Philip Roth started it. Interviewed by The New Yorker about his book The Plot Against America, Roth dropped that the most important fictional forebear to explain the Trump presidency is The Confidence-Man (Thurman). Five months later, Ariel Dorfman followed up in The Nation (in an article that performed memoiristic rereading of Melville via Dorfman's personal history) that Melville's con-man was relevant to Trump in that "he displays an arsenal of false premises and promises to dazzle and befuddle his victims with absurd and inconsistent projects that seem workable until, that is, they are more closely examined—and then, when cornered by demands that he provide proof of his ventures, the scamp somehow manages to distract his audience and squirm away" (Dorfman). Such pronouncements generated significant buzz on web pages; in turn, I proposed to convene a panel at the Modern Language Association Convention that would give Melville scholars an opportunity to consider those types of connections between present circumstances, political or not, and Melville's book. The pieces here answer the call to re-read The Confidence-Man today, and they do so in ways that implicitly challenge or complicate the readings first proposed by Roth and Dorfman. But I must admit a political disappointment.
If Roth and Dorfman had given us a bump and a set, to use a volleyball metaphor, I expected our university-based readers to spike it. I figured many American literature scholars would want to talk about the president: If we considered "a man in cream-colors" as a man in orange colors, would the latter come off as more repulsive than the guy with the white fur hat aboard the Fidèle? But as it turned out, Melvilleans (surprise!) wanted to talk more about The Confidence-Man than about the president or the present (in some cases). An interesting tension emerged between those who emphasized the historical context of the 1850s (e.g. economics, cultural artifacts) and those who ventured into discourses that are prominent today (gender, avatars). These essays as a group raise an important question: does The Confidence-Man offer a type of language and a set of contexts that differ in important ways from the current political discourse and news accounts? If a Trumpian comparison is appealing [End Page 7] (and it is), there are also plenty of passages in which The Confidence-Man displays elaborate, informed, and intellectually provoking scenarios that facilitate the taking advantage of people. To my mind, a fine example is when the cosmopolitan waxes eloquent about the press toward the end of chapter 29, describing it as "defender of faith in the final triumph of truth over error, metaphysics over superstition, theory over falsehood, machinery over nature, and the good man over the bad" (166) The cosmopolitan's irony is far from Trump's blatant proclamations that the press manufactures fake news and threatens the republic. In other words, the 1850s con man has a certain language finesse. He raises lying to an artifice, not a sound bite. In response, our contributors show that careful reading can be more insightful than quick, if interesting, connections.
A common point among the contributions is that The Confidence-Man warns against hasty interpretations and prompts readers to engage with the hermeneutic challenges of both Melville's fiction and historical criticism. My own rereading followed this line. In preparing for the MLA panel and reviewing the essays developed from the presentations, I returned to the question: how does one read The Confidence-Man? As John Bryant has shown, The Confidence-Man presents a peculiar set of interpretive challenges and has prompted different types of critical turns over time. I concur with critics, some of whom Samuel Otter references in his contribution, who find the book difficult and even impenetrable. Impenetrability can be a challenge for a literary scholar, and thus I take the criticism as an invitation. But I would use a different adjective to describe the book—unreadable—in part because The Confidence-Man interrupts the flow that is common in fiction of its length. Unlike a novel, this is not a book to be read continuously, and thus it is unreadable...