Melville's Debt to Milton: Inverted Satanic Morphology and Rhetoric in the Confidence-Man

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On September 7, 1855, a physically ill and professionally frustrated Herman Melville found himself attending a costume picnic where his family, friends, and neighbors assumed fantastic identities and sported exotic costumes. His wife appeared as "Cypherina Do-nothing," his son Malcolm assumed the role of "Jack the Giant Killer," and many of his friends and neighbors appeared as Indian squaws, Friars of the Orders Grey, and other such characters (Leyda, Melville Log 507). Shortly thereafter, Melville wrote the following lines as he was developing the manuscript for what would become The Confidence-Man: "Life is a pic-nic en costume; one must take a part, assume a character, stand ready in a sensible way to play the fool" (Confidence-Man 133). Melville places these words in the mouth of the Cosmopolitan, the final avatar of the protean protagonist in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857).

The "Confidence Man" as a character is clearly something of an allegory; he is a character involved in a continuous masquerade seeking to deceive whom he may in his numerous guises. The wide array of representative characters Melville presents on board the Mississippi steamer Fidele (upon which the entire story takes place) is reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Celestial Railroad" in terms of the proliferation of symbol and allegory. Hawthorne's diabolical Mr. Smooth-it-away is easily interpreted as a Satan figure; in like fashion Melville cloaks his protean hero with infernal, serpentine, and satanic imagery. Several generations of Melville's critics have explored the demonic and satanic dimensions of the Confidence-Man's character. (1) While numerous critics have capably identified Milton's Satan as a source from which Melville drew while composing The Confidence-Man, the particularly nuanced intertextual relationship between the protean protagonist of Melville's "problem novel" and Milton's Satan invites a much closer examination than any offered thus far. Melville had a singular admiration for Milton as a poet and creative genius, and I argue the relationship between the respective protagonists of Melville's final novel and Milton's timeless epic, Paradise Lost, is one of close intertextual reinterpretation. (2)

This essay will explore not only the Satanic and serpentine imagery surrounding this quintessential con-man in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade; it specifically explores the relationship between the Miltonic Satan and the "Confidence-Man." The literary debt owed Milton is significant, running much deeper than mere allusion and surface similarity. The "Confidence-Man" is an inverted extension of his Miltonic counterpart. In two key elements, morphology and rhetoric, Melville presents a very deliberate parallel of inverse proportion between his character and Milton's Satan. In chapter forty-four of The Confidence-Man, Melville directly compares the novel's swindling titular protagonist (the con-man himself) with Milton's Satan, claiming each is "quite an original" in the aesthetic and fictional sense. This is no passing reference, but rather an hermeneutical clue to unmasking the infernal inspiration and identity of Melville's protean protagonist. By constructing a familiar yet ambiguous satanic hero derived in large part from Milton's Satan, Melville at least partially intended his "Masquerade" to be a post-lapsarian commentary upon an inverted Eden defined by the darker aspects of humanity's "fall from Paradise."

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That Melville was well acquainted with Milton is beyond question. Milton's Paradise Lost was a common resource and learning tool utilized in teaching school children in America from the eighteenth century onward. The great English poet's masterpiece was well suited to America's Puritan theological, aesthetic, and linguistic sensibilities, often being read side by side with the Bible.

From an early age, the pleasures of reading Milton were not denied the young Herman Melville. …