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From Melville to Eddie Murphy: The Disability Con in American Literature and Film
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From Melville to Eddie Murphy: The Disability Con in American Literature and Film ELLEN SAMUELS University of California, Berkeley H erman Melville’s 1857 novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade has been closely examined with regard to nineteenth-century American politics, changing class structures, and the emergence of the “con man” as a contemporary trickster figure.1 However, little or nothing has been said with regard to the role of disability in the novel, despite the proliferation of disabled characters in it. Yet at the time of the novel’s composition, United States and European cultures were involved in a fundamental transformation of perceptions and attitudes toward disability that eventually produced our modern systems of rehabilitation and social entitlements.2 The historical convergence of this transformation with the emergence of the confidence man as a cultural figure is not coincidental either, for, as Deborah Stone notes, the emergence of “disability” as a coherent social category was integrally tied to notions of deception (23). C  2006 The Authors Journal compilation C  2006 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc 1 In particular, Helen Trimpi in Melville’s Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1987) and Jonathan Cook in Satirical Apocalypse: An Anatomy of Melville’s The Confidence Man (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996) address political and historical contexts for the novel, while William Lenz, Fast Talk and Flush Times: The ConfidenceMan as a Literary Convention (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1985), Gary Lindberg, The Confidence-Man in American Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 18301870 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982), and Warwick Wadlington, The Confidence Game in American Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975) place the novel in the context of the emerging literary and cultural figure of the con man. John Bryant, in Melville and Repose: The Rhetoric of Humor in the American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), discusses the novel in the context of American cosmopolitanism, figured as an aesthetic, philosphical, and historical concern. See also Bryant, “The Confidence-Man: Melville’s Problem Novel,” in his A Companion to Melville Studies (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), 315-50, for an overview of earlier critical approaches to the novel. 2 David L. Braddock and Susan L. Parish, “An Institutional History of Disability,” in Handbook of Disability Studies, ed. Gary L. Albrecht et al. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Stage Publications, 2001), 23-31. Brad Byrom, “A Pupil and a Patient: Hospital-Schools in Progressive America,” The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 133. Henri-Jacques Stiker, A History of Disability, trans. William Sayers (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 91-189. Deborah Stone, The Disabled State (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 38. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 61 E L L E N S A M U E L S Stone observes that the need to regulate both disability and vagrancy— two historically entwined conditions—emerged during the transition to modern capitalism as a response to greater social and physical mobility. She makes this point particularly with regard to begging: Given its connection to deception, at least in the common understanding , the phenomenon of begging must have been a threat to the social order in another very profound way. It challenged people’s confidence that they could know the truth. That a concern with deception should accompany a social transformation characterized by sudden increases in geographic and social mobility should not be surprising; constant confrontation with strangers must have undermined people’s sense that they could understand one another. And nothing could be more threatening to a sense of social order than the perception that the boundaries between the real and the fake are suddenly blurred. (33; my emphasis) Stone’s conclusions indicate the importance of disability as a concept for understanding the distinctly American figure of the confidence man, which...