Read an Excerpt
Freedom Just Around the Corner
A New American History: 1585-1828
What Some Great Novels
Tell Us About Ourselves
"At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared ... 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." He and the crowd proceeded to climb the ramp onto the steamboat Fidèle, bound from St. Louis to New Orleans. The stranger, all eyes upon him, paused beneath a "Wanted" poster on deck warning of a "mysterious imposter." Not long before, notorious gangs of cutthroats terrorized travelers on western rivers. But the predators these days were swindlers: "Where the wolves are killed off, the foxes increase." The stranger then produced chalk and a slate and wrote for the crowd to read: "Charity thinketh no evil, Charity believeth all things, Charity never faileth." Two doors down, beneath the smoking saloon, a barber hung on his shop door a placard of contrary sentiments: "NO TRUST."
Thus began a great American novel. It described one day -- April Fools' Day -- on board a Mississippi steamboat, and its publisher contrived, for publicity's sake, to release it on April 1, 1857. Reviewers panned the book (one called it nothing but "forty-five conversations held on board a steamer, conducted bypersonages who might pass for the errata of creation"). But some critics think The Confidence-Man to be the greatest novel by Herman Melville.
Melville's satirical allegory holds up a mirror to the American people. They are "natives of all sorts, and foreigners; men of business and men of pleasure; parlor men and backwoodsmen; farm-hunters and fame-hunters; heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters." They include fine ladies, philosophers, and land speculators, soldiers, black slaves and quadroons, Mormons, Jews, Papists, and Baptists, jesters, teetotalers, and Yankee peddlers: "in short, a piebald parliament" of "that multiform pilgrim species, man." All seek to hustle each other or, if charity gets the best of them, be hustled in turn. Melville doubtless got the original idea from a story run by the New York Herald in 1849. It told of a respectable-looking fellow who talked people into lending him their pocket watches for some innocent purpose, whereupon neither man nor watch would return. The reporter coined the term "confidence-man" for the rascal, likening him to the brokers downtown who urged passers-by to "take a flyer" touting some hot stock issue. "His genius has been employed on a small scale in Broadway. Theirs has been employed in Wall street. That's all the difference." A friend of Melville even suggested that the con-man's success "speaks well for human nature, that, at this late day, in spite of all the hardening of civilization, and all the warning of newspapers, men can be swindled."
Ever since borrowing money against Moby Dick's royalties, which proved disappointing, Melville was "damned by dollars" and in need of commercial success. At the same time, he was tormented by the disparity between Americans' acquisitiveness and the Calvinist values he acquired in youth. The economy in the 1850s boomed on the strength of the California Gold Rush, land speculation, railroad construction, and the Cotton South, but far from becoming the New Jerusalem of millenarians' dreams, the nation was a sink-hole of corruption. In northern eyes the southern slavocracy was almost Satanic, while Southerners were quick to believe that in the industrial north (as a New Yorker confessed), "public men are all rogues, honest men are driven from the polls -- the ballot boxes are in the hands of ruffians -- the very men who are elected ... are so many swindlers, stock-jobbers, liars, even forgers and robbers." It was a "plundering generation."
So Melville took the risk of telling the truth, as he saw it, about the tricks Americans played on themselves in their effort to worship both God and Mammon. His Confidence-Man, variously likened to a jester, traveling sales-man, "genial misanthrope," P. T. Barnum (who published his scandalous auto-biography in 1855), the Devil, an angel, and the Second Coming of Christ, is a master of disguise and persuasion. Though some passengers prove tougher to gull than others, he eventually employs their own fear, greed, or fancied virtue to pry open their wallets, exposing in the process every conundrum and lie -- about slavery, Indians, business, industry, and frontier religion -- Americans preferred not to acknowledge. In the opening scene the Con-Man is that silent prophet dressed in white and quoting St. Paul. In the next he impersonates a crippled Negro beggar, worse off in freedom than he was under slavery. In the next he gulls a Methodist clergyman into contributing to the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum. "I have not heard of that charity," says the preacher. "But recently founded," the Con-Man replies, and pockets his coins.
As the day progresses the Con-Man appears as a global philanthropist aiming to quicken the missionary impulse "with the Wall street spirit," a director of the Black Rapids Coal Company whose "exclusive" shares passen-gers beg him to sell, an herb-doctor hawking miracle cures, an agent of the Philosophical Intelligence Office (an employment bureau), and a wounded veteran of the Mexican War. In each case the Con-Man's glib sophistry strips his victims of the psychological raiment cloaking their vanity, while the victims in turn have occasion to mock Emerson, Thoreau, and Poe, abolitionists and slavers, topers and teetotalers, industrialists and agrarians ...Freedom Just Around the Corner
A New American History: 1585-1828. Copyright � by Walter A. McDougall. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.