Long considered Melville’s strangest novel, The Confidence-Man is a comic allegory aimed at the optimism and materialism of mid-nineteenth century America. A shape-shifting Confidence-Man approaches passengers on a Mississippi River steamboat and, winning over his not-quite-innocent victims with his charms, urges each to trust in the cosmos, in nature, and even in human nature–with predictable results. In Melville’s time the book was such a failure he abandoned fiction writing for twenty years; only in the twentieth century did critics celebrate its technical virtuosity, wit, comprehensive social vision, and wry scepticism.
At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a man in cream–colors, at the water–side in the city of St. Louis.
His cheek was fair, his chin downy, his hair flaxen, his hat a white fur one, with a long fleecy nap. He had neither trunk, valise, carpet–bag, nor parcel. No porter followed him. He was unaccompanied by friends. From the shrugged shoulders, titters, whispers, wonderings of the crowd, it was plain that he was, in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger.
In the same moment with his advent, he stepped aboard the favorite steamer Fidèle, on the point of starting for New Orleans. Stared at, but unsaluted, with the air of one neither courting nor shunning regard, but evenly pursuing the path of duty, lead it through solitudes or cities, he held on his way along the lower deck until he chanced to come to a placard nigh the captain’s office, offering a reward for the capture of a mysterious impostor, supposed to have recently arrived from the East; quite an original genius in his vocation, as would appear, though wherein his originality consisted was not clearly given; but what purported to be a careful description of his person followed.