Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Tom Sawyer Impersonates "The Original Confidence Man"

Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Tom Sawyer Impersonates "The Original Confidence Man"

Article excerpt

All those who have published on the topic of confidence men in American literature have been in agreement on two formative authors: Herman Melville and Mark Twain.1 This consensus is somewhat surprising, considering the term and its derivatives appear infrequently in their works. In Melville's case, this scarcity is emphatic. The "confidence-man" is mentioned only once in the body of his 1857 novel, The Confidence-Man, though the title suggests his omnipresence, and Melville supports this suggestion with a series of allusions to the figure's invention and development. This is less apparently true ofTwain. To my knowledge, Twain never actually uses the term. Perhaps, like Melville, he believed the name contributed to an erosion of public confidence, helping to create a culture of pervasive paranoia which was politically and economically stultifying. Whatever his rationale, Twain's avoidance of confidence man must have been intentional, because, as he reveals in the finale of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), he was cognizant of the term's origins and its appropriateness to his characters.

The King and the Duke have long been identified as prototypical conmen, born of the tradition of southwestern humor to which Twain owed a great deal.2 Itinerant, boisterous, unflappable self-promoters, they are versed in many of the same swindles utilized by J. J. Hooper's Simon Suggs, Joseph Baldwin's Ovid Bolus, and in the "masquerades" of Melville's Confidence-Man.3 However, as Thomas Weaver and Merline Williams put it, "In Huckleberry Finn almost all the major characters are confidence men, with the Duke and the King serving as extreme examples."4 The Duke and the King may be "extreme," but they are hardly very successful, foiled as they are, repeatedly, by the novel's characters, frequently by using their same tactics against them. In action and introspection, it is Huck and Tom who provide the keenest insights into both the con-artist's capacity to deceive and his capacity to rationalize that deception. The novel is, in many ways, a behavioral handbook for conning, replete with impersonations, seductions, larcenies, evasions of prosecution, and thoughtful justifications of each.

Twain reveals his self-conscious engagement with the conman mythology at the moment when Tom Sawyer's talent for designing elaborate ruses is most abundantly on display. Tom conspires with Huck to preserve Huck's impersonation of Tom Sawyer. Tom introduces himself at the house of his Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas as "a stranger from Hicksville, Ohio" and he proceeds, to Huck's dismay, to "run on, and on, and on, making up stuff about Hicksville and everybody in it he could invent" (Ch. 33). Before using another classic conman tactic, employing a disguise within a disguise (as his brother, Sid), Tom identifies himself as William Thompson.

Even in 1885, few readers would have recognized this allusion to a figure of somewhat fleeting notoriety, whose infamy preceded the Civil War. During the 1850s, William Thompson came to be known as the "Original Confidence Man."5 That Twain knew this speaks both to his fascination with conmen and with the "penny press." Thompson's exploits were first described in the New York Herald in July 1849. He would become a fixture in the Herald over the next decade, as would the epithet derived from his first publicized arrest. It is unlikely the con would have survived to become a staple of American literature and cinema were it not that the Heralds authoritarian editor, James Gordon Bennett, found confidence man to be an effective term of derision. He applied it liberally, not only to conventional criminals, but to prominent financiers, politicians, rival publishers, and other public figures of whom he disapproved.

In The Confidence-Man, Melville imaginatively renders many variations upon the loose structure of the ruse for which Thompson was arrested in 1849. Using overtly Christian rhetoric, Thompson impelled his marks to trust him with their valuables-wallets, watches, etc. …

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