Confidence Man'>

The Metafiction of Melville's Confidence Man

Atkins, Scott Eric , Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia

This project will involve a number of stages in adapting Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man to hypertext format. The first of these is to digitize, spell-check, and edit the entire text of the first American edition--the 1857 Dix, Edwards, & Co. This phase has already been completed, its emendations checked against those of the five critical editions listed below. From here I will establish a set of annotations, a single file of notes linkable from the passage to which it refers, and available on its own as a feature of a hypertext appendix. The appendix will then include the annotations, along with manuscript fragments, illustrations, reviews, a chronology, and relevant background material, such as excerpts from James Hall's Sketches of History, Life, and Manners, in the West, from news accounts of the historical `Confidence Man,' from Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad." Both notes and appendix will work to establish a basic historical context for The Confidence-Man, filling interpretive gaps for contemporary readers by explicating what in Melville's society would not have required elaboration-- Biblical allusions, references to historical or political figures and situations, uses of popular literature of the time. Beyond this, I will embed within the text a series of codes that enable the text to be searched thematically. The categories chosen will reflect the interpretive approach set forward in the introduction (described below), and will involve considerations of narrative and metafiction, genre, language, and textuality. This will help extend the critical argument into the text, by inviting the reader to engage more actively its perspective toward the novel.

The primary critical component of this project will then be in the essay that comprises an introduction to this edition. The introduction will begin by briefly outlining the history of critical reception to the novel--from initial confusion and indifference, to later views of it as "posthumous" or an "abortion," to more current understandings of it as one of Melville's most accomplished works. From here I will argue my own critical approach, that a distinctive feature of the novel is its metafictional quality. I will concentrate on the self-referential style that is evinced in the three narrative interpolations (Chps. 14, 33, 44) and in the uses of the story-within-the-story. I will examine the rhetorical ambiguities revealed in Melville's writing. I will focus on how genre is employed and manipulated throughout the novel, and on how all of these features emphasize Melville's underlying argument that, for a cognitive subject in a world of indeterminacies, everything is textual. All of this will lead to a reading of The Confidence-Man that stresses the act of reading itself--reading as interpreting, an uneasy balancing-act of knowing and intuiting that, for all its humor, manifests the epistemological "seriousness" of a communication without definite resolution. This idea of a lack of resolution will then provide the departure for the last component of the essay: a treatment of its specific relevance to the medium of hypertext. The open-endedness of this text, its genric changeability, its periodic and often seemingly non-linear quality--all, I will argue, recommend it to the fluid and tangential mode of text that can "link" from any point to any related point. And perhaps more importantly for a book that so forcefully argues the activity of reading and interpreting, is the increasingly interactive process that hypertext offers; The Confidence-Man is nothing if not a text that engages its reader.  

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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