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A Ge’mman wid’ a Big Book


ISSUE:  Autumn 1982
The Confidence Man in American Literature. By Gary Lindberg. Oxford. $19.95

The recent history of the reputation of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man is nearly as suggestive as that novel’s own episodic narrative. Since Elizabeth Foster’s edition of 1954, it has revealed itself to new generations of readers less as the hypochondriacal, cynical, tedious work that Lewis Mumford and other earlier commentators found it than as a masterpiece of 19th-century intellect and sensibility. To judge by the number of articles, dissertations, and cultural studies it has informed during the last decade, it has all but replaced Moby-Dick among younger Melvilleans—not as Melville’s greatest book so much as his most modern and intriguing.

Gary Lindberg in a sense culminates this awakening feeling for the preeminence of The Confidence-Man by suggesting that it is not only technically and psychologically masterly, but that it is representative, that in the United States the confidence man is a “covert culture hero,” a builder of identity and order, rather than an essentially marginal or criminal figure. He extends his analysis of various avatars of the American confidence man to an important new description of 19th- and 20th-century American literature, which may ultimately claim as much power of definition and reorientation as R. W. B. Lewis” American Adam of nearly 30 years ago. The purpose, Lindberg says, is to acknowledge, as others have, the disturbing implications of the confidence man and his game, but to complement them by defining and celebrating as well the playful creativity of the character, whose motives run as much to fun as profit. For generations Americans have conceived the growth of national identity and authority in terms of ideology, enterprise, or destiny. It was left to Lindberg to suggest that maybe the country was built up pretty much for the hell of it.

Much of Lindberg’s basic analysis reorganizes or refines familiar concepts. Following precedent, he attributes the character and singular national stature of the confidence figure to the historical openness and persistently optimistic tone of society in a new country (where it was good to be shifty). Melville’s disquieting novel then provides him with definitive models of confidence and its operations. The fiction is, he argues, the record of an elaborate game by which social and psychological reality is created. He reads it with a sophistication that rescues it from the clumsy allegories of satanic intervention or biographical trauma that are often visited upon it.

From Melville, through whom he establishes his standards and methods, Lindberg shifts to a chronological study of the various manifestations of public and private confidencemaking as they have informed or been informed by the changing currents of American literature, politics, economics, and popular culture. Benjamin Franklin is his earliest and most wholesome example of the spirit of confidence in its creative aspect, and the subsequent history of the character follows the fragmenting of Franklin’s model self into a myriad of specialized selves, whether criminal or benign, which develop according to their own partial logic. The selfmade man is observed in Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn, William Dean Howells” Silas Lapham, and Theodore Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths, among others. The promoter/ booster figure is studied in such representatives as Jefferson, Whitman, William James, and Tom Sawyer; the jack-of-alltrades in Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne’s Holgrave, and Melville’s Ishmael; the rogue-survivor in Huckleberry Finn, Faulkner’s Ratliff, and Heller’s Yossarian. To such personal exemplars are added the more spectacular practitioners of “diddling on a large scale”: P. T. Barnum, for example, the Robber Barons, Richard Nixon.

The intelligence and relish with which Lindberg analyzes particular texts and describes the great drifts and momentums of American cultural life make this study unusually illuminating and readable. It is a bravura performance. Before long, however, one begins to feel vulnerable to being taken. As Lindberg disarmingly acknowledges, he himself seems at times uncannily like the confidence men he celebrates; and if you squint and keep alert, you might catch glimpses of him darting among the portraits in his rogue’s gallery. Here is “Yellow Kid” Weil, America’s master swindler. There is Henry Thoreau, a private virtuoso of disguises. Here is P. T. Barnum, the gaudiest ringmaster in the national circus. And here (and there) is Professor Lindberg, a ge’mman wid a big book.

No question about it: Lindberg is running some busy scam of his own. Those categories of his get damned slippery. Why shouldn’t Ralph Waldo Emerson be a Yankee peddler rather than a jack-of-all-trades? Why isn’t Walt Whitman a jack-ofall-trades, or maybe a self-made man, instead of a land promoter? Can you keep the “nine seemingly separate tendencies in [Edgar Allan Poe’s] work” straight in your head?

Such manipulations of more or less arbitrary labels complement a thematic emphasis on shape-shifting and suggest that finally there may not be any peas under Lindberg’s shells either. As he invokes it almost in spite of himself, reality may consist of nothing but the game of self-invention, without any firm concept of value by which one can say what an achieved identity might be worth. Certainly Lindberg does not want to be nihilistic or cynical. He explicitly disclaims those attitudes and asserts that while theoretically they seem inherent in the confidence game, they are in practice foreign to it. And indeed, they do not infect his discourse. He may escape them, however, primarily because he is so radically uninterested in the questions that engender them, which are essentially philosophical and spiritual. He considers Whitman’s spirituality fraudulent. Thomas Jefferson’s visionary utopianism seems almost to embarrass him, and he turns to irony as a way of dealing with it. Melville’s anxieties about religious and philosophical authority are, he curiously thinks, “a matter of historical curiosity.”

As a side effect of his indifference to the spiritual, Lindberg scarcely acknowledges the wonderful comedy, scoundrelism, and transcendences of religious confidence schemes. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon appear on the dust jacket, but not in the text—a nice touch from a connoisseur of shell games. Beyond them, almost nothing. No Joseph Smith. No Mary Baker Eddy (except for a passing remark). No Father Divine. No Malcolm X. Nor is there any development of the literary possibilities of the spiritual confidence man, who might bring into focus the creativity of such exemplary works as Harold Frederick’s The Damnation of Theron Ware, Thomas Merton’s Cables to the Ace, or Gary Snyder’s Myths & Texts.

I don’t mean to suggest that so resolutely secular a writer as Lindberg should address himself to American religious life but only to point out that the metaphysical concerns that remain peripheral to him were central to much of the literature he admires. Without them, he often seems perilously close to assuming involuntarily a common agreement that all human activity is at bottom a confidence game, in which only fictions of identity and manipulations of appearance are real. Such a game can be lost, and eventually must be, but it cannot be beaten, except on the distinctly unpromising terms that it is played strictly for its own sake, without any illusions about winning. One is reminded of the famous story about the inveterate gambler, whose friend found him being taken in the local card game. “Can’t you see that you can’t win at this game, that it’s rigged?” the friend asked, trying to get the gambler away from the table. “Of course I see that,” was the reply, “but it’s the only game in town.”

Just where all this leaves the Gentle Reader, except maybe up the creek, I couldn’t say. But perhaps it would be best to forgo such considerations and accept the implicit values of skepticism itself, at least for the sake of reading Lindberg. His gift is not to find answers. Rather he generates questions. His remarkable contribution to the study of American literature and culture lies in the energy with which he gets into the spirit of the thing.

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