Oh, my God, what a dreadful book. Why did anyone publish it? Only about 300 pages and it just took forever. Painful. Incredibly painful. It takes place on a Mississippi steamer called Fidele. First, there’s a deaf guy. Then there’s an African American beggar with injured or no legs, not sure. Then there’s a stream of con men including one who sells herbal medicine. No one has any names until about three-quarters of the way through the book and then I’m not sure why they do. Calling themselves Frank and Charlie and getting into the least intelligent philosophical discussion I’ve ever heard. Frank maintains he has confidence in all humanity. Doesn’t believe any ill of anyone could be true. Or so he says. We never really figure out what Frank’s deal is because all he does is jabber on, tell his new friend Charlie at one point he has no money, bilks a barber out of a shave and talk to an old man about the Bible.
What does any of it mean? I’m sure I don’t know. There’s no story. No characters. Some people get bilked. What on earth was he thinking? The word ‘confidence’ is uttered as many times as Ann Radcliffe used ‘sublime’ in Mysteries of Udolpho. If he wanted people to learn to avoid scams, he could have written a short pamphlet on it. Not this endless blithering. After this he stopped writing prose for 25 years and all I can think is, good. It’s a shame when someone who writes as well as Melville can, puts together something like this. According to Wikipedia, Mark Winsome (a philosopher) is based on Emerson, Egbert is Thoreau and Charlie Noble was Hawthorne. This helps me not at all. Mark Winsome/Egbert has a discussion with Frank, but neither of their opinions seems to me worth a shot of powder. Winsome/Emerson’s philosophy seems to boil down to you shouldn’t loan a friend money. Surely there was more to Emerson than that? And the guy Frank whose talking to him just seems like a con-man who hasn’t gotten around to the point yet. Apparently I’m just not bright enough to get it.
But the important thing is I read it (Why? You ask. Because by the time I decided it was a giant waste of time and nothing meaningful was ever going to happen, I was too far in to quite during the #20booksofsummer. This also qualifies as a 19th century classic. And all I can say is , thank goodness that’s over.
I’ve read a few other people on this ‘masterpiece’ and it sounds like he’s saying everyone’s either a mark or a patsy, which is far too simplistic a view of life. I suspect he was suffering from depression and feeling like a patsy. I still can’t believe it was published. It’s the weirdest combination of good writing and bad I think I’ve ever read. One person pointed out the opening, which is engaging and you wonder who that guy is and what’s going to happen. Answer: nothing and no one we ever see again. Apologies to those that love this book. For me, it’s the new worst classic. I’d rather reread Lord Jim, Frankenstein and Mysteries of Udolpho than one chapter of The Confidence Man. Okay, maybe two chapters.