynamic between free and slave territory is implied throughout the novel, particularly in the brief stopping point at the shift to the second half.

Two intertwined structures emerge; one structure is defined by the various characters and their conversations. These conversations are subtly drawn, and one must read them carefully to discern who is being conned or how the person being conned may at the same time be creating a “sting” for his interlocutor. The second structure underlies  these conversations, which are punctuated by ideas that reveal the larger context upon which the novel is refracted. Melville examines how the dominant Northern “enlightened” ideologies of charity and philanthropy confront the racial “others” and cohere through a form of rugged individualism, Protestant work ethic and abstracted exchanges. They then further devolve into their own style of civil religion: the Confidence Game. The two most important segments of the novel for my purposes in outlining the problems Melville sees as reflected in the acquisition of the territories and the subsequent attempts to homogenize the ambiguous exchanges are in the opening chapters with a beggar named Black Guinea and the famous discussions on “The Metaphysics of Indian Hating.”

The movement west and the expansion of America into the areas inhabited by Native, Spanish, French and even Canadian are a thematic concern. A diverse group of passengers, “pilgrims,” enter and exit the steamer at each port, never establishing long-term connections with each other. The pilgrims consist of “natives of all sorts and foreigners,” hunters of all kinds—“farm-hunters and fame-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters”—and of course, because the quest expresses a furtherance of the promises of “American” freedom, they are all “happiness hunters.” Passengers from all religions are assembled, including “quakers,” “Jews, Mormons and Papists,” races of all kinds and admixtures, including Mississippi cotton-planters,” and “slaves, black, mulatto, quadroon; modish young Spanish Creoles, and old-fashioned French… grinning Negroes and Sioux chiefs.” The narrator ironically remarks that here is “a piebald parliament, an Anarcharsis Cloots congress of all kinds of that multiform pilgrim species, man” (6).5 Deception, mistrust, and the growing Northern market orientation will come to dominate and obscure the diverse nature of what it means to be American in the mid-nineteenth century.

Distrust was a logical outcome of the Purchase. In Donald Meinig’s words: “Louisiana was an imperial colony of alien people – this all American leaders recognized, though they differed as to how comfortable they were with that fact and what means should be taken to ‘Americanize’ this sudden addition.”6 Certainly, all aboard the steamer remain “strangers,” with no connection to each other or the land. On the steamer, all passengers are equally “strangers,” a word that John Bryant notes, occurs more than fifty times in the novel.7 The strangeness is, however, not only a result of the epistemological problem that occurs, but also because of the setting of the novel. Melville’s narrator notes the aleatory quality of human contact and exchange on the steamboat, the Fidele, which, “though always full of strangers, she continually, in some degree, adds to, or replaces them with strangers still more strange; like Rio Janeiro fountain, fed from the Corcovada mountains, which is ever overflowing with strange waters, but never with the same strange particles in every part” (5). The distance from any intimate relationship to each other was something that Unionists feared would occur with Jefferson’s purchase and the movement west. Senator White of Delaware proclaimed that “‘our citizens will be removed to the immense distance of two or three thousand miles from the capital of the Union, where they will scarcely ever feel the rays of the General Government; their affections will become alienated; they will gradually begin to view us as strangers; they will form other commercial connexions, and our interests will become distinct.’”8 The crowd aboard the “Anarcharsis Cloots,” rather than bringing about a revolution with these diverse passengers, seems to confirm White’s fears.


III. Expansion, Exchanges, and the Problematics of Inherent Value

Though not voiced by Senator White, the Louisiana Purchase raised deeper fears for the Native Americans and the enslaved Africans. Would the aboriginal inhabitants of these lands be decimated, and what would happen to the institution of chattel slavery now that there was space that could allow for “free territory” or a wider extension of the unfreedom of slavery? Working out the nature and distribution of the exchanges of goods and values formed the backdrop of all issues of this kind.

Within this context, Melville comments on the dilemmas facing an ever-expanding “federation” based on mistrust, and, a distrust that is enacted around descendants of Africans and Indian tribes during the expansion and the ambiguous transition from slave territory to “free.” Toward the opening we meet a handicapped beggar dubbed “Black Guinea” in St. Louis. It should be noted that along this stretch of the Mississippi one side is slave territory, Kansas and Missouri, and the other side is free territory, Illinois. Most of the novel—except for a flicker of the ubiquitous area of Cairo —is set in slave territory, although not all the passengers are slave owners or Southerners.

Critics have turned their attention to the debate on the authenticity and the ambiguous identity of Black Guinea. Black Guinea is suspected by many passengers, particularly the misanthropic custom’s officer, to be a white in blackface. To be sure, the suspicion is warranted, given that we are in a slave state and while begging occurred, it was less prominent and one would not think that a slave’s begging was encouraged at a major port. At the beginning of this chapter “a drover”—slave driver—asks “Black Guinea” who his master is, to which the latter explains that nobody would “want to own” him because he is “cripple[d]” (7). Oddly, this seems explanation enough for the drover. I write oddly, because St. Louis was one of the largest slave markets and the hunt for fugitives and the laws for loitering during the decade preceding the Civil War in this area were quite severe.9 Perhaps Black Guinea’s handicapped state implies that he is a runaway, his legs having been damaged in the process or as punishment. Indeed, the passengers press him for some papers, “any documentary proof,” to “attest[] that his case was not a spurious one” (10), which he does not have. He is quite eager to “shuffle” (8) away from the drover, who keeps questioning him about his living circumstances, and he seems all too eager to “shuffle” (14) away from the crowd once he receives a coin from a Northern merchant. Dominique Marcais argues that “Black Guinea’s peculiar ‘shuffling’ (10, 11) may also hide a reference to the double-shuffle performed at Pinkster.”10 Drawing on Sterling Stuckey’s explications of Melville’s acquaintance with Ashanti customs in the New World, she locates the subversion of minstrel stereotypes in The Confidence Man by attending to Melville’s allusions to West African dance and structures of orality that double the stereotypical and offer an “indictment of slavery.”11 Melville furthermore suggests the ubiquity of Guinea’s identity in noting that “it is human weakness to take pleasure in sitting in judgment upon one in a box” (9). The reference to “box” refers to the scaffold or the witness box, but perhaps also the “box” that was a famous method of escape for slaves, Henry Box Brown being the exemplar.

The “charity game” and the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” however, with which the Northerners are involved, imply that the understanding of Northern antebellum structures of exchange cohere around the spectacle of “blackness.” The passengers who actually believe that “Guinea” is black or authentically in need are limited to the “young Episcopal clergyman,” a “Methodist minister…a Tennesseean by birth, who in the Mexican war had been volunteer chaplain to a volunteer rifle-regiment” (10), and a northern “merchant” (13), who is the first to give “guinea” a coin. The Methodist, a Tennesseean, after an impassioned speech on confidence, begins to mistrust Guinea, and the only two left who have confidence are the Episcopal clergyman and the merchant from Philadelphia. This stands to reason because they are the Northerners in the crowd and would be more accustomed to black begging than would Southerners, who would suspect Black Guinea to be either white or a runaway, especially since he has no papers. After all, even a handicapped slave could be put to work in some capacity, as was often the case; his hands are not crippled, for instance, and, he is playing a tambourine. The pro-slavery argument that the South had no beggars was a long counterpoint to Northern ideals of freedom. Although Melville does not champion slavery, that Northerners seem oblivious to the codes and various circumstances of slavery brings us to Melville’s critique of Northern liberalism.12 “Free” persons of African descent did not possess the legitimacy of citizens in the North. Apropos of Guinea’s desire for an individualistic form of freedom, we are told by the narrator that he is, like every other “would be pilgrim,” searching for a rootless “happiness” “stump[ing] out of sight, probably on much the same errand as the rest” (14). Thus, whether “Guinea” is white con-man or subversive West-African trickster, Melville’s point seems to be that none of these subversions, though fast becoming performances of civil religious freedom, can serve as the basis for a radically democratic faith that would be accompanied by a social revolution and relative redistribution of the wealth. Black Guinea is not “owned” by anyone and is not property. Nonetheless, much like the other would-be pilgrims, he does not have a god who would both limit and enhance, thus binding one to a community to which he is attached and which would provide a structure of inter-dependence, rather than dependence or independence, ownership, or unbridled and detached liberty.

Melville begins by having the drover ask Black Guinea, “who is your master” and I want to keep this question at the forefront. Melville began the novel with a motley group of pilgrims on an “errand,” with reference to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales running throughout: “As among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, or those crowding the Red Sea towards Mecca in the festival month, there was not lack of variety” (6). The allusion to pilgrimages and the constitution of communitas recurs. The reference to Chaucer carries with it Chaucer’s critique of the mendicant orders and corrupt representatives of the Catholic Church; this refers to a period of Church history that marked a transitional period when the Church began to experience problems with the institution of charity. Problematical as it may be, the traditional institution of charity encouraged the relative redistribution of wealth because individuals gave as part of their faith, the doctrine of good works. Protestant reformers focused on the corrupt institution of good works, the buying of one’s salvation, and thus the corrupt nature of the mendicant orders and pardons for the dead.13 We should recall that Chaucer’s tales are, at one level, about the loss of an efficacious meaning of charity and poverty on the part of the manipulative representatives and priests of the Roman Catholic tradition. There seems to be two senses of charity for Melville—one is Christian charity that arises from having acknowledged one’s sinful nature, becoming less judgmental and more selfless. This first sense of charity connects back to earlier medieval forms of charity and piety evoked by allusions to Chaucer. In this form the poor are honored and appear as revelations of God. Toward the end of the 14th century, as Lee Palmer Wandel notes, there appeared in Europe a new kind of beggar, “the sturdy beggar,” those who chose to beg not out of need or service to God but for other, and sometimes sinister reasons. These “sturdy beggars” began to taint the reputation of genuine beggars and the institution of charity itself. Palmer comments that although “sturdy beggars” presented problems for Catholics, the institution of begging retained its association with St. Francis of Assisi. Begging was a “gesture that fully captured each person’s relation to God.” Giving alms allowed one to extend “caritas,” and also acknowledge humility and dependency on the grace of God: “Alms became an essential system in a complex web of dependency and reciprocity: donors and poor depended on one another to make visible and articulate a vision of the interrelationship of God and humankind.”14

In Melville’s novel as well, the reference to “sturdy beggars” surfaces in a conversation over the “Christian injunction to give.” Egbert, who many critics argue is a parody of Thoreau, argues that, while he may loan money with interest, he cannot give to a “friend,” but only to a stranger. He says to Frank Goodman (the main confidence man in the second half of the novel, who is also a failed confidence man): “‘Take off your hat, bow over to the ground, and supplicate an alms of me in the way of London streets, and you shall not be a sturdy beggar in vain. But no man drops pennies into the hat of a friend, let me tell you. If you turn beggar, then, for the honor of noble friendship, I turn stranger’”15 (192). We witness the shift in the meaning of charity with the advent of Calvinism. As literary critic, Michael Paul Rogin contends, this philosophy resonates with the one described by Benjamin Nelson in his book, The Idea of Usury; From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood; Nelson describes charity as part of a system of capitalist exchange that is without “brotherly” attachments, friendships or reciprocities. Rogin makes use of Nelson to note that “the modern doctrine of usury…eliminates the special, tribal obligations.”16 Yet while there is a sense of “universal otherhood” on the steamboat, there is equally a sense of individualism and self-reliance when it concerns the formation of “friends” or “brothers.” In theory, loans may promise a veneer of reciprocity as quid pro quo (although in the novel we witness the poverty and ruin caused by loans as well). Nonetheless, charity makes reciprocity impossible when it is detached from the institution of good works as encompassed within a community. This is, I suspect, why the issue of race frames the novel, with Black Guinea—a spectacle of property without the agency to exchange—with the Confidence Man (John Ringman) who poses as a charitable agent for the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum and later, with the benevolent “Indian Hater.” The objects of charity, as in the case of Native Americans, are entirely outside of the form of interest-bearing friendships for Euro-Americans who are self-reliant others and yet, transcendental “friends.”

The modern Protestant-derived sense of charity is charity as a business. This form of charity feeds into the giver’s self-aggrandizement, but must remain unattached to the object of benevolence because it cannot understand exchange outside of a structure of usury and rationalized equivalence. In contrast to charity for the glory of and obligation to God and his community, the meaning of charity as a business rests on the ambiguity of individualism, man’s natural benevolence, and the goodness of the self’s appearance. The dilemma of charity emerges in relation to the black beggar over the question of his authenticity, in part because, with the impending demise of the slave system, as Sue Ryan notes, race was becoming a dominant criterion for charity—which in turn is an estranged exchange. In her words: “[t]he portrayal of [the] black beggar raises questions that most conventional charity texts approached only obliquely: how were benevolent hierarchies and racial hierarchies mutually constitutive in U.S. culture?”17 The question is incisive and characterizes the philanthropic need for the poor, black body to bolster its benevolent and salvific purposes. And she notes that following the Fugitive Slave Act, the suspicion that African Americans might be duping the white population that blacks might be passing for white that the truly needy might be suspect and conning, increased. Carolyn Karcher also argues that Guinea’s appearance and his transformation into various guises of the con man represent the return of the repressed and the apocalyptical force of slavery; this certainly affects the long-term possibility for “trust” between races.18 (The words “Trust,” “Charity,” and “No Trust” recur throughout the novel.)

But the question of how to constitute value in the midst of cross-cultural contact arose much earlier, becoming increasingly opaque in the transition from Roman Catholicism to Protestant forms of iconoclasm, and in Melville’s time resurfacing to foment a new religion of the trickster qua confidence man. “Who is your master” asked the drover to Guinea, otherwise referred to as “der dog widout massa” (7). Although the question resonates with early encounters between primarily Roman Catholic missionaries and conquerors, who would ask the aboriginal populations they encountered something like ‘Who is your God?’, with a secularized work ethic, and the rise of rugged individualism, the question implies that either another human being—a master as in the master-slave relationship—is the owner, or that there is no master, no God. This question will recur when the Herb Doctor, one of the confidence men, asks a Missourian, Pitch, if it is true that “though living in a slave state” the Missourian is presumably “without slave sentiments.” The Missourian replies, “Aye, but  are you? Is not that air of yours, so spiritlessly enduring and yielding, the very air of a slave? Who is your master, pray; or are you owned by a company?” (97). In one sense, Melville poses a debate that would chime with Southern apologists for slavery, like George Fitzhugh, who composed Cannibals All! Or, Slaves without Masters in 1857, the very same year as Melville published The Confidence Man. The threat of a loss of natural race hierarchy also, for later opponents of the 15th amendment, according to Michael O’Malley, led many to search for a gold standard or an intrinsic value to money, leading to a desire for the continued objectification of the black body or species. As he writes, “The search for intrinsic value—for a gold that always stays valuable—paralleled the search for racial purity and stable difference.”19 It is equally ironic that the search for the inherent value of money as specie was taking place in a context that had denied the inherent value of the human species through the institution of chattel slavery.

Melville highlights the point that slaves have difficulty entering the system of exchange, or even charity, because they have only been considered as property, and more specifically, as fetishes in relation to the European-derived exchange system. It is doubly ironic that the beggar is referred to as “Black Guinea”; though Guinea refers to the coast of West Africa, it also refers to a coin. Melville plays with the word in order to highlight the point that the primary guarantee of benevolence and philanthropy in this ambivalent transition from slave to free will depend upon the re-stabilization of white hierarchies and abstracted exchanges. “Guinea” black, with the word used as an adjective rather than black “guinea” with the word as the noun, seems to be the norm; making it a noun has the effect of highlighting the increase in monetary abstraction itself in association with the African slave trade. Moreover, the use of “Guinea” as epithet, as in “Guinea black,” stresses an owned “black” as primary, whereas “Black Guinea” accentuates an almost fetish-like quality to “Guinea,” perhaps to suggest the origins for this problematic understanding of exchange that coalesced with the slave trade and the rise of capitalism and instrumental matter.

By referring to the problem of the “fetish” I am thinking of Charles H. Long’s application of the cultural historian’s, William Pietz’s, tracing of the emergence of the fetish to a theory of “religion” in the modern world. The confusion over racial hierarchies and stability of the benevolent self in the wake of the question of slave freedom parallels in a secularized framework the “language of fetishism [that] emerges out of the contact of the Portuguese with the traders along the coast of West Africa.” Long shows how this problem of materiality  arose for the Portuguese, who in the sixteenth century, along the coast of “Guinea,” confronted a “polyglot Creole society” of “disinherited Africans,” who presented a new notion of matter to the traders. When they asked, “who is your master?” the inhabitants of the west coast said that it was the gold worn around their neck. The traders were surprised that these societies were willing to trade their gods. Here, Long points out, a new notion of matter emerged in contact with the Creole societies; because the Portuguese were also in an alien environment, detached from the familiar structures of exchange and prior concepts of materiality as idols, the discussions of the fetish clarify the fascination with a new relation to matter understood as the god within the gold. In the Enlightenment, particularly with the advent of a structure of “otherhood,” suspicions about the god within the gold or any inherent value to matter—which was primarily understood as idolatry or personalized matter—the Cartesian doubt, fed into new notions of materiality and abstracted exchanges that placed materiality within the commodity structure, girded in natural hierarchies, progressive ideologies, and instrumentalist ideas about matter.20

Melville had traveled widely, confronting numerous cultures and races; he had also, as Stuckey shows, read many books on West Africa, from Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799) and T. Edwards Bowditch’s Mission from Cape Castle to Ashantee (1819).21 While “Guinea” as a problem of the nature of the American self and its relation to others comes to the fore in The Confidence Man, with Black Guinea as trickster and con-man, the reader of Moby Dick will recall that Guinea appeared, with Ahab lamenting his loneliness and solitariness after “forty years” of “guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!”22 Further, in Moby Dick a gold coin, the “Doubloon” of the “purest, virgin gold,”23 from Ecuador served as a symbol to bind the polyglot crew to Ahab’s quest to destroy the whale; the whale is at least symbolic of a form of materiality that falls outside of the mercantile system and has a non-human inherent value. The Doubloon is a promise to restore, control and rationalize the non-human nature of that matter. In a discussion related to the fetish and “Guinea” coin, William Pietz notes that Guinea had a double meaning – one representing “black Africa’ and the other the “first coin immune to debasement by clipping and shaving around the edges.” The coin “helped bring about Europe’s unprecedented monetary stability after 1726.” The word itself connotes a scene of cross-cultural contact, with its application to all sorts of commodities, “‘Guinea fowl,’” “‘Guinea hens,’” “‘Guinea corn,’” and so forth. It came to represent “any far-off land, not just black Africa. For instance, ‘guinea pigs’ are from South America.”24

The Guinea gold coin had a figure of an elephant on it because it was first used by “the Company of Royal Adventurers of England trading with Africa.”25 This could be why Melville describes the beggar as “throwing up his head and opening his mouth like an elephant for tossed apples at a menagerie” (8) in the “game of charity.” While he is opening his mouth to catch the pennies, in a “pitch penny” game he is said to be able to swallow his indignation even as he “retain[s] each copper this side of the oesophagus” (8). When he finally receives charity from the merchant his “face glow[s] like a polished copper saucepan” (14), resembling the penny. Melville implies that the black body is a commodified marker for exchange in general, blackness being a quality that can most easily mark a ubiquitous and expanding system of exchange based upon an abstract human relation: The suspicion around Black Guinea’s crippled body abstracted as a coin comes to represent a crisis and possibility in the field of exchange as the country attempts to bring to birth a national identity without the existence of slavery. In light of this notion of free blacks and an end to a slave system, how do whites configure their relation to the appearance of this masterless object and former property? How do they construct their own identity as their former property has to be configured as human, given that the formation of the modern American self depends so heavily on defining itself in relation to abstracted and instrumental matter? Black Guinea read as a fetish object brings to light the continuity with problems that early conquerors faced in their understanding of the material world. Combined with reflecting on how otherhood can be a foundation for a community or nation, with nothing but the ideology of a benevolent self as the basis for value, Melville captures the problems that Americans have in understanding materiality in light of the expansion of the West—especially as matter was expressed in former property, or slaves. He suggests another meaning of materiality that falls outside of the instrumental notions characteristic of the work ethic and variants of antebellum Protestantism and Enlightenment natural hierarchies.

While the figure of Guinea unleashes the structure of the Confidence Game, one confidence man preceded him: Melville tells us that on April Fools Day, “there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a man in cream colors, at the water-side in the city of St. Louis” (1). With “neither carpet-bag, nor parcel” and “unaccompanied by friends” this man is a “stranger,” without human connections. The stranger is “an original American,” and as Eric Wertheimer writes, this is a “metaphor involving the founding of the Inca Empire, invoked in the first sentence.” This is also “a bubble blown into the everyday life of a now ahistorical continent.”26 Cut off from speech, a “mute,” the first Confidence Man captures the image of founding myths and abstractions used to romanticize the Anglo-Americans form of colonization, or demonize the Spanish “Black Legend,” of destroying the noble Inca. The first appearance of a founding myth of conquest is followed by Black Guinea and the issue of originality deepens around those associated with racial identities. In reading Melville, we are confronted with a question that Long poses about the obsession with “originality” in the creation of the modern West. “Why,” he asks, “in the modern period of the West has so much concern and attention on the scholarly as well as the popular level been related to cultures and peoples who have been classified as archaic, primal, or indigenous?” Long notes that the classifications did not “originate with the people designated by them.”27

This desire for a pure, benevolent and founding myth of the American Republic seems to cohere around the obsession with an Original American.28 In antebellum America a passionate effort to heal the sense of estrangement and mistrust in the union arose with benevolent societies and reform movements. Melville mocks their purpose, given that the predominant mode of healing stems from an alienated sense of individualism, one that has little sense of material exchanges that would tie communities together, but rather, appeals to the original “goodness of the inner heart,” as over against the “Original Sin.” The Confidence Man will ask that his would-be dupes believe in the “genuine me,” the original self.Antebellum civil religious modes were based in Yankee ideals, numerous “hunters,” either of the market with its appeal to “confidence,” secrets, and risk taking, or of its philanthropic charities, in pursuit of benevolence, “happiness” and purity. The former exploit the land and dispossess people; the latter perversely work as a band-aid, bolstering the Northern sense of self-satisfaction, benevolence and goodness that becomes so problematic in the novel.


IV. The Metaphysics of Indian Hating: Unity, Expansion, and the Fear of Contact

Melville has already adumbrated the meaning of Original American when he alluded to Manco Capac, the cultural hero of the Inca Empire. He has skillfully played this meaning of the Original American with that of the notion of Original Sin; then in his discourse on Indian hating, he brings to fruition the American amalgam of these meaning expressed through the tradition of a nation of pilgrims who remain strangers. He bases his portrait of the Indian hater on a character, Moredock, drawn from two of Judge James Hall’s books, Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the West and Wilderness and the Warpath, told by the cosmopolitan, Charlie Noble.29

Around this character of an Indian hater, Moredock, an interwoven, dialectical, and ironic conversation takes places between Pitch, Noble, and Goodman, (the names themselves are suggestive, given the nature of the conversation). It is revealed that Moredock became an Indian hater because Indians had killed his whole family. While this may be reprehensible, it is understandable as an act of revenge. The conversation about Moredock, however, centers not so much around an act of revenge or even the hypocrisy of having a loving heart while bent on hate and killing; the conversation rather revolves around the necessity and desirability of holding these antithetical traits together as the sine qua non of the civilizing mission. Moredock moves from being a reprehensible hypocritical character into a “civilizing hero,” in the vanguard of Alexander the Great. He is “to America what Alexander was to Asia—captain in the vanguard of conquering civilization.” (126).The sense of holding two antithetical traits together returns the reader to the motley crew on board who smugly con each other and recognize what Gary Linberg calls the “sacramental nature” of the Confidence Game, while desperately longing for some form of authority. According to Lindberg:


The work of settling a new country has advanced far enough so that the characters are not only smug about their comparative safety…, but nostalgically titillated by stories of earlier violence and audacity. If they have little to fear, they also have little to bind them together. This gathering is significantly not a community but a ‘public’ and its underlying malaise is apparent in its yearning for even that minimal authority proclaimed by a wanted poster into this unnervingly fluid world.30


That submerged desire for authority must not resolve ambivalent feelings toward nature—which the sometimes “merciless savage” and other times, “noble savages,” represent —those who, at a formative level, have a religion that considers reciprocal exchange with the land, a land that is hollow for most of the passengers being duped, or playing the con game themselves. Indian hating moves from the description or explanation of a singular act to a “metaphysics,” that is, an originary and sustaining structure of culture, anticipating Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis.” On the metaphysical level it evokes a meaning of purity though such purity never escapes the rhetoric of brotherhood. The paranoia toward French and Catholics emerges when the confidence men confront these precise issues of charity and attachment, especially around native Americans and the land; Catholics, without completely hollowing out religious ceremony, could remain brothers while being charitable since they were giving out of duty to God and not out of self-oriented philanthropy. The Know Nothing party had arisen in 1850, but assuagement of guilt through allegorical tales of pagans and papists, was, of course, long established, strengthened too by the founding Protestant tenets, the fears of popish plots, the French and Indian War, and the Monroe Doctrine. In the first half of the novel, one auditor notes that the Confidence Man could be an “original genius”; later, another suspects him to be “one of those Jesuit emissaries prowling all over our country” (79). As Meinig points out, “in Anglo-American eyes, the French were tainted by their tendency to mix and socialize too freely with other races.”31 The connection with Catholicism worked for both stereotypes of the French and the Spanish; Melville’s Indian hater is described in such terms as “a Spaniard turned monk” (130). But the characterizations are all left at levels of analogy for the fate of the skeptical “misanthrope” who does not believe in the goodness of man. This diluted Indian hater “after some months’ lonely scoutings [and much solitude]… is suddenly seized with a sort of calenture; hurries openly towards the first smoke, though he knows it is an Indian’s, announces himself as a lost hunter, gives the savage his rifle, throws himself upon his charity, embraces him with much affection, imploring the privilege of living a while in his sweet companionship” (135). Although this is a diluted version, the ambivalent feelings expressed allow us to understand the violent desire for authenticity that accompanies the rationalized world of modern America.

In the Indian hater are consequences of a world that has distanced itself from attachments. We are told that “‘The backwoodsman is a lonely man. He is a thoughtful man. He is a man strong and unsophisticated. Impulsive, he is what some might call unprincipled. At any rate, he is self-willed.’” This Indian hater possesses “self-reliance,” and “stands the trial” of “Solitude” (125). As a corollary to his desire for solitude, the backwoodsman is in fact a benevolent, good-hearted type of fellow. Later, we are informed that “nearly all Indian haters have at bottom loving hearts; at any rate, hearts, if anything, more generous that the average” (134). Indeed, there is said to be a type of religion inherent in this backwoodsman, given that, according to Charlie Noble, “to be a consistent Indian-hater involved the renunciation of ambition, with its objects—the pomp and glories of the world; and since religion, pronouncing such things vanities, accounts it merit to renounce them, therefore, so far as this goes, Indian-hating, whatever may be thought of it in other respects, may be regarded as not wholly without the efficacy of a devout sentiment” (135). This type of religion parallels the modern American definition of religion by William James and Alfred Whitehead, as a solitary act of belief.32 The type of religion stems from the benevolent and Enlightenment belief in the lack of an inherent value to the material objects of the world, a “renunciation of ambition, with its objects —the pomp and glory of the world.” The discussion seems girded in Protestant forms of iconoclasm and with the lack of “tribal bond” or “brotherliness” that arose in the Reformation and in the development of a mercantile system. The lack of any community, associated with priestly hierarchy, or any sacramental objects, associated with idolatry and then fetishism, combines with ideals of self-reliance, unbridled liberty and an intense hatred for the other it has created.

And, above all, the Indian hater has a heart. Melville’s critique of liberal Protestantism revolves around this observation. We may also turn to Hannah Arendt, who in a different context, considers the violent effects behind a notion of human goodness and compassion when it enters the realm of public affairs and human society: “the heart, moreover…keeps its resources alive through a constant struggle that goes on in its darkness and because of its darkness. When we say that nobody but God can see (and perhaps bear to see) the nakedness of a human heart, ‘nobody’ includes one’s own self —if only because our sense of unequivocal reality is so bound up with the presence of others that we can never be sure of anything that only we ourselves know and no one else.”33 The vacillations of the Indian hater depend upon a dominant mode of “religion” that has divested itself from human objects, meaning, people, and the objects they have made, and looked instead to nature for an inherent value of benevolence—a value that they themselves impute to it.

Melville does not leave us reflecting only on a lost form of authentic exchange or charity that could be recovered, or a lack of “inwardness” that could counter the increasing focus on outward appearances and masks that plague the steamer, the allegorical new Republic of the purchase. Indeed, he shows us how the extreme inward and outward are bound up together with the Indian hater, Colonel Moredock, a great war hero who was so popular that he was “pressed to become candidate for governor” of Illinois; he declined because of his commitment to true Indian hating, leaving the show of love, “friendly treaties” (135) and benevolence to officials, the “paternal chief-magistra[tes].” He does not want to expose the violence that is the other side of the benevolent coin—neither he nor they want to admit in public the necessity of killing Indians in order for them to prosper. While Black Guinea brings us to the extremely hollow nature of exchange, with the exchange of human persons as human specie and specie as money, the Confidence Game itself has become the new religion of the West, a structure that persists in the culture and language of the United States.



*An earlier version of this essay was presented at the University of Missouri, Columbia at a conference entitled, “Moving Boundaries: American Religions Through the Louisiana Purchase,” Feb. 19, 2004. The paper is identical in content; slight modifications have been made for publication. Thanks to Charles H. Long and Chip Callahan for additional comments, and to Maurice duQuesnay for help with editing this version of the essay. Any oversights are my own.



1   Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization (U of California P, 1988); Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building (Meridian Books, NY, 1980).

2   Notation found in Oxford World Classics, Herman Melville, The Confidence Man with an Introduction by Tony Tanner and Explanatory Notes by John Dugdale, Oxford University Press (New York, 1989), xxxviii.

3   Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, ed. Hershel Parker (Norton: New York, 1971), 217. Subsequent references will appear in parentheses in the body of the paper.

4   This source appears in the Norton Edition of The Confidence Man, 227. To be sure, critics have noted the wider range of “confidence” men, from Benjamin Franklin, to P. T. Barnum and, in another vein, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

5   Anarcharsis Cloots was described by Carlyle in The French Revolution. He was a Prussian noble who in 1790 brought a diverse delegation from different countries to the National Assembly (Tanner note 9, 340). As with most of Melville’s writing, he is directing the reader to the events of Revolution and the ambiguities, or, in this case, masquerades, that slavery and expansion inhere in the democratic faith.

6   Donald W. Meinig. The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. Volume 2: Continental America, 1800-1867 (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1993), 15.

7   Quoted in Van Cromphout, Gustaaf. “’The Confidence Man’: Melville and the Problem of Others.” Studies in American Fiction. Volume 21. Issue 1,1993. 37+ ( Copyright 1993 Northeastern University; Copyright 2002, Gale Group), 2.

8   Quoted in Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. Volume 2: Continental America, 1800-1867, 13.

9   William Wells Brown, a former slave of St. Louis, comments on the rigor of Patrollers in St. Louis. See The Narrative of William Wells Brown online at The University of North Carolina: <;.This site also contains some information on Slave Codes.

10Dominique Marçais, “The Presence of Africa in Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade.Holding Their Own: Perspectives on the Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States (Tubingen: Stauffenburg, 2000), 182.

11Dominique Marçais, “The Presence of Africa in Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade,” 188.

12James Duban analyzes Melville’s critique of liberal Protestantism at length and Unitarianism in particular in his book Melville’s Major Fiction: Politics, Theology, and Imagination (Northern Illinois University Press, Dekalb: 1983). While Duban argues that Melville criticizes the demand for “‘moral certainty,’ in which sensory experience was thought to offer degrees of confidence” (197), I think that this desire crystallized around race and natural hierarchies, especially after Dred Scott, which emphasized the uncertainties of racial purity with the widespread phenomenon of “passing” as white. There was the need to restabilize some form of “American” faith when racial categories were on the verge of no longer defining the “free” self.

13See Lee Palmer Wandel, “Social Welfare.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Reformation. Ed. Hans Hillerbrand. (Cambridge: Oxford UP, 1996): Vol. 4, 77-83.

14Wandel, “Social Welfare,” 80.

15Also noted by Brian Higgins in his paper on Emerson, Thoreau and Melville: “Mark Winsome and Egbert: ‘In the Friendly Spirit.’” In the Norton critical edition of The Confidence Man, 341.

16Michael Paul Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 248.

17Susan M. Ryan, “The Misgivings: Melville, Race, and the Ambiguities of Benevolence.” American Literary History. Volume 12: Issue 4 ( 2000), 686-687.

18Carolyn L. Karcher, Shadow Over the Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville’s America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980.

19O’Malley, “Specie and Species.” American Historical Review (April, 1994), 382.

20See Charles H. Long, “Indigenous People, Materialities, and Religion: Outline for a New Orientation to Religious Meaning.” Religion and Global Culture. Ed. Jennifer I. M. Reid (New York: Lexington Books, 2003), esp. 172-175.

21Dominique Marçais, “The Presence of Africa in Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade,” 181.

22Moby Dick; or, The Whale (London: Penguin Books, 1986), 651.

23Ibid., 540.

24William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, III: Bosman’s Guinea and the Enlightenment Theory of Fetishism.” Res 16 (Autumn 1988), 105 ft. 3.

25This description of the Guinea is taken from OED. The Guinea originally received the popular name because they were used in “guinea trade.” Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford UP, 2003).

26Eric Wertheimer, Imagined Empires: Incas, Aztecs, and the New World of American Literature, 1771-1876 (New York: Cambridge UP, 1999), 147.

27Long, “Indigenous People, Materialities, and Religion: Outline for a New Orientation to Religious Meaning,” 168.

28R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1955 is one of the most cogent discussions of this theme in American literature and culture.

29The first source from Judge Hall is provided by the Norton Critical Edition of The Confidence Man; the second source was brought to my attention by Tom Quirk’s paper, “A Pragmatic Defense of Source Study: Melville’s ‘Borrowings’ from Judge James Hall.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 26 (4), (Winnipeg, Fall 1993), 21-35.

30Gary Lindberg, The Confidence Man in American Literature, (New York:Oxford UP,1982), 46-47.

31Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. Volume 2: Continental America, 1800-1867, 189.

32See William James, TheVarieties of Religious Experience (New York: Random House, 1902), 31-32.Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making. (Australia: Mountain Man Graphics), <;.

33Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press), 1963, 96.