Although there have been powerful attacks on what Hershel Parker nominates as the “standard line of interpretation” (x) regarding Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, what could we gain from going against the grain and seeking to extrapolate meaning from a novel that dissuades the reader from finding it? In contrast to critics such as Leon F. Seltzer, Peter J. Bellis, John G. Cawelti, Lawrence Buell, Philip Drew, William Ramsey, and Gary Lindberg, who argue that no definite meaning can be derived from the novel, I contend that there is a political-historical engagement with Indian-hating and the origins of the American nation, which reflects more generally upon the nineteenth-century American psyche and how it negotiated with its history of Native American expropriation, genocide, and dispossession. [1]

Utilising a postcolonial and psychoanalytic framework, alert to imperialist and psychical patterns, it will be possible to see how national narratives of establishment and legitimacy under the antebellum American state were simultaneously compromised by inassimilable historical memories in Melville’s satire on Indian-hating. Read from this postcolonial psychoanalytic perspective, the novel illuminates how the American national consciousness enshrines values associated with democracy and anti-colonialism within its ego-ideal. However, The Confidence-Man also reveals how these very same values are undermined by the American state’s conflicting cultural attitudes and policies concerning Native Americans. [2] A gap then emerges in the American national psyche between its latent awareness of forced removal and persecution of Native Americans and how it chooses to remember these events according to an idealised narrative of national selfhood. This clash in turn generates a melancholic critical agency which is unravelled in the novel. Melville, in satirising narratives of frontier expansion, allows their associated historical spectres of Indian genocide and displacement to emerge indirectly.

Drawing upon the psychoanalytic and postcolonial theories delineated by Ranjana Khanna in Dark Continents (2003), I will explore how the Indian-hating chapters of Melville’s novel “work through” the historical aspects of Indian removal that were largely repressed in American national discourse. Melville’s text illuminates how the national psyche incorporates the historical memories of Indian removal via the revisionist techniques of the legitimating Indian-hating narrative. This narrative also allows it to disavow the realist aspects of such memories that would destabilise the projected surface veneer of American identity. Indian-hating and the figure of the Indian-hater are symptomatic of a narrative strategy of repression within nineteenth-century American literary discourse regarding the unpalatable realities of expansion through genocide and removal. However, Melville’s novel demonstrates a significant degree of historical awareness within its nihilistic and satirical treatment of the American state to the extent that it engages with this repression. When read according to the lens of a postcolonial psychoanalytic framework, the Indian-hating section in Melville’s novel suggests that the historical memories of frontier conquest and removal acquire a haunting dimension for the American psyche. These historical memories threaten to undermine the nation’s idealised version of establishment and selfhood, and since they cannot be expunged but only be refigured, rationalised or, at best, displaced and ignored, they take on a recurrent quality. The recurrent or haunting nature of these memories within the national consciousness is therefore identifiable in their constant repression through discourses that validate the founding of the state based on territorial warfare and national legitimacy.

According to critics such as Parker and Elizabeth Foster, The Confidence-Man concerns a confidence trickster, implied to be the Devil incarnate, who possesses the ability to change form at will. He preys upon the Fidèle passengers, attempting at every turn to win their trust in his various swindles. In Chapter Twenty-Six of the novel, Charles Noble discusses the metaphysics of Indian-hating, the role of the backwoodsman, and the distinctions between the diluted Indian-hater and the Indian-hater par excellence with the Cosmopolitan. In Chapter Twenty-Seven, he narrates Judge Hall’s account of Colonel Moredock, a man for whom Indian-killing became his vocation following the slaughter of his mother and fellow settlers by a band of Indian outlaws. I contend that Melville locates Indian extermination as the original sin of the nation and origin point for its disingenuous discourses and historical revisionism. He draws upon the real Judge Hall’s progressivist apologia for civilisational expansion, entitled Sketches of History, Life and Manners, in the West (1835). However, Melville invests his own version with such grotesque violence and burlesque characterisations of Indians as to mock Indian-hater narratives and the discourses through which the American state legitimates its establishment. The Judge’s role as an historian is deliberately thrown into doubt, and thus, we cannot trust in the veracity of his account. In Indian-hater novels such as Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods (1837), Indians are cast as satanic opponents of civilisation and Christianity who must be annihilated for civilisational progress to continue. Melville, through satirical techniques, incorporates such narrative themes as instances of national self-projection, where the profiteering drives for state expansion are legitimated through dubious characterisations of Indians as irredeemable barbarians as well as through suspect appeals to higher principles such as the propagation of civilised culture.


Criticism of the Standard Line of Interpretation

At this point, it will be beneficial to briefly identify certain problems with criticism that holds the novel to be indecipherable. This will clarify how the “standard line” relates to my own approach. Bellis contends that many critical interpretations of Melville’s novel from Foster to Lindberg, attempt to impose a unity on its disparate narrative elements and that this reflects the critic’s bias, which is at odds with Melville’s intent. Bellis argues that the moral certainties of the “standard line” are derived from the Indian-hating section. According to Parker, Indians are portrayed as demons whereas Indian haters are devout Christians who abandon human ties in their contempt for evil. He highlights Melville’s comic formulation of Christianity in which Moredock is at his most Christian when he is murdering Indians and otherwise apostatising in enjoying the comforts of domestic life. If, as Parker contends, Melville’s novel details the efforts of Satan to preach Christianity as an April Fool’s joke to the passengers of the Fidèle, then the best Christians are those who hate the most and who are therefore resistant to his “Christian” messages (“Metaphysics” 172).

However, Bellis finds issues with the idea that an absolute dichotomy can be established between good and evil with the confidence man as a Satanic avatar, given that, in his view, nothing in the text can be verified as true or false. Bellis considers the “standard line” to reflect a misguided allegorical approach, which overlooks the fact that Moredock’s tale is narrated by Charles Noble who retells it based on the words of Judge Hall. If it is a second-hand story from an unreliable source, how can it have the special authority Parker assigns to it in the “standard line”? Bellis contends that Moredock’s story is essential in establishing absolute good and evil in the novel, such that it can be shown that the Devil or God is operating aboard the Fidèle in the form of the confidence man. This reasoning enables the critic to see through the devil’s disguises and establish connections between them. In addition, Bellis notes that Parker employs circular reasoning when he states that if the confidence man is Satanic, given his association with serpents, this must also apply to the Indians, who are compared to snakes. We must then conclude that the Indian is a type of confidence man. For Bellis, the beginning and endpoint of this argument are undefined as the claim that absolute evil exists on the Fidèle is predicated on the allegorical framework it is invoked to establish.

At the crux of Bellis’s argument is the idea of inconsistency and a leap of faith that the text invites for the standard interpretation. In his view of existence, the either/or binary is inescapable, and the novel serves to illuminate it. However, a central problem with Bellis and others, who subscribe to the idea that the novel is inscrutable, is their imposition of such a binary approach that relies solely on textual evidence without historical context or reading against the grain. They confuse intuition with faith in their adherence to a linear mode of reasoning and shut down further inquiry by assuming that their interpretation of the novel as an enigma is the definitive one. It is for these reasons that the “standard line” should not be discounted as it allows for the pursuit of meaning and the possibility of new interpretations. The opposing school of thought forecloses the risk of error at the cost of remaining stuck in a kind of convenient and comforting solipsism. Moreover, if the confidence-man is Melville’s God or Devil in the text, perhaps it is best to rebel against the order of mystery established by this godhead by attempting the search for meaning. Who is to say Bellis et al. have not fallen victim themselves to the very confidence game they apply to proponents of the standard line? One could equally argue that the outward appearance of inscrutability is a confidence trick on the reader. If the novel invites a plethora of interpretations, including those that hold it to be inscrutable, none can claim to be the last word, and this is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Melville’s text.

Echoing Bellis, Lara Cohen argues that the Colonel Moredock chapter provides a cautionary warning against trying to attribute any definite meaning to the novel (169). The Judge’s historical knowledge about Indian-hating is imperfect, as it is derived from the diluted Indian-hater who has supposedly abandoned the values of this way of life. Seltzer echoes this argument in his assertion that the confidence-man’s actions signify an inherent awareness and rejection of the human need to elide reason in order to satisfy faith. He argues that if reason is insufficient in peering through the surface reality of the cosmos, faith is also shown to be in defiance of what is, as one makes themselves more susceptible to the arch-cheat himself, namely the confidence man (19-20). However, this argument raises the issue of why reason should be insufficient on the basis that it provides an incomplete picture of external reality. Taking Cohen’s argument as a case in point, it is unsupported to say that the Indian-hater has forsaken the tenets of Indian-hating as Noble states within the narrative that he simply fails to live up to its requirements. The knowledge presented, though unreliable and incomplete, cannot be dismissed as inherently worthless with certainty. Instead, in the spirit of scepticism and further inquiry, Moredock’s case is one which we are encouraged to critically evaluate. There is an organised pattern to the confidence-man’s actions, and it is one dedicated to satirising antebellum America with respect to its investment in false national narratives of confidence. Rather than “dizzying” nineteenth-century audiences, as Cohen claims, with its hall of mirrors’ effect generated through its depiction of the con artistry, Melville’s novel possesses a clarity of purpose precisely because of this effect. Echoing Cohen’s appraisal of the text, in his discussion of satire Ronald Paulson states that the satura as an expository form is comparable to a “house of mirrors” whereby a particular theme is repeated again and again in alternating circumstances (43). In The Confidence-Man it is the theme of appearance versus reality, trust and deceit, which is reiterated and which becomes more and more explicit when confidence games run rampant towards the end. In this context, Melville’s “Satanic” confidence-man can be considered as a prosecuting or adversarial figure who illuminates American society’s propensity for delusion.


Indian-Hating and its Literary Influence in The Confidence-Man

In view of Melville’s satirical take on Indian-hating, it will be useful to briefly elucidate the typical Indian hater narrative, which generally concerns a frontiersman whose family has been massacred by Indians. Leslie Fiedler provides a useful working definition of Indian-hating, stating that, in general, the Indian-hater figure embarks on his vocation in retaliation for the murder of his mother whom his father was too weak to defend (125). In the course of his quest for vengeance, he becomes addicted to violence and believes that while Indians exist, white women and mothers generally will forever remain in peril. This theme in Indian-hating literature is also explored by Richard Slotkin in his discussion of Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods (1837). Slotkin cites Curtis Dahl’s contention that Nathan Slaughter’s character in that novel was inspired by James Hall’s The Indian-hater (1832) and Nicholas Marcellus Hentz’s Tadeuskund: The Last King of the Lenape (1825). Hentz’s character is a Quaker whose family has been slaughtered by Indians. In his quest for peace, the Quaker seeks to prove that the murderers were white men posing as Indians rather than Delaware. The Quaker and Indian chief, Tadeuskund, personify racial purity and self-restraint while the villains are portrayed as renegades. The Indian-hater assisting the hero is shown to be a degenerate (Slotkin 511).

The theme of disavowal of “savage degeneracy” accompanied by an alternating yearning for it within nineteenth-century American fiction is explored by Slotkin and is useful to detail here, as it relates to questions of national identity formation that will be later discussed. According to Slotkin, Euro-American mythology first emerged from Puritan literature in which the hero was on a quest that involved religious conversion and salvation and in which he invariably ended up as a captive or victim of Native Americans. However, with the arrival of non-Puritans into the American book printing trade, the emphasis on remaining non-American or non-Indian gave way to a desire to gain emotional ownership over the land. Whereas early American mythology showed the colonist as a captive or destroyer of Native Americans, later narratives emphasised his affinity with them and the wilderness. A new hero was created who mediated between civilisation and savagery (Slotkin 21). This is exemplified in James Fenimore Cooper‘s The Leatherstocking Tales given that Hawkeye reflects the frontiersman as an archetypal American: “To accept wholeheartedly the wilderness marriage and Eucharist is to lose one’s white soul; to hold back is to fail in America as an American” (Slotkin 505). The hero in this myth is able to identify moral truth when he forgets his ties and preconceived notions relating to race, gender, body, soul, man, and god. As a result, he learns of truths about the world and himself, and his discriminations are vindicated and seem less the products of habit. To extend Slotkin’s argument, Cooper is able to reinforce the credibility of the strict ideological line he sets up regarding the validity of national expansion and racial divisions by partially deviating from it. This does not contradict the binary he establishes between savage and civilised but rather colours it with flexibility. In terms of The Leatherstocking Tales, miscegenation is wrong, yet the adoption of Indian traits is permissible under the proviso that a character like Hawkeye preserves his essential whiteness, Christianity, and recognition of his social superiors.

Continuing this theme of the doublethink involved in American expansion, Slotkin argues that in Bird’s Nick of the Woods, Slaughter represents a polarised, split identity who is beset by divided loyalties, which reflects the problem of defining a national or sectional identity. For Slotkin, Slaughter is a critical revision of the frontier hero as conceived of by Cooper. He personifies the Puritan belief that the wilderness brings out demonic impulses in man. The Puritans transferred their morally questionable acts to the Native Americans to justify their removal and to expiate themselves from the knowledge that they were the architects of their own troubles. ’Slaughter’s experience and reaction to his frontier experiences echoes this idea and conveys the repressed violent drives latent in human beings (Slotkin 515). According to Slotkin, Bird as a Southerner was influenced by the psychology and symbolism of racism and represented the Western character as a fusion of Indian and white racial characteristics. Although he explores the results of this blending, he is limited by the literary conventions of the South and those of the Romantic novel.

As noted, Melville uses Judge Hall’s account of Colonel Moredock for source material. As an authority on the frontier during the nineteenth century, Hall attempts to explain the rationale for Moredock’s hatred of Native Americans. According to Thomas Dumm, Hall states that those who first settled the frontier established a boundary separating the savage from the civilised given their close proximity to Native American settlements. He contends that for the pioneer, neither the Indian nor any other man was entitled to “monopolize the hunting grounds, which he considers free to all.” Thus, the claim of Indians to their hunting grounds was considered an affront to the pioneer who stood “upon his reserved rights” (Dumm 313). Hall also notes that the parents of pioneer children told them stories of their conflicts with Native Americans and that these “impressions” are “handed down from generation to generation, and remain in full force long after the danger from the savages has ceased, and all intercourse with them has been discontinued” (Dumm 313-14). Melville affirms this line in the closing statement of the Moredock tale when Noble affirms that “Indian-hating will continue to exist” (142).

The repetition of these tales becomes a way to reinscribe the validity of the American nation state as civilised and divinely sanctified. However, it is the repetition compulsion of these tales which points to an awareness of an alternative historical perspective, and it is one that Melville highlights in his ridiculing of the Judge. In recounting the story of Moredock, Hall states that his family was murdered by Indians when he was a child. Scarred by this experience, he swore vengeance on those responsible, and when he succeeded in his mission, he simply continued to murder Native Americans. Hall however does attempt to redeem Moredock’s image as a serial killer. Rather than being “unsocial, ferocious or by nature cruel . . . . He was a man of warm feelings, and excellent disposition” (509). As will be later seen, Melville mocks this pretence of impartiality, which hides the hypocrisy immanent in defending the reputation of a man who served the interests of the American state through brutal acts of violence. Melville works from an account that tries to expatiate the grim exploits of a mass murderer by portraying him as genial and respectable. Melville’s placement of the Indian-hating section midway through the narrative suggests that accounts of Indian-haters, such as Hall’s, lie at the core of the nation’s corruption, as they try to sanitise historical events of violence, forced removal, and ultimately genocide. In other words, they create an outer façade of respectability for the nation by rationalising away historical memories that would otherwise threaten its legitimacy. By extension, the confidence man personifies this process given that his outward geniality masks his malevolent intent.


Postcolonial Psychoanalysis

Before turning to further analysis of Melville’s novel, I will detail some key concepts dealt with by Khanna and others that will afford unique insights into the political-psychical dynamics of the text. One of Khanna’s central contentions is that national affiliation entails specific forms of haunting, narrative, sites of memory, and psychical effect. She seeks to read psychoanalysis as a Eurocentric discipline in order to transform its politics, such that it can be used to unravel colonialism’s psychological consequences (Khanna, Dark Continents x). However, this does not automatically mean that psychoanalysis is limited to a Eurocentric or individual context. In fact, Khanna makes a point of this, stating that Freud’s reformulation of subjectivity enabled for psychoanalytic accounts of the nation state, which she details with respect to writers such as Fanon, Memmi, and Mannoni, who detailed the psychological effects of colonial situations upon colonised non-European cultures.

In Dark Continents Khanna draws on psychoanalytic theory to detail the emergence of postcolonial states and the national narratives they create. Khanna also adopts Freud’s terms, melancholy and melancholia, demonstrating how they can be used to critique colonialism and its effects. [3] For Khanna, melancholia can be characterized in an ethico-political context as a remainder which “insists on its own covert symptomatic presence” (Khanna, “Post-Palliative”). In these terms, she proposes that melancholia constitutes a failure to assimilate the ego-ideal of a new group. For Khanna, critical nationalism and haunting are attributable to critical agency or melancholic postcoloniality.

In a U.S. context, Anne Anlin Cheng has drawn upon psychoanalytic theory to suggest that American national idealism has struggled with incorporation and rejection since its inception: “While all nations have their repressed histories and traumatic atrocities, American melancholia is particularly acute because America is founded on the very ideals of freedom and liberty whose betrayals haven been repeatedly covered over” (10). For Cheng, the conflict between America’s history of exclusion, imperialism, and colonisation, and its narrative of liberty and individualism raises the issue of how the nation can move on from its transgressions (11). On a similar note, Michael Rogin asserts in Blackface, White Noise (1996) that American liberty was founded upon chattel slavery, the displacement of Native Americans and Mexicans, and the use of Chinese and Mexican labour. When confronted by instances of its betrayal of democratic principles with respect to Indian genocide, slavery, segregation, and immigration discrimination, the American psyche emphatically and melancholically expresses notions of human value and fraternity (Rogin 24).

According to Khanna, repression is a manifestation of melancholic incorporation involving a refusal to mourn and the decision to withhold information by partitioning it into the national archive: “in the colonial archive both the symptom of and the cure for the erasure of the failure of representation can be read in terms of the ongoing failure of psychical assimilation of the ego-ideal in the nation state” (265). The archive in this sense refers to the historical narrative of a group or nation which presupposes the existence of a collective memory. In the case of a colonial power, it may be predicated on the repression of certain past events that it is unable to assimilate. Alternately, a challenging group may use its own archive to bring certain facts to light and reinterpret established narratives of memory. Khanna argues that the inability to assimilate the drives of an object results in the formation of a secret or phantom identifiable in the concealment of incorporation. She uses this concept, arguing that the inassimilable is expressed in literary texts of postcolonial states since the affective, obscure, and obsolete linger such that they draw attention to the process of loss. In addition, she states that by treating psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic rather than a curative discipline, we can consider the phantom in a public and ideological context, which is productive in analysing postcoloniality and nationalism in general. Hence, phantoms are transmissible through constructed groups rather than through bloodlines according to this framework (256).

Drawing upon Khanna’s analysis of haunting, this article explores how Melville’s satire on Indian-hating gestures towards historical memories of Indian removal that surface through the use of literary conventions and narrative dissonances despite the fact that they are repressed. In other words, the Indian spectre points to inassimilable historical memories that the national psyche is unable to reconcile to its ego-ideal. Furthermore, we will see how The Confidence-Man adopts a critical position towards American national identity and dismantles any sense of a national ideal in a process that is more akin to mourning than melancholia. Melville’s work conveys political and epistemological nihilism and foregoes attempting to rationalise the historical realities of frontier violence it evokes through Judge Hall’s account. Unlike writers such as Cooper or Bird, Melville’s text “works through” the ghosts that haunt the nation’s past. While his narrative displays a melancholic critical agency towards the nation’s history, it lacks the symptoms of melancholic repression in refusing to rationalise that history or provide a restorative national vision. Melville satirises the logical duplicity of Indian-hating, indicating that such rationalisations of historical violence constitute a type of inauthenticity or confidence game, which points to the unsalvageable dimension of American identity. In a certain respect, his adoption of satire suggests that the generic mode lends itself to critical agency, if we keep in mind Paulson’s hall of mirrors analogy where a central theme is repeated or compulsively “acted out.”

The unrepresentable nature of historical memories pertaining to frontier colonisation is an important issue in Melville’s novel. In Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature (1988), Toni Morrison explores similar issues concerning repression and representation in her discussion of Melville’s Moby Dick. She argues that for nineteenth-century writers, the Native American and African could not provide a competing cultural or national framework for the burgeoning American nation state. Consequently, early American literature appeared homogeneous in its political ideology. However, for Morrison this apparent homogeneity engenders silences which can be explored to reveal deeper, unspoken meanings (139-40). In this context, she cites Rogin’s discussion of the white whale in Moby Dick as a symbolic referent for slavery and the commodification of nature. In view of Rogin’s reading, Morrison contends that the whale may also represent Melville’s dissension from the nineteenth-century conceptualisation of whiteness as a racial ideology. If the white whale represents such an ideology, then Ahab’s mutilation and dehumanisation by it reflects the “trauma of racism” (Morrison 142). For Morrison, this trauma creates a fragmentation of the self for the racist and their victim. Ahab grapples with the idea of civilisation that he rejects and with a symbol of savagery in the whale that he is compelled to destroy. This leads Morrison to draw a parallel between Ahab’s solitude and madness and the idea that Melville, as an isolated literary voice, was overwhelmed by the contradictions inherent in whiteness as an inhumane ideology. According to Morrison, Melville explores whiteness as an ideal in chapter 42 “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Although he is unable to articulate the “hidden course” out of this all-encompassing idealisation, he identifies the imaginative and symbolic means to do so (Morrison 143-44).

We will see how Melville takes his riverboat steamer, the Fidèle, on a similar “hidden course” beyond dominant narratives concerning national expansion to engage in a critical negotiation with the origins of the American psyche. It will also be evident how the narrative of the backwoodsman justifies savagery and racism as pre-conditions for such expansion. The figure of the backwoodsman must therefore be disavowed by the nation, as he represents a comparable paradox to that which afflicts Ahab, in his renunciation of civilisation and his obsession with destroying the whale as a symbol of savagery and untamed nature. Those narrative silences described by Morrison concerning literary representations of African Americans are then also present within nineteenth-century fictions and discourses regarding the history of national expansion and establishment, which Melville unravels in Moredock’s tale with respect to its acting out characteristics.


National Narratives of Confidence and the Issue of Trust in the Indian-Hating Episode of The Confidence-Man

Drawing on the concepts relating to repression, haunting, and national memory outlined by Khanna, in this section I will delineate how The Confidence-Man interrogates the ego-ideal of the nation, namely its idealised narrative of “self” and how this is compromised by historical memories of Indian removal towards which it gestures. Therefore, these allusions to the realities of Indian removal highlight the fact that they are repressed within the national psyche, and through satire, the novel, rather than bolstering this repression, instead implicitly allows it to unravel. In this way The Confidence-Man mourns the loss of the national ideal as opposed to constantly trying to retrieve it in a process of melancholic critical agency.

The project of Indian removal was ongoing during the time that Melville decided to write about a society that disguised its avariciousness under the mask of civility. The Indian-killer personifies the true nature of such a society as is indicated at the start of the text: “in new countries, where the wolves are killed off, foxes increase” (4). The backwoodsman advances the interests of American civilisation on the distant frontier, such that it can maintain its façade of innocence pertaining to the atrocities committed under its name. As a spokesman for this civilisation, the Judge attempts to disguise the motivations for Indian-killing by providing a distorted account of history. The novel establishes a direct link between inauthenticity in 1850s America and the establishment of the State through Indian displacement. Consequently, Indian-killing is not only symptomatic of a lack of morality in society but also demonstrates how that society has come to be what it is. Its hypocrisy and corruption are implied to derive from its refusal to engage with the moral implications of its dealings with the Indian through the invocation of legitimating discourses. Indian-hating is neither explicitly sanctioned nor condemned due to the text’s strategies of obfuscation. However, along with the comical, grotesque, and satirical undertones of the Judge’s account, the reader is implicitly encouraged to reach his or her own conclusion and this conclusion is weighted towards distrust in the American state. [4]

In view of the constant battle between trust and distrust that takes place throughout The Confidence-Man, Melville does his utmost to shake our confidence in the Judge’s account. For example, it is suggested that Noble may be another type of confidence-man to his counterpart, Francis Goodman. This is indicated with his salesman-like introduction to the story and nebulous appearance, which makes him perfectly placed to be a shape shifter. He is “neither tall nor stout, neither short nor gaunt; but with a body, fitted, as by measure, to the service of his mind” (139). However, although he advocates for the banishment of Satan and his minions, the children of the forest, Noble’s underlying demonic character attests to the darker aspects of American history. Thus, while his clothes may display “the fineness of the nap,” his skin is described as “something the reverse of fine” (139). As with the nation, there is a discrepancy between the appearance Noble projects and his true nature.

It could not be fairly said that his appearance was unprepossessing; indeed, to the congenial, it would have been doubtless not uncongenial; while to others, it could not fail to be at least curiously interesting, from the warm air of florid cordiality, contrasting itself with one knows not what kind of aguish sallowness of saving discretion darkening behind it. (140)

His outward cordiality is associated with a sense of sickness and falsity, which is indicated by the fact that the word “florid” has a double meaning in that it may either refer to an over-elaborate display or ruddy complexion. The sense that his amiability is sweetly sickening is reinforced by the following reference to his “sallowness.” The analogy with the State in terms of false appearances is further supported as Noble is the primary exponent of America’s legitimating doctrine, namely civilisational expansion under a militaristic ethos. Another hint as to whether Noble may be a facet of the confidence-man can be identified in his surname which is mirrored by the Cosmopolitan’s. In effect, we have a “noble” man who attempts to convince a “good man” to subscribe to the view of Indian-hating. Conversely, the “good man” persuades his “noble” counterpart to embrace universal humanitarianism. However, each position is inferred to be neither “good” nor “noble.” In this scenario, falseness constitutes the axiomatic condition that informs existential experience aboard the Fidèle. Melville suggests that there is no way out of the masquerade as far as authentic social relations are concerned.

Roy Harvey Pearce argues that in contrast to Judge Hall and his contemporaries, who attempted to justify the terror and isolation of Indian-hating via the rhetoric of progressive civilisational expansion, Melville focuses solely on its terror and loneliness: “We are moved from the commonplace, quietly ordered, straightforward narrative of the Hall of the Sketches to the flamboyantly eruptive rhetoric of the pseudo-Hall of The Confidence-Man” (Pearce, “Melville’s Indian-Hater” 946). Melville presents the Indian-hater and Hall in a grotesque light to illuminate the terrors that inhere in instances of unadulterated hatred. During the Moredock section, Melville closely follows Hall’s sketches and makes alterations to emphasise the palpability of Moredock’s actions. [5] The novel therefore reinterprets an actual historical source to convey a specific political critique of the nation regarding the idea that its history is fabricated, which in turn links with the theme of the disparity between projected and interior forms of the national self.

Whereas Moredock’s mother is widowed on several occasions by the Indians in the actual Hall’s account, it is stated that she lost husbands on three occasions to the Indian’s tomahawk in The Confidence-Man. Moreover, Melville implies a more gruesome version of the family massacre in comparison to The Sketches. For example, Pearce states that in Hall’s account, Moredock “was just entering upon the years of manhood, when he was thus left in a strange land, the sole survivor of his race. He resolved upon executing vengeance, and immediately took measures to discover the actual perpetrators of the massacre” (247). By contrast, Melville’s Hall states:

He was just entering upon manhood, when thus left in nature sole survivor of his race. Other youngsters might have turned mourners; he turned avenger. His nerves were electric wires-sensitive, but steel . . . . As the tidings were told him, after the first start he kept on eating, but slowly and deliberately, chewing the wild news with the wild meat; as if both together, turned to chyle, together would sinew him to his intent. From that meal he rose an Indian-hater (153).

Melville’s judge also compares Indians to a “gang of Cains,” a rhetorical flourish which is absent in Hall’s account (153). Melville’s focus on the violent dimension of the Indian-hater genre could be described as an attempt to broach its underlying historical realities. However, as discussed, the Judge narrates Moredock’s story in a highly stylised manner that encompasses myth, the grotesque, and the burlesque. We never get a glimpse of the real Moredock as his mythological self is all that we are allowed to see. If the Judge were to document the real Moredock’s exploits in a detailed and palpable fashion, he would summon horrifically sublime memories of what was involved in Indian extermination and removal that would otherwise be repressed within the national psyche. This would in turn jeopardise the moral legitimacy of his interpretation of history, intended to bolster the American state’s projected narrative of self as a civilised institution. The fictional Hall’s account of Moredock is also informed by rumour, repetition, and rhetoric. As Noble points out himself, he can “render” “upon a pinch . . . the judge upon the colonel almost word for word” (142). Additionally, his advocacy for the “nobility” of Indian-hating is later cast into doubt when, in comparing himself to Polonius, he states that he is “paralytic all down one side, and that the side of nobleness” (173).

Ramsey states that Melville’s depiction of Mocmohoc draws upon burlesque representations of Indians in theatre (231). In the Judge’s account, five cousins, namely the Wrights and Weavers, draft a covenant with Mocmohoc to protect themselves with the following provision: that they should never “on any account, be expected to enter the chief’s lodge together” (148). Nonetheless, Mocmohoc eventually wins their trust through his affected friendliness. The five cousins enter the chief’s lodge for a feast, where they are slaughtered. Mocmohoc ironically outwits the white man at his own game regarding treaty violations, as in strictly legal terms he is innocent while his victims have been executed for breaking the contract. Mocmohoc’s exaggerated theatricality and reference to himself in the third person emphasises the dark humour of the story: “Treachery? Pale face! ’Twas they who broke it first, in trusting Mocmohoc” (148). Embedded in his very name is a coded reference to the Mohawks if we divide it into two parts, thereby yielding Moc-Mohoc or mock Mohawk. In this tale, Melville satirises the legislative structure that serves the interests of the American status quo. He provides a mirror to the violence of that structure in presenting an ironic case, whereby Mocmohoc wields the law against the cousins who would normally be its architects or beneficiaries. [6]

In relation to Ramsey’s assertion that the reader is invited to perform a self-appraisal of his or her own morality within the Mocmohoc section, it is arguable that Melville’s novel also suggests true evil to reside in the false appearances adopted by characters like Mocmohoc (235). Thus, in a broader sense, the nation’s moral corruption is again associated with the ‘evil’ that inheres in the ‘sin’ of deceit, something engendered by the masquerade, which is personified in the archetype of the confidence-man as Satan. Confidence becomes the currency by which one can purchase the souls and destinies of the gullible and the corrupt. When transposed to a political context, the very discourses that the State employs to win the confidence of its subjects, such as Manifest Destiny, Indian-hating, and civilisational progress, are painted in a similar diabolical light. It may therefore be argued that Melville seeks to reclaim the American ‘soul’ from such a social malaise of hypocrisy, though it would seem doomed to failure in the context of the novel. In the absence of any kind of ideal, the author works through the historical factors and repressive cultural discourses of frontier colonisation, which still inform the ideological precepts of 1850s American society.

The use of Indian burlesque is echoed in the circulation of Indian artefacts aboard the ship. Cohen argues that it is significant that artefacts such as a calumet are empty vessels which the white passengers fill as they desire, as they suggest that the whites are projecting their fantasies of what Indians should be (167-68). For example, prior to narrating the tale of Moredock, the Cosmopolitan ironically interjects with the following: “One moment . . . and let me refill my calumet” (151). This contravenes the premise of the chapter on the “metaphysics of Indian-hating,” which holds that proponents are knowledgeable about the innate characteristics of Indians. In addition, that the voyagers consume the contents held by these artefacts suggests that they are savouring the flavour of their fraudulent conceptions of Indian culture. The abundance of such artefacts also implies that the projections of the metaphysics chapter extend beyond Moredock’s tale to the attitudes of the passengers, as indicated in their consumptive patterns. This is reinforced when we recall the incomplete information we have about Indian-hating courtesy of the mediated, diluted Indian-hater. Noble admits that very little can be gleaned from the occupation of the Indian-hater par excellence who vanishes into the “forest primeval” (149). The implication is that knowledge of Indians and Indian-hating exists outside the realms of recorded, history, and therefore these gaps must be filled with mostly invented knowledge, informed by whatever we can “surmise, however inadequate” from the return of the diluted Indian-hater to civilisation (150-51). The calumets scene in The Confidence-Man can be seen as a critical lens on the disingenuousness of formulations of American identity and imaginings of the national past. This particularly relates to the Indian as the historical events involved in his removal and eventual assimilation yield the most potent memories of violent displacement and forced incorporation that threaten the stability of the nineteenth-century American psyche. Effectively, this particular episode highlights the idea that the nation’s history is a projection of its desires, which serves to repress an alternate past that would otherwise jeopardise its legitimacy.

The one-sidedness of Judge Hall’s account reflects Melville’s association of unfettered confidence with the blind acceptance of discursive, ideological precepts. The Judge notes that those of a more sympathetic disposition would be forgiven for thinking that the backwoodsman is excessively severe in considering the Indian in “every evil light” and in comparing him to a “horse-thief like those in Moyamensing . . . an assassin like a New York rowdy . . . a judicial murderer and Jeffries, after a fierce farce of trial condemning his victim to bloody death” and so forth (146). While he may provide a seemingly detached analysis of the backwoodsman through his use of legal diction, his argument implies the same conclusion about Indian villainy. Despite the fact that he attributes them to the backwoodsman, the sheer number of the comparisons he lists between Indians and villainous figures implies that they are irredeemable. As a representative of the State, he implicates national interests in Indian-hating through this barrage of analogies and in the conclusion he reaches, which strongly suggests that the Indian is ultimately evil. This is evident when he discusses the story of Mocmohoc’s deception of the Wrights and Weavers and in his reference to Indian Christians who will testify to the “depravity” of their race though they themselves may be “the arrantest horse-thieves and tomahawkers among them” (147). Again, what is clear from the Judge’s outwardly non-committal stance is that the State is invested in violent Indian removal, despite maintaining a distance from it to preserve its moral integrity.

The Judge as an historian seeks to erase the true history of Indian removal, yet his authority is undermined through irony. The principles of law, justice, and state authority, which may be affixed to the Judge, are not only irrelevant in the market economy of the Fidèle; they are suggested to serve as hollow values that are not practiced yet which legitimate the interests of a nation fixated with profit from its very outset. Melville draws upon Indian-hating to show that the nation was morally bankrupt from the beginning despite the ideological precedents that attended its foundation. Therefore, the authority of the State and its founders is undermined through the Judge’s account.

The Cosmopolitan, not surprisingly, responds with disbelief when Noble finishes his version of the Judge’s account of Moredock: “That story strikes me with even more incredulity than wonder . . . . As for this Indian-hating in general, I can only say of it what Dr. Johnson said of the alleged Lisbon earthquake: ‘Sir, I don’t believe it’” (157). The Cosmopolitan’s dismissal of Moredock’s reality is undermined by the fact that the Lisbon earthquake actually occurred. In a postcolonial psychoanalytic frame, his rejection of the story is a reflection of America’s disavowal of the grotesque dimension of its expansionism, which threatens its narrative of national identity. However, such a renunciation merely gives new life to this buried past, which may be seen in the compromised denial of Colonel Moredock’s reality.

Adler claims that Moredock represents the idea of “sinning by deputy” (421). This theme is raised in Chapter Seven of The Confidence-Man regarding a wealthy individual who wears a white kid glove on one hand with the other described as being almost white. Melville highlights that the rich man’s hands are exceptional for their spotlessness upon the soot-streaked deck of the Fidèle. However, he avoids touching anything himself and has a black servant to touch things for him. In this parallel, Moredock works as a legitimating symbol for American expansionist policies. He may be considered to parody the logic of proxy that informs the creation of a character like Nathan Slaughter in Bird’s novel, who advances the interests of civilisation through battles of annihilation on the frontier yet remains isolated in the wilderness, since what he represents is irreconcilable to the nation’s ego-ideal.

Adler states that there are links between Moredock’s role and the New England mystic philosopher, Mark Winsome (421). In the novel, Winsome maintains his virtuous outward appearance through his deputy, Egbert, who executes mercantile endeavours on his behalf. Winsome’s reference to Egbert’s involvement in slavery underscores how the relative affluence that allows him to be a transcendentalist philosopher is dependent upon his disciple’s involvement in exploitative industries. As with Winsome, who provides his practical disciple with justifications for ignoble deeds, the Judge as historian invokes historical rationales for Indian-killing, describing it as vengeance and refusing to engage with the factors underpinning it. Moreover, Winsome in conversation with the confidence-man expresses his wish to be like a snake, with the ability to kill without responsibility, knowledge, or conscience:

When charmed by the beauty of that viper, did it never occur to you to change personalities with him? to feel what it was to be a snake? to glide unsuspected in grass? to sting, to kill at a touch; your whole beautiful body one iridescent scabbard of death? In short, did the wish never occur to you to feel yourself exempt from knowledge, and conscience, and revel for a while in the carefree, joyous life of a perfectly instinctive, unscrupulous, and irresponsible creature? (170)

The Moredock section epitomises this wish in that it is an allegory for American civilisation, which preserves an outer veneer of justification despite the underlying atrocities that accompany its territorial conquests. In other words, it seeks to deny knowledge of its actions and remain ‘iridescent’ even though it advances its interests through the ‘scabbard’. The national psyche sells a validating narrative to itself that masks historical realities.

Moredock’s symbolic personification of the nation’s double position regarding its civilisational ideals and imperialist policies is further evident when he refuses the governorship of Illinois. In the actual Hall’s account, “Colonel Moredock was a member of the legislative council of the territory of Illinois, and at the formation of the state government, was spoken of as a candidate for the office of governor, but refused to permit his name to be used” (82). Melville modifies the actual Hall’s words whilst retaining his direct reference to the governmental apparatus of the State to suggest that the practice of Indian-killing is something of a dirty secret within the annals of American history: “And even did no such contingency arise, yet he felt there would be an impropriety with the Governor of Illinois stealing out now and then, during a recess of the legislative bodies, for a few day’s shooting at human beings, within the limits of his paternal chief magistracy” (159). Thus, Moredock’s pastime is described as an “impropriety” that involves shooting at other “human beings.” Here we are presented with the suggestion that Indian-hating and violent national expansion are amoral activities involving the elimination not of satanic creatures but of humans who have as much a claim to their territory as the State that seeks to deprive them of it. Melville indicates that Indian removal constitutes a chapter in American history that the nation would prefer to excuse through deceptive rationalisations such as civilisational progress, which perform repressive functions in reconceiving historical memories associated with territorial conquest. This relates to the aforementioned theme of sinning by deputy that is reinforced through Moredock’s refusal of the governorship. Although he advances his nation’s interests, he cannot officially represent it as to do so would implicate it in its own crimes.

The Judge also admits that the Indian-hater is an enigmatic figure: “How evident that in strict speech there can be no biography of an Indian-hater par excellence, any more than one of a sword-fish, or other deep-sea denizen; or, which is still less imaginable, one of a dead man” (150). In this removal from knowledge Melville implies the dissociative effect of the Indian-hater narrative within the American psyche. The Indian-hater par excellence renounces his life within civilised society. He metaphorically dies, becoming an undead misanthrope, indifferent to earthly distractions, so that he can carry out his mission as a non-person that indirectly advances the interests of American civilisation: “With the solemnity of a Spaniard turned monk, he takes leave of his kin; or rather, these leave-takings have something of the still more impressive finality of death–bed adieus” (149). Thus, we can see how the Judge’s description links to the theme of appearances in the novel. The Indian-hater par excellence represents the principle of American domestic imperial conquest associated with economic interests. However, the grotesque and excessively violent outcomes that principle entails are incompatible with the nation’s civilised exterior. Hence, the Indian-hater par excellence is relocated outside the bounds of American society. This reinforces the legitimating function of the Indian-hater narrative that operates through repression and revisionism. Melville self-consciously reveals how the American psyche compartmentalises aspects of its history to preserve its ego-ideal.

Furthermore, the Indian-hater is a haunting figure. He will continue to plague the American consciousness even though he is likely to become an historical relic, as indicated in Noble’s following lines: “And Indian-hating still exists; and, no doubt, will continue to exist, so long as Indians do” (142). The Indian will therefore continue to point to the genocidal brutality committed upon his race by that “vanguard of American civilisation” the Indian-hater. Indian-hating is almost characterised by Melville as a perpetual acting-out, a cyclical practice for the legitimation of American expansion, which is further supported when we consider that the tale of Colonel Moredock is repeated again and again to Noble by the Judge who regales the yarn in “every company”: “I heard his history again and again from my father’s friend, James Hall, the judge, you know” (142). Noble recounting the tale to Goodman also evokes this cyclical aspect. The Indian-hater as a recurrent figure, indicates that the historical memories of Indian genocide and displacement are inassimilable for the American psyche’s self-image without being perpetually repressed through this narrative. The repression of an alternate history and perspective is paramount if American national identity is to be secured, and this generates the cyclical pattern described in Melville’s text, where historical erasure summons haunting signifiers that require the reinscription of rationalisations, revisionism, appeals to ideology, and so on.



In conclusion, the Indian-hater section of The Confidence-Man encapsulates the central purpose of Melville’s novel to expose forms of corruption and hypocrisy at a national level. A devastating sense of futility regarding any ideal, objectivity, or hope for the future is conveyed through the novel’s depiction of endless masquerade. The Indian-hating segment is symbolically located in the middle of the novel, and as a fraudulent narrative, it constitutes the hub for a web of other allegorical tales that comprise the text, such as Chapter Seven’s man with spotless hands and Mark Winsome’s business association with Egbert. With its myriad of qualifications, paradoxes, and swindles, it seems that the narrative world of the Fidèle is mired in a fog of confusion that dissuades the location of meaning. As mentioned, falsity appears to be an axiomatic condition in The Confidence-Man. However, it is precisely in the repetition of this theme of the confidence trick that I propose that Melville’s novel possesses clarity of purpose in exposing the disingenuousness of the American state as a political and civil institution, founded upon bloodshed and the oppression of non-White racial Others.

Through a postcolonial psychoanalytic framing we can identify how The Confidence-Man provides an interrogation of an emerging American national consciousness during the nineteenth century, which was beset by the spectres of Native expropriation and genocide. By approaching the historical revisionism of the Judge’s account in terms that relate the political-historical to the psychical, it can be seen not only as an historically revisionist account but as a symptom of the American psyche’s desire to mask a history that would unravel the legitimacy of the State. Melville presents us with a caricature of Judge Hall and in doing so foregrounds how seemingly “rational” and “objective” historical accounts are informed by discourses that are entirely artificial and dubious in seeking to justify state expansion. With Morrison’s discussion on narrative aporias within American nineteenth-century literature in mind, the masquerade as political allegory in this reading reflects upon the desire of the national consciousness to banish the inassimilable elements of its history through symbols of disavowal such as the Indian-hater.

Instead of providing a definite and overt political message, Melville weaves a complex symbolist satire, which ultimately leaves the questions it poses to be answered by the reader. In the Judge’s account, Melville suggests that an alternate history exists, but it is one too horrific for the American ego-ideal to be articulated. Forgoing any attempt to win the confidence of his audience, Melville allows them free rein to decide for themselves what kind of history and future they wish to construct. Although he rehearses the Indian-hater narrative, he does not replicate its doctrinal and repressive functions, instead offering both satire and a field open to interpretation. Here the task of fashioning a recuperative national model would be to draw from a poisoned well of history. Thus, in refusing to offer an ideal that the reader can place his confidence in, Melville works through the historical ghosts that plague the national psyche. This outcome is achieved by ironic inversions in the text in conjunction with the use of burlesque conventions, irony, and unreliable narrators. The nation’s victims, its oppressed spectres, are acknowledged rather than repressed through a nihilistic acceptance of the American state’s unsalvageable corruption.



[1] The use of the term “national psyche” or “American consciousness” means the emergence of a complex, mass pattern—constituted by various discourses, forms of power, cultural production, and so on—that influences literary texts, which in turn contribute to its development. This pattern can be read as analogous to the individual psyche in the sense that psychoanalytic concepts offer tools for understanding its processes and meanings. The national consciousness is of course a contentious idea. For example, Frederick Hertz states that a national consciousness encompasses “many strands and variations, extending from a subconscious, latent state of mind to a clear-cut ideology. It greatly varies both in nations and in individuals, and the definition that nations possess it does not mean that all individuals belonging to a nation have it to a large degree, or at all” (15). However, in this article, the term is not used in a strictly sociological sense but in a cultural one as it relates to national fiction vis-à-vis the interrelations between politics, history, and culture, which may be characterised broadly in terms of a developing national identity and, as Hertz puts it, the “Spirit of the Time” (412).

[2] Khanna defines Freud’s theorisation of the ego-ideal as the direction of energies associated with identity creation towards the values of parents or the collective. Her following summation is useful to consider: “the ego-ideal is an agency or personality that is a combination of narcissism (ego-cathexis—idealization of the ego) and identification with the parents, their substitutes, or their collective values” (262).

[3] For Freud, melancholia is akin to mourning in its form and symptoms. However, in contrast to mourning, it is persistent. Sam Durrant argues that the endless repetition compulsion characterising mourning and melancholia creates a crisis for Freud in formulating a theory of the instincts. Melancholia appears to subvert the idea of the pleasure principle and an organism’s will to survive in its fixation with painful experiences. In psychoanalytic terms, mourning is distinguished from melancholia by virtue of its intent (9-10).

[4] This reading of Melville as an author who critiques such discourses is substantiated when we turn to his other works. Adler points out that in John Marr (1888) he mentions the prairie with its “remnant of Indians thereabout—all but exterminated in their recent and final war with regular white troops, a war waged by the Red Men for their native soil and natural rights” (qtd. in Adler 436). Melville’s sympathetic view of Indians is further evident when we consider his objection to Francis Parkman’s contempt for the Indian in his review of The Oregon Trail for the 1849 fourth volume of Literary World: “We are all of us—Anglo Saxons, Dyaks, and Indians—sprung from one head, and made in one image . . . . The savage is born a savage; and the civilised being but inherits his civilisation, nothing more” (qtd. in Pearce, “Melville’s Indian-Hater” 943). Although he expresses the nineteenth-century distinction between savage and civilised, he does not view such qualities as inherent but instead as products of culture.

[5] It is evident that Melville’s caricature of Hall as an extreme figure is misleading and in keeping with the spirit of the novel. Pearce notes Hall’s argument in Intercourse of the American People with the Indians (1835) that American-Indian relations were characterised by misunderstandings and mistreatment. The nominal recognition of Indian tribes as sovereign nations by the European powers led to encroachment that resulted in what Hall describes as savage warfare and barbarism. According to Pearce, Hall poses the question of how to civilise Indians in terms of binaries such as hunting versus farming, culture, and the benefits of private land tenure. Hall suggested that Native Americans could be “civilised” with the introduction of personal security and permanent habitations (Pearce, Savagism and Civilisation 71). In relation to Morrison’s reading of whiteness as an ideology, it is arguable that Melville satirises such presumed “rationality” and “impartiality” under the banner of civilisation, in highlighting the violence such “civilising” projects entailed through his bloodthirsty caricature of Hall.

[6] Mocmohoc’s use of the law against the Wrights and Weavers is paralleled by Goneril’s suit against her husband John Ringman. In Goneril’s tale, traditional male authority is overturned by a coalition of the oppressed, in this case women and Indians. Goneril as an Indian woman symbolically embodies a union of such interests.


Works Cited

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Image credit: “Manuscript fragment from Chapter 14 of The Confidence-Man (1857) from bMS Am 188 (365), Houghton Library, Harvard University, is in the public domain of the United States.