The Confidence-Man (1857)

"The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel — Melville’s last — that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam’”. So wrote the author Philip Roth in a recent email exchange with the New Yorker. Published on the day it is set, April Fool's Day 1857, The Confidence-Man concerns a group of passengers travelling the Mississippi by steamboat (aptly named the Fidèle) and their various onboard encounters with an enigmatic conman figure (who appears throughout in a variety of disguises). Poorly received at the time of its first publication, The Confidence-Man was indeed Melville's last novel — he would thereafter turn to poetry and resumed prose fiction only much later in 1885 with the commencement of the unfinished Billy Budd, Sailor. Though largely misunderstood in the mid-19th century, the novel and its central message — that the art of the con lies at the heart of American society — began to garner more appreciation and salience as the decades rolled on. Orson Welles was said to have wanted to make it his first film, before eventually settling for Citizen Kane (another story relevant for Trump perhaps). With recent developments in politics in the US and beyond, Melville's tale is overdue a revisit.

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