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A Boon More Blessed Than Knowledge

Much has been made of the plethora of disabled characters in The Confidence-Man, Melville's novel of distrust. In a special issue of Leviathan devoted to the subject of disability, Ellen Samuels teases out the relationship between deception and charity in an increasingly cosmopolitan America. The Christian injunction to be charitable, already under assault by the capitalist imperative to make money at the expense of others, found itself confronting a dizzying array of strangers whose differences generated anxiety. As Deborah Stone explains, "Sudden increases in geographic and social mobility . . . undermined people's sense that they could understand one another" (as qtd in Samuels 62). An especially noticeable form of difference, disability rendered a person even stranger and more suspicious than he would otherwise have been. The figure of the "disability con," thus emerged, according to Samuels, as a tense expression of an unmanageable fear. Melville partly undermines this figure through a "persistent questioning of the relation of reality to the body, language, and identity" (82).

I want to begin by linking disability more directly to cosmopolitanism—which was defined in Melville's day as being "nowhere a stranger" (Bryant 116)—and to make crucial distinctions in the category of disability itself. The Confidence-Man revels in disabilities that alienate characters not only from a bodily norm but also from typical cognition and communication. Whether depicting a deaf mute, a moon calf (which the OED defines as a monster, a dolt, or a deformed fetus), or a man whose memory has been wiped clean by a brain fever, Melville explores the situation of one who is ostensibly cut off, if only partially, from culture. These characters might seem incidental were it not for the novel's allusions to Caspar Hauser, a young man who appeared mysteriously on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828, having been kept for most of his life in an underground room, and to Peter the Wild Boy, who was discovered in the woods near Hamelin, Germany in 1725.1 Shoring up this pattern, Melville even presents a farmer, "fresh-hearted as at fifteen; to whom seclusion gives a boon more blessed than knowledge, and at last sends [him] to heaven untainted by [End Page 7] the world, because ignorant of it" (NN CM 241). The farmer is said to be like a "countryman putting up at a London inn, and never stirring out of it as sightseer, leave[s] London at last without once being lost in its fog, or soiled by its mud" (NN CM 241).

For all of Melville's commitment to cosmopolitanism—as symbolized by the steamboat Fidele and its "piebald parliament," its "Anacharsis Cloots Congress . . . of that multiform pilgrim species, man" (NN CM 9), and, of course, by the Mississippi itself, which is described as "uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pour[ing] them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide"—The Confidence-Man engages, at times, in a counter-fantasy of extreme anti-cosmopolitanism. And it seems to associate cognitive difference with both interpretive suspicion and seclusion's boon. After all, what could be more provincial, more unreachably local, than a boy kept in the dark or one raised by animals in a forest? If truly "uniting" the strangers of the world in "one cosmopolitan and confident tide" is impossible, then the only antidote to anxious discord and proliferating chicanery lies, the novel ironically suggests, in what the merchant terms "oblivion, entire and incurable" (20), an "erased tablet," a "blank."

And yet, Melville conspicuously includes the cognitively different in his "pilgrim species, man." The deaf mute appears, after all, on the boat; despite what others make of him, he is making his way in the world. Recently, I advanced the notion of "neurocosmopolitanism" to discuss the work of non-speaking autist Tito Mukhopadhyay, who like Caspar Hauser was presumed to be retarded but who learned to read and to write and has now authored three well-received books. By neurocosmopolitanism, I mean an attitude toward cognitive difference much like that of the conventional cosmopolite toward cultural difference. The concept envisions the dynamic interaction of...


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