Thursday, April 1

April Fools

Since at least the fifteenth century this day has been observed with practical jokes and spurious news. It was one of a series of what the Medievals called the “Dismal Days” or alternatively, the “Egyptians’ Woes.” Such days were associated with the plagues of Egypt and thus were seen as seasons of woe and mourning. The word “days” in the phrase was actually an etymological tautology since the word “dismal” was actually just the English form of the Latin dies mali or “evil days.” Thus at first, “dismal” was used as a noun; only later did it become an adjective. Observed soberly and somberly, this occasion was intended to be a reminder of the consequences of rejecting the gracious beckoning of God. Mark Twain commented in his Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, “This is the one day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.”

An April Fools Novel

The number of truly masterful American writers can probably be numbered on a single hand: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain, Henry Adams, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and of course Herman Melville. Each of these authors achieved great success during their lifetimes and were mourned at their deaths--all except Melville. He died in his New York City home just over a hundred years ago at the age of seventy-two in utter obscurity--his brilliant career and voluminous writings by then, long-forgotten.

A short obituary appearing the day afterward in the New York Press recalled, "Melville had once been one of the most popular writers in the United States," but added, "The later years of his life had been so quiet that probably even his own generation has long thought him dead." Another paper in the city, the Daily Tribune, noted, "The deceased had won considerable fame as an author by the publication of a book entitled Typee, which was the account of his experience while a captive in the hands of the savages of the Marquesas Islands. This was his first and best work although he later wrote a number of other stories, which were published more for private than public circulation."

The obituaries demonstrate one of the most remarkable ironies in the history of American letters--aside from some early renown as an adventure writer, Melville was a publishing failure. During the eleven short years of his literary activity, he was either misunderstood and miscast or castigated and ignored. Even so, some of the best fiction ever produced in the English language flowed from his pen including Moby Dick, Billy Budd, Pierre, Redburn, The Piazza Tales,White-Jacket, and Omoo. By the time he had reached forty though, he had abandoned his writing in order to provide for his family.

It was not until some thirty years after his demise that academics rediscovered his genius. They marveled at the richness of his prose, the depth of his characterizations, the complexity of his symbiology, and the passion of his theology. Moby Dick in particular, was widely heralded as a genuine masterpiece, while several of his other works were made the subjects of serious critical acclaim. Soon Melville was deservedly enshrined in the pantheon of literary greatness.

Amazingly though his finest work has yet to attract the attention it deserves. The Confidence Man is a multi-layered novel of subtle intrigue and stunning mystery. Like much of his writing, the story is constructed as a kind of literary and theological puzzle. But this surprising and scintillating double-coded labyrinth--which seems to follow the thematic structure of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion--never obstructs the pace or the sense of the story. Powerful scenic images and a rip-roaring series of illusions, cons, ploys, and deceptions give the book a page-turning quality generally unknown in serious literary works. It is, in short, brilliantly conceived and passionately executed.

Taking up the great themes of the pioneer West, the story is part satire, part allegory, and part hoax, against which Melville explores the essence of America and American values. A motley cast of characters including gamblers, pilgrims, farmers, Indians, and east coast dandies, become foils for a slippery metaphysical comedy set on April Fool's Day aboard a Mississippi riverboat. It is the kind of book that haunts you for days afterwards--sudden insights will shed a new light on obscure passages at the oddest moments. The story just won't let you go.

Born in 1819, the son of a struggling merchant, Melville had an adventurous youth—serving on whaling vessels and trading ships throughout the Pacific and across the Atlantic. His literary career, such as it was, grew out of a desire to tell of those experiences. His maturity as a writer blossomed quickly and he was drawn into the high-brow literary circle that included Longfellow and Hawthorne. But his unwillingness to compromise either his style or his content to suit popular tastes doomed his commercial appeal. When he quit writing altogether in 1857, he asserted that he'd rather lay down his pen than lower his standards: "What I feel most moved to write will not pay. Yet write the other way, I cannot."

Sadly, what was true then is even more so today--as any serious writer will quickly attest. Thus, with the force of an unerring moral capunction, he put away his parchments and went to work as a customs inspector at the busy New York harbor.

That kind of uncompromising ethical conviction, readily apparent in Moby Dick, is even more evident in The Confidence Man--particularly in Stephen Matterson's painstakingly edited Penguin Classics edition. The book is an unrestrained expression of originality and verve. But it is also a forceful exertion of will against all odds erupting upon the intellectual stage with a lusty obsession for truth and resolution: "Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill. Give me Vesuvius's crater for an inkstand."

He wrote of leviathans. Indeed, he was himself a leviathan.

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