Showing that Many Men have Many Minds

The second chapter of The Confidence Man: His Masquerade maintains the enigmatic character of the first. There is a commotion on a nearby balcony regarding another passenger which the narrator or reader cannot make much sense of; the narrator prefers to wax poetically about the Mississippi river and the humans who people it. The voyage of the Fidéle takes it from “apples to oranges” on 1200 mile trek. Passengers board and disembark without much ceremony or fanfare, replacing the strange with the even more strange.

Though the mute in the cream-colored suit of the first chapter garnered some attention with his scriptural side-show, in the second chapter he seems glad of oblivion, “a boon not often withheld from so humble an applicant as he” (5). The staring crowds onshore recede in dim clusters, and we are left with the strange universe of the riverboat:

By-and-by—two or three random stoppages having been made, and the last transient memory of the slumberer vanished, and he himself, not unlikely, waked up and landed ere now—the crowd, as is usual, began in all parts to break up from a concourse into various clusters and squads, which in some cases disintegrated again into quartettes, trios, and couples or even solitaires; involuntarily submitting to that natural law which ordains dissolution equally to the mass, as in time to the member. (6)

I find it interesting that the crowd (audience) of the scenes unfolding in the book get smaller and smaller until they resolve themselves into little dialectics; after the third chapter, there are no major assemblies that I recall. But in the first three chapters, there is a motley assortment of spectators gawking over one spectacle or another. In the first, it is a deaf mute preaching Corinthians 1:13 on a slate. In the second chapter, it is the scenery of both the riverbank and the crowd. The crowd are depicted as pilgrims, settlers, and theoroi:

As among Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, or those oriental ones crossing the Red Sea towards Mecca in the festival month, there was no lack of variety. Natives of all sorts, and foreigners; men of business and men of pleasure; parlor men and backwoodsmen; farm-hunters and fame-hunters; heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters. Fine ladies in slippers, and moccasined squaws; Northern speculators and Eastern philosophers; English, Irish, German, Scotch, Danes; Santa Fe traders in striped blankets, and Broadway bucks in cravats of cloth of gold; fine-looking Kentucky boat-men, and Japanese-looking Mississippi cotton-planters; Quakers in full drab, and United States soldiers in full regimentals; slaves, black, mulatto, quadroon; modish young Spanish Creoles, and old-fashioned French Jews; Mormons and Papists; Dives and Lazarus; jesters and mourners, teetotalers and convivialists, deacons and blacklegs; hard-shell Baptists and clay-eaters; grinning negroes, and Sioux chiefs solemn as high-priests. In short, a piebald parliament, an Anacharsis Cloots congress of all kinds of that multiform pilgrim species, man.

But the simile which follows the description is a sort of “glue” holding the image of the river and its occupants together. It is the “picturesqueness” that deserves deeper explanation; it forms a human version of “Mississippi mud.”

As pine, beech, birch, ash, hackmatack, hemlock, spruce, bass-wood, maple, interweave their foliage in the natural wood, so these varieties of mortals blended their varieties of visage and garb. A Tartar-like picturesqueness; a sort of pagan abandonment and assurance. Here reigned the dashing and all-fusing spirit of the West, whose type is the Mississippi itself, which, uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pours them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide.

The blending involved here is well explained in the comments on the Picturesque found in Samuel P. Newman’s A Practical System of Rhetoric from 1834:

This epithet, when applied to natural scenery, relates primarily and principally to the harmoniousness of effect produced upon the mind, and implies such a prominence and combination of objects s give an expression or character to the scene. Nature seems in such instances to perform the work of combination, which, when represented to us on canvas by a skilful painter, we say he has designed by the aid of imagination and taste. The view may or may not present surpassing forms of beauty. We look not at objects individually, but regard them as grouped together and exerting a combined influence. Neither is it implied that the prospect is extensive, and that it embraces numerous and varied objects. On the contrary, picturesque scenes are most frequently those of limited extent, and which contain but a few prominent parts. (58)

What I find most interesting in this is the idea that the myriad of souls aboard the boat coalece and yet disintegrate into small “picturesque” groups providing separate, and yet entirely “confident” effects upon the reader of the novel. The cosmos of the Fidéle, at least to me, seems to be filled with hunters and hunters-of-hunters, sketched together with “the aid of imagination and taste.”


January 8, 2006 4:44 PM