Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An Offer You Can't Refuse

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

One of the best ways to understand what lies at the heart of a country's origins is by studying their literature. In the case of American culture, Kevin Courrier suggested that Herman Melville's The Confidence Man perhaps might be key to comprehending how the self-made man and the con artist can coincide in the same person.

Melville's Trickster: Herman Melville's The Confidence Man

“Melville is not a civilized, European writer,” film critic Pauline Kael once wrote in praising Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film adaptation of Billy Budd. “He is our greatest writer because he is the American primitive struggling to say more than he knows how to say, struggling to say more than he knows.” In 1857, Melville’s particular struggle took the form of his very strange and experimental novel, The Confidence Man.

The Confidence Man, published on the eve of the American Civil War, caused quite the uproar. Perhaps Americans saw the novel as inappropriate, or even an affront to the unsettling issues the nation was then confronting. A swift and satirical discourse on a variety of moral and political concerns, The Confidence Man was an oddly structured comic allegory about a shape-changing grifter who boards a Mississippi riverboat on (of all occasions) April Fool’s Day. The grifter victimizes an assortment of passengers in a series of scams on a trip that takes them from St. Louis to New Orleans. Once he wins his marks’ trust, he cons them with promises of charity and virtue. But even as the con man’s charm tests their resolve on a number of subjects, his ultimate goal is to reveal his fellow passengers’ deeper (and often contrary) desires. Melville introduces characters who change identities so rapidly that the reader is confronted with a portrait of the American frontier as perceived through a series of disguises. The novel operates on so many levels, with Melville playing clever games with both fact and fiction; it’s no surprise some readers become so dizzy that they desperately wanted off the boat.

Although the confidence man played a significant role in European history, he would ultimately take a stronger hold on the American imagination. “There is actually a peculiarly American delight in confidence tricksters,” wrote scholar Stephen Matterson on the novel. “In part such affection has to do with America’s emphasis on and admiration for individual enterprise and ingenuity, which are considered notably ‘Yankee’ qualities.” Since he flourishes best in a country where it is natural to trust people, he goes against the grain of liberal pieties such as Emerson’s claim that if you trust men, they’ll naturally be true to you. The confidence man’s role, as played out in Melville’s book, is much more adversarial, and he relies on our ability to be sharp and informed. He might also be the best argument against censorship in a democracy because one needs access to as much knowledge and information as possible to match him. Yet, conversely, we need him, too. We depend on his taunts to make us smarter, stronger, and to give us a sense of community.

Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry
But the con man’s game is also a humorous one. Absurdity plays a big hand in his success at turning the trick. He’s a leitmotif running through every facet of American culture. You can find him in various guises, ranging from carny barker P.T. Barnum to the infamous Louisiana governor Huey P. Long; he’s the boorish right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh as easily as he inhabits Limbaugh’s counterpart, that shambling snake-oil salesman of the left, Michael Moore. Confidence gets put to the test everywhere in the literature and films that both define and parody American culture. It’s tested by Twain’s Huck Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Bible-thumping fraud, Elmer Gantry, Humbert Humbert’s nemesis Clare Quilty in Vladimir Nabokov/Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), and front and center in Ralph Ellison’s pertinently titled Invisible Man (1952). Burt Lancaster executes his scams while bearing his chiclets grin in The Rainmaker (1956), while Peter O’Toole’s daredevil movie director Eli Cross plays with our perception of illusion and reality while he tests the confidence of a paranoid apprentice (Steve Railsback) in Richard Rush’s exuberant The Stunt Man (1980). Kurt Russell dares us to trust his brash automobile salesman, Rudy Russo, in Robert Zemeckis’ outrageously funny Used Cars (1981). The genial huckster is alive in Michael Keaton’s “idea” man, as he tests the wits of his nebbish partner (Henry Winkler), in Ron Howard’s Night Shift (1982). We find the spirit of Melville’s confidence man resurrecting himself, too, as the character of Paul (Will Smith) in Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation (1993). Here he becomes a catalyst for change in the lives of a number of upper-middle-class New Yorkers.

But Melville’s trickster also found a home deep in the heart of American music. He holds court as an audacious spirit in the music and character of Bob Dylan, with his multitude of disguises and masks. He also plays a decisive and divisive role in the insurgent rap music of Eminem (working his own devious magic through his alter ego Slim Shady). In the songs of Randy Newman, the confidence man pops up everywhere (which is why I found him a compelling figure to write about in my book, Randy Newman’s American Dreams). Newman tips his hand to Melville in “Sail Away,” a sweeping and majestic ballad that seductively lures you into a song where the singer portrays a slave trader enticing blacks in Africa to come to America to face years of slavery and bigotry - in the guise of finding paradise. The con man gets the ultimate role of God, too, testing the limits of our faith and trust while toying with our resolve in Newman’s “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).” Like Dylan, Newman embodies the role of the confidence man, the untrustworthy narrator, and in doing so, appropriates those disguises and masks to keep us guessing at just what his songs really mean. Herman Melville’s career as a novelist may have come to a crashing end with the publication of The Confidence Man, but that cunning shape shifter continues to have a pulse in every dark corner of the American experience. 

- originally published on May 4, 2010 in Critics at Large.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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