Scholars at Wright



The Confidence-Man was published in 1857 and written by Herman Melville. He played upon the American term describing a felonious con artist and created an allegory examining the various confidences Americans trusted in at the time.

The Confidence-Man stands as one of Melville's least known, understood or appreciated books. According to one major theory on the book, the Devil decides as an April Fool's joke to board a Mississippi steamboat and systematically assails the passengers' confidence in politics, justice and religion. However, since Melville created such a rich and multi-layered satire in his examination of these issues, the text is subject to many diverse interpretations. Some scholars see the Confidence Man as a Christ figure, or a blashpemous Christ-Satan amalgam.

The Norton Critical Edition of The Confidence-Man used for the course also includes a short story by Melville contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, an excised chapter by Melville, contemporary reviews of the book by literary journals and newspapers of the day, and modern critical analysis.

Professor Peter Kaye, Northwestern University, examined both Melville's life and times, as well as the social climate of the time in which he wrote. The Confidence-Mancame at an odd point in Melville's previously lucrative fiction career. His previous book Pierre, or the Ambiguities had prompted many critics to declare Melville insane. He had until that point been one of America's best-selling authors, with TypeeOmoo, and Moby-Dick to his credit. In this light, his lambasting of hypocrisy, intolerance and even some contemporary authors casts further doubt on the overall message of the book.

Guest student lecturer Matthew Weflen, Wright College, followed the use of biblical allusion and reference through the book. Using the oft-referenced passage of I Corinthians 13, episodes such as the story of Goneril in Chapter 12 and the metaphysics of Indian Hating in Chapters 25 and 26 were examined. A thesis regarding Melville's disdain for hypocrisy in Christians of his day was advanced.

Professor Edward Mogul, Wright College, examined the use of several key metaphors throughout the book - specifically, the significance of the passage of time of day and the setting of the story on the Mississipi River. An excised text fragment present in the Norton Critical Edition of the book, titled The River was examined for symbol and metaphor that Melville may have intended to be present in the published text. Melville contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story The Celestial Railroad was also compared to the text.

Professor Susan Ryan, University of Louisville, KY, spotlighted the politics and society of the 19th century and their influence on Melville's text. She advanced the theory that 19th century Americans were preoccupied with issues of truth and idendity in the time of America's continental expansion. The negro beggar at the beginning of the book, among other characters, was contrasted with 19th century theories regarding poverty, charity and who deserves which.

  To register or for inquiries, email Professor Edward Mogul at 


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Scholars at Wright