Winter 1949 • Vol. XI No. 1 NonfictionJanuary 1, 1949 |

Melville’s Confidence Man

If any one work of Melville's has been misunderstood and neglected more than the others, it is The Confidence Man (1857). Usually considered a work of chaotic pessimism, it is in fact one of the subtlest of all satires on the American spirit, a buoyant book despite the cunning with which it examines the national temperament. It is, furthermore, a respectably complete and well-rounded book. One reason for the underestimation of The Confidence Man is the failure to see that it is a book of folklore. The confidence man, a folk figure, is one of the most extraordinary characters in American literature. Melville was aiming very high when he created this character and it has not yet been seen, I believe, how well he succeeded. Earlier, in Moby-Dick, he had achieved the fullness of his lyric-epic comprehension of the American spirit. But his work would have been less complete without The Confidence Man, in which he was able to display a mature satirical intelligence in a style unique among

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Richard Chase (1914-1962) was a literary critic and a Professor of English at Columbia University. He is known for his work The American Novel and Its Tradition.

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If any one work of Melville's has been misunderstood and neglected more than the others, it is The Confidence Man (1857). Usually considered a work of chaotic pessimism, it is […]

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