"Secret Emotions": Disability in Public and Melville's The Confidence-Man
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"Secret Emotions":
Disability in Public and Melville's The Confidence-Man

"He is quite worthy?" (NN CM 29).1 In Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), this query is posed in reference to Black Guinea, a "grotesque negro cripple" (NN CM 10) whose disability is suspected of being imposture. Who counts as worthy of sympathy and charity? Who counts as "disabled" in the first place? These are the questions that Melville's ninth book asks through its representation of disabled characters. In recent years, disability studies scholarship has led critics to notice the cultural and historical significance of disability represented in Melville's works.2 Among others, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's and Ellen Samuels's analyses have contributed significantly to the understanding of The Confidence-Man's treatment of disability.

Building on such developments, this essay interrogates The Confidence-Man's engagement with disability by focusing on its situatedness in public space. Disabled bodies in the novel appear not in enclosed institutions, but in the open public space that is the riverboat Fidèle. As a number of critics have shown, disabled bodies in mid-nineteenth century America formed a contested site where claims to authenticity were systematically thrown into doubt, as disabled beggars were increasingly out on the street and city dwellers devoted themselves to charity practices. In her discussion on the presence of "the disability con" in The Confidence-Man, Samuels observes: "The disability con man . . . refuses to occupy any stable social role: he plays upon social categories of identity through manipulation and masquerade" (Samuels 63).3 In short, disability in public posed an interpretive conundrum for the urban spectators, challenging them to judge its authenticity and worthiness.

Illuminating in this context is Susan Schweik's study The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (2009), which charts the historical trajectory of legal segregation of disability in American public space that occurred in the wake of the Civil War: the so-called "ugly laws" legally prohibited people with physical disabilities from appearing in the public sphere. With the enforcement of the [End Page 54] first ugly law in 1867, disability began to vanish from American cityscapes. This year 1867 serves as a reference point for this essay. The Confidence-Man was on the cusp of a social transition from the "hypervisibility" (Schweik 79) to the invisibility of disability in public, a transformation that was accelerated by the ugly laws. This historical perspective allows us to see Melville's prose as offering a critique of the very notion of disability, whose definitional contours in legal language were yet to be mapped out at the time of its composition, but were to be increasingly demarcated in the postbellum era and remain a much-contested issue in our time. But this essay is not meant to echo Schweik's emphasis on the hypervisibility of disability in public in the antebellum era. Nor do I intend to reiterate Mitchell and Snyder's insight that through its "warfare on 'sciences of the surface,'" the novel "rejects outward appearances as indicative of anything within human beings . . . [and] continually undermines those who profess allegiance to a faith in correspondences between exteriors and interiors" (Mitchell and Snyder 43, 67). While their analysis focuses more on the former ("exteriors") and leaves the latter unexplored, this essay will probe the "interiors" of the disabled. Through the examination of public space, language, and sympathy, I argue that at issue in The Confidence-Man is less the visible exteriority of disabled bodies than the hidden interiority—or what the narrator calls "secret emotions" (NN CM 11)—of those regarded as disabled.

Disability in Public: Its History

If we restrict our focus to physical disabilities, there appear four disabled characters in the novel: a deaf-mute (NN CM 3); Black Guinea, "a grotesque negro cripple" (10); a wooden-legged man (12); and Thomas Fry, a cripple with "paralyzed legs" (93). Black Guinea's disability has frequently been the object of critical scrutiny primarily because of its questionable authenticity. After the wooden-legged man "began to croak out something about his deformity being a sham, got up for financial purposes" (12), the passengers aboard the Fidèle...