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  • Reading The Confidence-Man Today
  • Rodrigo Lazo, Chair

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Participants in the “Re-Reading The Confidence-Man Today” panel at MLA 2019, from left to right: Meredith Farmer, Justine Murison, Samuel Otter, Rodrigo Lazo, Peter Bellis, and Russ Castronovo. Photo courtesy of Brian Yothers.

The election of Donald Trump as president occasioned renewed interest in digital and print media about the relevance of The Confidence-Man. As our panelists noted, shortly after the 2017 presidential inauguration, Philip Roth told the New Yorker that the “relevant” book about Trump was Melville’s 1857 analysis of “the art of the scam.” Prompted by Roth, Slate’s “Trumpcast” team—Jacob Weisberg, Katie Roiphe, and Philip Gourevitch—all read The Confidence-Man for the first time, puzzled over its difficulty, and found resonance for our political times: the psychology of being conned, the joy of swindling, the selling of hope and of distrust, the detachment of words [End Page 159] from their meanings, and the malleability of truth. The Nation published a long essay by Ariel Dorfman titled “What Herman Melville Can Teach Us About the Trump Era,” in which Dorfman, writing from Chile, interpreted The Confidence-Man as an urgent, prescient diagnosis of the tragic costs of American indulgence and myopia.

This panel turned the renewed interest in Melville’s book into a reconsideration not only of the socio-political context in which readers today approach it, but also of how The Confidence-Man provokes an uncomfortable awareness of the act of reading itself. Papers focused on the fragmentation of a reading experience that oscillates between conspiratorial fantasy and paranoia, the gendered dimensions of humor, how avatars prompt us to consider the characters in relation to what we can know about them, the unavoidable presentism of historical critique past and present, and the absurd interpretative confidences that are inescapable when one reads The Confidence-Man today.


Poststructuralism and Paranoia
Peter J. Bellis
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Thirty years ago, I offered an “uncharitable” reading of The Confidence-Man. I argued that attempts to unify the book around the actions of a single figure, whether devil or trickster, were really efforts to impose our own desire for unity on a book that denies us any stable interpretive authority or ground. Such a deconstructive reading maps all too well onto today’s landscape of “alternative facts,” “truthiness,” and “fake news.” But it is the novel itself, not a poststructuralist analysis, that best captures the terms of our current crisis: the fragmentation of discursive community and the replacement of argument by rhetorical sleight of hand or conspiratorial fantasy. One may wish to escape the novel’s verbal flux through a totalizing, morally unambiguous reading, but that reading still posits a single demonic presence as its unifying center. The darkness of Melville’s novel lies in its refusal to mediate between these two poles: between interpretive conspiracy and interpretive chaos, between what Thomas Pynchon terms paranoia and “anti-paranoia.”


Anachronism and Other Obstructions: Critique and The Confidence-Man
Russ Castronovo
University of Wisconsin, Madison

This paper examines the temporality of critique by looking at the propensity of The Confidence-Man for generating anachronism. The temporal havoc that is immanent to Melville’s 1857 novel suggests the novel’s knack for exposing how claims of interpretive relevance often entail a [End Page 160] measure of critical confidence in the logical and progressive unfolding of time as history. A quick survey of the different twentieth- and twenty-first-century contexts into which Melville’s 1857 novel has been absorbed indicates that The Confidence-Man accrues heightened relevance the further its mid-century origins recede from critical discussion. To intensify the paradox a bit more, its timeliness begets timelessness insofar as the strange contemporaneity of The Confidence-Man requires something of a devil-may-care-attitude when it comes to the niceties of temporal order. In particular, the text over time has often been suspended between historicist and allegorical interpretations. These asynchronies imbue interpretation with presentism, and what the novel shows us is how unavoidable and how necessary this temporal trespass is to critique.


Women, Taste, Humor...


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pp. 159-162
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