As May comes to an end and we complete this month’s Classic Book-a-Month (A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry), it’s time to look toward June and our next read! This month, we’ll be reading The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville.
Don’t forget: We have a Goodreads group! And we’re using #CBAM2017 to chat on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
About the Book*:
“The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade is the ninth book and final novel by American writer Herman Melville, first published in New York in 1857. The book was published on April 1, the exact day of the novel’s setting. The Confidence-Man portrays a Canterbury Tales–style group of steamboat passengers whose interlocking stories are told as they travel down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans. Scholar Robert Milder notes: “Long mistaken for a flawed novel, the book is now admired as a masterpiece of irony and control, though it continues to resist interpretive consensus.” After the novel’s publication, Melville turned from professional writing and became a professional lecturer, mainly addressing his worldwide travels, and later for nineteen years a federal government employee.
The novel’s title refers to its central character, an ambiguous figure who sneaks aboard a Mississippi steamboat on April Fool’s Day. This stranger attempts to test the confidence of the passengers, whose varied reactions constitute the bulk of the text. Each person including the reader is forced to confront that in which he places his trust. The Confidence-Man uses the Mississippi River as a metaphor for those broader aspects of American and human identity that unify the otherwise disparate characters. Melville also employs the river’s fluidity as a reflection and backdrop of the shifting identities of his “confidence man”.
The novel is written as cultural satire, allegory, and metaphysical treatise, dealing with themes of sincerity, identity, morality, religiosity, economic materialism, irony, and cynicism. Many critics have placed The Confidence-Man alongside Melville’s Moby-Dick and “Bartleby, the Scrivener” as a precursor to 20th-century literary preoccupations with nihilism, existentialism, and absurdism. The work includes presumed satires of 19th century literary figures: Mark Winsome is based on Ralph Waldo Emerson while his “practical disciple” Egbert is Henry David Thoreau; Charlie Noble is based on Nathaniel Hawthorne; Edgar Allan Poe inspired a beggar in the story.”
Feel free to read at your own pace, post at your own pace (or not at all), and drop by to comment/chat about the book at any point. The schedule above is just the one I plan to use in order to keep myself organized and to provide some standard points and places for anyone who is reading along to get together and chat.
Note on July: I’ve intentionally selected Melville’s The Confidence-Man for June and Milton’s Paradise Lost for July because the former reminds me of an American response to the latter. I think it will be interesting/informative to read these two texts in sequence, and I chose to begin with the American version because I believe it is more accessible (so, applying it to Paradise Lost rather than the reverse might be better for discussion). Anyhow, I’m posting this note so that those of you interested in the comparison might plan to read both June and July’s texts with us. Otherwise, if you only want to read Melville and to hell (haha, get it?) with Milton, then so be it!
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