The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: February, 2019

Belief and Capitalism in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857)

The primary insight of Herman Melville’s last novel The Confidence-Man (1857) is one which was more recently articulated by financial historian Niall Ferguson:

“[M]oney is a matter of belief, even of faith: belief in the person paying us, belief in the person issuing the money he uses or the institution that honours his cheques or transfers. Money is not metal. It is trust inscribed. (The Ascent of Money, Penguin, 2009, pp. 30-31)

Money works, that is, because people believe in it. The people it’s working for may or may not be the ones doing the believing, but someone is doing the believing, and of course acting accordingly.

So look at Melville’s title again. The Confidence-Man. This was a collocation more familiar to 19th-century readers than to us. Later, it was shortened to conman. We perhaps use the word “con” now to mean a trick or fraud without remembering that it comes from the word “confidence”. This is because we don’t use “confidence” in the way Melville used it. Indeed, Google Books Ngram Viewer records that use of the word “confidence” has been declining quite steadily since the 1850s. And when we do use it, it’s mostly with regard to self-confidence and related concepts. To take one of the most recent coinages: body-confidence is a form of self-confidence.


Cover of the Signet 1964 edition. From PDFBooksWorld.

So we don’t immediately get the import of Melville’s title and his book. He spends the book circling round the idea of confidence in the 19th-century sense: the sense of trust. Confidence is a synonym for trust. A confidence man is a man who operates by gaining the trust of the other. Implied without being explicit in the title is that to give our trust is a mistake. Trust, or confidence, is a tool of predation and exploitation.

So, on a philosophical level, this book can be seen as a dialogical investigation into the theme of trust, and its place in human society. On occasion, however, Melville gets more specific than this. He’s not speaking in universalist terms – not always, at any rate. He is referring specifically to a capitalist society, and putting the idea of trust under capitalist conditions at the centre of his text. One of Melville’s characters claims:

“Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions. Without it, commerce between man and man, as between country and country, would, like a watch, run down and stop.” (Signet, 1964, p. 136)

Thus, Melville’s man of business is inveterately opposed to any sort of cynical or mistrustful thinking. This is given expression throughout the novel. One character speaks of the need to “strangl[e] the least symptom of distrust, of any sort, which hereafter, upon whatever provocation, may arise in you” (p. 40). Melville is deliberately using jarringly violent language here, to call into question the view being expressed, and to hint at the dark motives behind an emphasis on trust or confidence.

Melville’s book has a specific and realistic setting, on a Mississippi steamer. Through delineating the behaviour of the societal cross-section on the steamer, he instils in the reader a severe distrust of the idea of trust. Melville suggests that the exploitation of trust is both an age-old human trait, and one that is particularly characteristic of his own society. This last is particularly related to the financial and commercial structures within which his characters are enmeshed.

Thus the most direct statement of Melville’s actual position is found late in the book in the interpolated story of China Aster. Typically for this contrary book, this structurally unnecessary episode is thematically central. Aster is an honest, hard-working man whose personal destruction has a financial basis. Initially, Aster wants no part of the credit system. But a purported friend goads him into taking a loan:

“Why don’t you, China Aster, take a bright view of life? You will never get on in your business or anything else, if you don’t take the bright view of life. It’s the ruination of a man to take the dismal one […]. Why don’t you, then? Why don’t you be bright and hopeful, like me? Why don’t you have confidence, China Aster?” (p. 217)

Eventually, the friend instils the necessary trust and optimism in Aster to take a friendly loan. But he also gets Aster to sign a contract on unfavourable terms. Of course, Aster is ruined by his attempts to repay. Melville’s concise moral of the story, chiselled on a stone by a listening character, is: “The root of all was a friendly loan” (p. 228). Aster was exploited by a friend he trusted, and the means of exploitation was the credit system.

Melville’s book is a sobering read in the light of our current financial circumstances, wherein, as Maurizio Lazzarato has argued, indebtedness is central to economic and indeed social progress. If you’re not in debt, you’re doing it wrong. We have to believe in our credit-based financial system individually and act accordingly, or we are frozen out; and, as Ferguson knows, they only work because we do believe in them. But who do they work for? Melville has an answer: they work not for the true believer, who is a dupe, but for the confidence man, the instigator of and predator on trust. After reading Melville, we trust just a little bit less, but whether this helps with our socio-financial adjustment in a capitalist society is a difficult question.

Humphry Clinker (1771), by Tobias Smollett

Having enjoyed Tobias Smollett’s early novel Roderick Random (1748) a few years ago, I finally got around to reading my second Smollett: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771).  In Scotland’s Books, Robert Crawford calls it “Smollett’s last, greatest novel” (Penguin, 2007, p. 316). The Wikipedia entry for the novel cites the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in saying Clinker is considered by many to be Smollett’s best and funniest book. Whatever about “best”, I am strongly of the opinion that Clinker is much less funny than Random. As the literary product of an older gentleman, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is a more sedate work, with less of the frantic energy and grossly scatalogical humour (but still quite a bit of the latter) of the earlier novel. This probably savours of maturity to the critical eye, but for me boisterous energy and scatology is where Smollett excelled, and much is lost between Random and Clinker.

Clinker is an epistolary novel, told entirely in the form of letters: mostly those of Matthew Bramble and his nephew Jeremy Melford, and to a lesser extent various other members of Bramble’s entourage, as they all travel around Britain together, a journey undertaken for Bramble’s health. Bramble is essentially the protagonist, the patriarch of the party, a bachelor who is somewhat misanthropic and unsociable but is, we soon learn, benevolent and generous, with a keen sense of justice, a commitment to reason, and a strong interest in social progress. He is a forerunner of those philanthropic bachelors who populate the novels of Dickens, spreading goodwill but remaining aloof from intimate human relations. At the same time, he is more intellectual than Brownlow, the Cheerybles, etc. Through the course of his letters, he discourses on any number of subjects, demonstrating both Smollett’s “effortless range of learning” (Crawford, p. 314) and that Bramble is sort of a stand-in for Smollett himself.

Among the epistolarians of Clinker, women are coded as linguistically inept. The two primary female letter writers are Matthew’s sister Tabitha Bramble and her maid Winifred Jenkins. Both are distinguished by very poor spelling and comical malapropisms. In her first letter in the book, Tabitha orders her housekeeper “don’t forget to have the gate shit every evening before dark” (London: Heron, year not given [1960s?], p. 20). An example, obviously, of Smollett’s scatological humour, albeit not a particularly good one.

While Matthew Bramble’s bachelorhood gives him an opportunity to practice universal benevolence, Tabitha Bramble constitutes a rather spiteful depiction of the middle-aged spinster. She tries to marry every unattached man she meets. She is, as Jeremy puts it, “declining into the most desperate state of celibacy” (45). Matthew analyses her character as follows:

In her temper, she is proud, stiff, vain, imperious, prying, malicious, greedy and uncharitable. In all likelihood, her natural austerity has been soured by her disappointment in love; for her long celibacy is by no means owing to her dislike of matrimony: on the contrary, she has left no stone unturned to avoid the reproachful epithet of old maid. (72)

18th-century literature had a tendency to paint the position of old maid in the harshest light, and this novel is a particularly potent example.

This novel is epistolary, and it is episodic. There are threads that are introduced in the beginning and returned to at the end, but the novel is not by any means tightly plotted, and the resolutions to all the plot points are so obvious as to preclude tension. Because the book is structured around a tour, it is essentially a travelogue as much as it is a novel. An 18th-century travelogue is a volume of doubtful interest to the modern reader, and the detours (mostly in Matthew’s letters) over sociology, economics, agriculture, etc. are not always compelling. Some, of course, do resonate quite strongly with present concerns. Given the quite recent vote on Scottish independence (and the possibility of another), Bramble’s reflections on the Act of Union are interesting:

The only solid commercial advantage reaped from that measure, was the privilege of trading to the English plantations; yet, excepting Glasgow and Dumfries, I don’t know any other Scotch towns concerned in that traffick. In other respects, I conceive the Scots were losers by the union.—They lost the independency of their state, the greatest prop of national spirit; they lost their parliament, and their courts of justice were subjected to the revision and supremacy of an English tribunal.’ (277)

Or, how about this, on the subject or rural depopulation/urban overpopulation, a subject very relevant in terms of Ireland’s current demographics:

But, notwithstanding these improvements, the capital is become an overgrown monster; which, like a dropsical head, will in time leave the body and extremities without nourishment and support. The absurdity will appear in its full force, when we consider that one sixth part of the natives of this whole extensive kingdom is crowded within the bills of mortality. What wonder that our villages are depopulated, and our farms in want of day-labourers? The abolition of small farms is but one cause of the decrease of population. Indeed, the incredible increase of horses and black cattle, to answer the purposes of luxury, requires a prodigious quantity of hay and grass, which are raised and managed without much labour; but a number of hands will always be wanted for the different branches of agriculture, whether the farms be large or small. The tide of luxury has swept all the inhabitants from the open country—The poorest squire, as well as the richest peer, must have his house in town, and make a figure with an extraordinary number of domestics.  (97)

There is much such debate on issues topical and arcane. These passages lacked Smollett’s characteristic humour, and for the most part were probably more interesting to the 18th-century reader than he of the 21st-century.

The plotting, too, is lacking in interest or originality. You know the drill: everybody turns out to be everybody’s else long-lost something; some people get married; some people get a chunk of money. There are no real villains in the novel to be punished, humiliated, or sent to the colonies – although one slightly repentant highwayman in the early part of the novel is recommended to make the journey:

It would be no difficult matter to provide you with an asylum in the country (replied my uncle); but a life of indolence and obscurity would not suit with your active and enterprizing disposition—I would therefore advise you to try your fortune in the East Indies. (192)

The book draws to a slow close with a plethora of predictable marriages and re-unitings (through outrageous coincidences) of long-lost families. But Clinker does have its moments. One nice humorous touch is the following anecdote about a man addressing a bust of Jupiter. This anecdote has an authentic ring to it, so I imagine Smollett is recording it rather than inventing it:

Some years ago, being in the Campidoglio at Rome, he made up to the bust of Jupiter, and, bowing very low, exclaimed in the Italian language, ‘I hope, sir, if ever you get your head above water again, you will remember that I paid my respects to you in your adversity.’ (187)

On the whole, though, I don’t agree with the consensus that Clinker is Smollett’s best. His real gifts are better exhibited in Random. 


Conceptual spaces: politics, philosophy, art, literature, religion, cultural history

Charles A. Kush III

Charles Kush - Executive, Management Consultant, Board Member, Operating Partner - Ecommerce, Digital Marketing, Internet Technology

Eunoia Review

beautiful thinking

The Long Victorian - c.1789 - 1914

The literary world of the Long Nineteenth Century, c.1789 - 1914

Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Faculty of Arts, HKU

Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Faculty of Arts, HKU

Reading 1900-1950

The special collection of popular fiction at Sheffield Hallam University

ELT Planning

TEFL tips and ideas from a developing teacher

British Comparative Literature Association (BCLA)

Promoting the scholarly study of literature

Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

The best mystery and crime fiction (up to 1987): Book and movie reviews

Video Krypt

VHS Rules, OK?

my small infinities

My wee little life in this great big world and related sundries.

Nirvana Legacy

Dark Slivers out now: Kindle ebook or, for paperback, email

it's this or get a real job


"The game is afoot."

Exploring Youth Issues

Dr. Alan Mackie @ Edinburgh University

Bundle of Books

Thoughts from a bookworm

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

The Web log of Dr. Joseph Suglia