24 April 2013

Novels You Shouldn't Teach in Introductory Literature Courses, Vol 1: Melville's The Confidence-Man

A little while ago I decided I would mix things up and get away from the tried and true Benito Cereno in my American literature survey. Benito Cereno is an eminently teachable text, with its 3rd person limited omniscient narrator keeping us interested in Amasa Delano's perceptions, fooling us with Delano's own excuses. Students can sink their teeth into the desperation of slavery and the transfer of power from a declining to a rising empire. It's a relatively short read, too.

However, it's also heavily anthologized and therefore one tends to see heavily repetitive essays that can be traced to such centers of scholarly learning as sparknotes and shmoop. Besides, I have never been interested in teaching the same collection of texts semester after semester.

So I decided that I would go for The Confidence-Man, a novel I read in graduate school and really enjoyed, probably for the very reasons that make it so unfit for an introductory undergraduate literature course.

By the time he wrote The Confidence-Man (1857), Melville was a bit pissed at the publishing industry and America in general. Despite early success with his novels of the South Pacific, Melville saw both popular and critical appreciation for his work decline as he produced the works that would become the cornerstone of his posthumous revival and reputation. Moby-Dick (1851) for instance, such a totemic novel that it has become synonymous with The Great American Novel and shorthand for massively serious literate society, was all but dismissed by Melville's contemporary critics.

The Confidence-Man was Melville's last novel and critics received it much as one might receive a flaming pile of dog shit on your front porch. Of course, in a sense, that's exactly what it was, because Melville was providing them with an acerbic and decidedly mean-spirited prank, published precisely on April 1, 1857. It's a fantastic novel that skewers American consumer culture, lampoons provincial attitudes, and questions all manner of trust or confidence, while at the same time it ignores the "beginning, middle, and end" of traditional plots, fails to have any identifiable central characters, and undercuts coherent narrative every chance it gets. It's a terrible novel to teach to undergraduates encountering college-level literature for the first time.

In a nutshell, the novel follows a riverboat along the Mississippi during the course of a single day. Passengers come and go at each stop and it's unclear if one or several confidence men are working the boat in the narrative...we as readers are never let in definitively on the identity of the con artist(s) touching the marks. It lends itself to rich readings in a few post-structural veins (performative identity, to name one), but it does not give the novice reader much to hang his or her hat on: no compelling characters to follow, no plot to unwind (the mystery of the confidence man/men is never really presented as a mystery and in any case there's never a resolution as to the motives or identity of the confidence man or men), and nothing to follow more than conversations among passengers. To make matters worse, Melville sprinkles numerous references to contemporary political, economic, and cultural events throughout, putting those who haven't had a good dose of Emerson, for instance, at a severe disadvantage (and I mean a good dose...not a poem or an essay, but an extended exposure).

I dearly love this novel, but I am seriously considering the less imposing Typee or the intimidatingly iconic, but much more teachable, Moby-Dick for the next go-round.

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