"Confidence man" is an Americanism, describing the archetypal ploy of master-felon arrested in 1849. Punning on the term, Melville created an exuberant allegory on the varieties of American confidenceconfidence in the practicality of radical social reforms, the beneficence of nature, the justness of legal processes, and the efficacy of liberal Christianity. For an April Fool's joke, the Devil boards a Mississippi steamboat at St. Louis and engages the passengers in dizzying philosophical and theological disquisitions.
This edition draws on the best scholarly attempts to penetrate Melville's philosophical and aesthetic confidence-tricks. Annotations to the text identify obscure allusions and expose Melville's satiric strategies. A brief history of the text precedes a transcription of Melville's manuscript draft of "The River." In Backgrounds and Sources is a harvest of influences in contemporary literature and sub-literature, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to P. T. Barnumboth "confidence-men" to Melville. A sampling of baffled reviews shows how Melville's elaborate joke exploded in his face. In the section on Criticism are garnered pioneering essays by Egbert S. Oliver, John W. Shroeder, and Elizabeth S. Foster, along with later studies which illuminate special crannies of this dark text. The Bibliography, by Watson G. Branch, is the most fully annotated yet published for any of Melville's works.