Thursday, January 09, 2003

Some random notes, late in posting, on an American classic I did not much care for:

Dec. 25: In the spirit of Christmas, I tried not to terrorize myself too much on this sacred day with reading The Confidence Man beyond a few pages. But I did read Newton Arvin's assessment of it in his book on Melville, and he fairly loathed it. He said, charitably, that it could have been something, that there was the germ of a good idea in it, but that Melville's fire had gone out; the characters are not really characters, and he had a book set on the water that had absolutely no sense of that element in it; the book does not move with the course of the river -- Arvin said the book could have just as well taken place in a hotel room lobby.

Dec. 26: Arvin eloquently voiced all my objections and then some. You can possibly say in its favor that it presages Henry Adams' sour disdain for what American life had become, and I've read that it has some value as a critique of transcendentalism. But so what -- what value does it have for readers as opposed to, say, writers of doctoral theses or historians? It's not even a novel, if by novel we mean an imaginative work of some length involving characters participating in a story of some particular design. There's no story to the book, just a lot of faceless characters in one dull debate after the next on whether or not you can or should trust your fellow man. Where is the Melville of Moby Dick or Pierre -- where is that great symphonic voice? Nowhere to be found. It's been replaced by a petty, dried-up cynic.

Dec. 26: I see no complexity. The book amounts to little more than two characters adopting a variety of guises to argue the virtues of trust. I see less advancement than retreat. I see Melville burrowing safely into his own sour misanthropy without using it as something on which to build. With Adams at least you have a pessimism with some scope to it.

And "dried-up" does seem to me to be the word, as far as fiction-writing goes; The Confidence Man was Melville's last sustained novel -- if you want to call it that; Melville would henceforth mostly devote himself to poetry, as Thomas Hardy did in his later years. Thankfully, Melville was able in the end to eke out one last masterwork of fiction with Billy Budd.

An interesting opinion from John Updike:

This crabbed and inert work has attracted much learned comment and appreciation in recent decades, second only to Moby-Dick, and no doubt there is much to be said for it: it yields many evidences of ingenuity to academic analysis, and does anticipate an apocalyptic vein of American fiction from the later Twain to Nathanael West to yesterday's black humorists. Black the book is, and humorous its intent; but appreciation should begin with the acknowledgement that it is suffocatingly difficult ro read. As one commentator (R.W.B. Lewis) has wittily said, it is more rereadable than readable, and "seems rather to bulge and thicken than to progress." Where Pierre is at least a bad novel, The Confidence-Man is no novel at all; it is a series of farfetched but rather joyless conversations upon the theme of trust, or confidence. The Confidence-Man himself, implausibly tricked out in an early appearance as a "grotesque Negro cripple ... cut down to the stature of a Newfoundland dog," assumes a series of less contorted disguises and deprives a few fellow-passengers on the riverboat Fidele of a few dollars; but by mid-excursion Melville seems to forget his trickster theme and permits his shifty central figure to stay in one costume and to indulge in a parade of haranguing dialogues. A number of critics have noticed the dizzying, vertiginous effect of The Confidence-Man; there is the sensation of wheels whirling to no purpose. The objective of swindling has sunk within some murkier purpose satisfied, it seems, by sheer discourse.

-- From "Melville's Withdrawl," in Hugging the Shore.

It may prove, in the future, that I will second R.W.B. Lewis's opinion, cited by Updike. Maybe it rereads better; that way you enter it not expecting anything resembling an engaging plot, and you can just kind of mine it for whatever historical prescience it will undoubtedly yield. Maybe it's a strictly English major classic -- excellent for term papers, a horror to read.

I started reading Billy Budd again this morning. After Israel Potter and The Confidence Man, thank God for a Melville you can sink your teeth into, rather than having them set on edge.

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