Footnotes: ”The Confidence-Man’ by Herman Melville

This April Fool's Day, we're remembering the most famous novel written about – and published on – this sacred day of trickery, which has found fresh resonance in Donald Trump's America.


What's the story?

It's April Fool's Day, and to mark it we're remembering the most famous novel written about – and published on – this sacred day of trickery.

What's the book?

 It was exactly 163 years ago that Moby Dick author Herman Melville published his eighth and final novel, The Confidence-Man.

There was a good reason Melville both set and published his book on April Fool's Day: it's a punishing cultural satire that burrows deep into a warren of issues, from fraud to honesty, identity to masquerade, morality to materialism.

A shape-shifting stranger sneaks aboard a pleasure steamboat called Fidèle as it chugs along the Mississippi river. From there he sets out to defraud his fellow passengers, a motley bunch whom Melville, in his typically florid prose, describes as 'a piebald parliament, an Anacharsis Cloots congress of all that multiform pilgrim species, man.'

A sort of Keyser Söze of the Steam Age, the stranger takes on multiple guises – a legless beggar, a businessman, a charity collector, a suave gent – which he uses to swindle his unsuspecting marks in the interests only of immorality. Could he be the Devil himself, or the missionary of a new religion, sent to teach mankind a lesson in trust?

Anyone who has read Moby Dick knows Melville's style can take focus to untangle. But persevere, and your efforts will be repaid by this intriguingly unique tale of subterfuge and morality. Above all, it is a masterclass in irony, a hard-to-swallow but perfect antidote, perhaps, to our post-ironic age.


While The Confidence-Man was received with some critical confusion in Melville's lifetime, critics have of late awoken to its prescience regarding modern-day America. Among them was the novelist Philip Roth, who said in 2017: 'The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel — Melville’s last — that could just as well have been called “The Art of the Scam.”'

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