The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade
What do Jamie Dimon, P.T. Barnum, and Ralph Waldo Emerson have in common? Each have become exemplary figures in the story of American confidence—men of a type whose subtle, shape-shifting outlines are drawn in Herman Melville’s last published work that could be described as a novel, The Confidence-Man.
For centuries, artists have depicted religious stories and mythic figures that connected their art to the cultures in which they worked. During the Renaissance, almost all subjects for painting came from the bible. Like many contemporary artists, I have wondered what it would be like to paint stories that have a similar, if not exactly religious, place in our own collective imagination. Melville has been one of my favorite writers since I first read Bartleby and Moby Dick in my twenties. When I began to explore this project and discovered that he had written The Confidence-Man in Pittsfield as a parting shot in his failing career as an author, and that it plunges in to the often-made claim that money is America’s true religion, I was transfixed. The Confidence-Man reads like some lost American Book of Genesis adapted by Kafka and Beckett for a movie starring W.C. Fields. Full of enigmatic characters and strange talk, the book has a magical, archaic theatricality that, for me, rattles out across its pre-Civil War Mississippi setting to shake hands with post-2008, Anywhere, USA.
I have not attempted to illustrate The Confidence-Man. The book is too slippery for that. Instead I’ve produced a rogue’s gallery of portraits—questionable characters with no fixed address—and a series of drawings of hands that gesture to relations of “confidence.” In Melville’s book, nothing is as it appears. Which is actually sort of convenient for me, since when I am painting, I really have no idea what is going to appear from one minute to the next. A similar feeling of not-knowing attends anyone reading The Confidence–Man, where the writing itself becomes a kind of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t shell game, enacting—as opposed to describing—its subject.