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Philanthropic Taste: Race and Character in The Confidence-Man JAMES SALAZAR Temple University ace and ethnicity have a strangely conspicuous place in Herman Melville’s famously confounding novel, The Confidence-Man. Most conRpicuous is their place on board the Mississippi riverboat Fidele, upon which the peculiar events of this April Fool’s day take place. Ships have, for Melville, always borne more than their manifests declare, and the “faithful” Fidele is no exception: it is burdened with no less a task than representing the ethnic and racial diversity of America’sexpanding empire. The scene of antebellum American society represented by the Fidele has attracted as much critical attention as the actions of the confidence man himself. Generations of critics have read The Confidence-Man not only to understand the “original”character of the confidence man himself, but as well to understand how that character is made possible by the uniquely “American”civic space figured by the Fidele. And what most defines this civic space, Melville insists in the opening pages of the text, is the dizzying “strangeness” of its social and economic exchanges. What most defines this “ship of fools”is that it is, at bottom, a ship which, “though always full of strangers, ... continually, in some degree, adds to, or replaces them with strangers still more strange.”’ This “ship of strangers”upon which the confidence man operates is thus often said to represent the emerging industrial and social order which would characterize the latter half of the nineteenth century, an order in which the familiar, stratified relations of republican society were being transformed by the new attenuations and mediations of transcontinental rail, the representations of a rapidly growing journalistic media, and the social dislocations of urbanization, industrialization and mass migration. As “strangers”interacting across increasing regional, cultural, and racial distances, individuals could no longer make recourse to the sedimented “reputation”of familiar members of a local community and thus grew increasingly reliant on the incisive and immediate capacity to “read” the “character”of strangers. In troubling the familiar signs of character, the “strangeness” of late antebellum society thus made “confidence”between strangers an increasingly necessary, yet precarious, condition of economic and social exchange. Melville’s concern is thus to chart the 1 Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1984), p.8. Hereafter cited as NN CM. 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 S5 5 J A M E S S A L A Z A R promise and peril of this reliance on the legibility of character at a time in which the terms of that legibility, paradoxically,were themselves increasingly unreliable.2 The description which dominates the opening pages of the novel, however , is one which does not simply catalogue the dislocating effects of a growing industrial empire and increasing reliance on “character,”but rather takes carefulnote of one particular aspect of this “societyof strangers”-the dernographic diversity of its subjects. As the obsessively detailed portrait of its passengers suggests, the Fidele presents a representative scene of Jacksonian democratic pluralism: [On it] there was not lack of variety. Natives of all sorts, and foreigners ; men of business and men of pleasure ... Fine ladies in slippers , and moccasined squaws; Northern speculators and Eastern philosophers; English, Irish, German, Scotch, Danes; Santa Fe tradersin striped blankets ... Quakers in full drab, and United States soldiers in full regimentals; slaves, black, mulatto, quadroon; modish young Spanish Creoles, and old-fashioned French Jews; Mormons and Papists ... grinning negroes, and Sioux chiefs solemn as high-priests. (NN CM, 9) But while many kinds of “variety”are here listed, the opening scene of the novel increasingly returns to the figures of race and ethnicity as the most important “differences”to be overcome, though not erased, by the “dashingand all-fusing spirit of the West.” What is most significantabout the civil societyin which the confidenceman thrives, these opening pages thus suggest, is the diversityof the figureswho populate it and who...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 55-74
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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