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:

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A Mute Goes Aboard a Boat

In the first chapter of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857), there is the image of a mute stark in his whiteness:

Though neither soiled nor slovenly, his cream-colored suit had a tossed look, almost linty, as if, traveling night and day from some far country beyond the prairies, he had long been without the solace of a bed. His aspect was at once gentle and jaded, and, from the moment of seating himself, increasing in tired abstraction and dreaminess. Gradually overtaken by slumber, his flaxen head drooped, his whole lamb-like figure relaxed, and, half reclining against the ladder’s foot, lay motionless, as some sugar-snow in March, which, softly stealing down over night, with its white placidity startles the brown farmer peering out from his threshold at daybreak.

The description which closes the chapter comes after a scene rich in rhetoric. The stranger in the cream-colored suit cannot speak, and yet he seeks the attention of the crowd of passengers on the Mississippi river boat Fidéle, scrawling out messages on a slate next to the captain’s office. Depending on which critic you read, most assume that this stranger is one avatar of the endless stream of “confidence men” which appear and disappear throughout the book. The date is April Fool’s day—and it seems like this book invites a critic to climb out on thin limbs to make sense of the jokes.

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