When my friend Louis hears of a book about to be published, he goes online and puts a hold on it at his public library.
That’s a step ahead of my habit. My local library has a “New Books” display in its lobby that I veer right toward, always finding at least one appealing title.
Today, however, I went online looking for a specific edition of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade published in 1857—on April Fools’ Day to be exact.
What filled my screen was a book of the same title published just last month: Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.
Call it inevitable: Ever since the Calf of Babel descended the golden escalator in his own tower in 2015, he has gained comparisons to characters created by Herman Melville over a century and a half ago.
A bitter and bemusing irony cannot be lost on Melville fans recalling that the author of Moby-Dick and “Bartleby the Scrivener” died in obscurity in 1891, all his books long out of print.
So estranged was he to public life that he ordered a tombstone with a blank scroll for his final resting place. A middle finger to the world? A white flag?
Not until the Roaring 20s did an admiring grad student write a biography that set off “The Melville Revival.” Not sure if this has lasted into the 21st Century, but at the time I left teaching in 2002, several of his titles were still staples of school curricula—“Bartleby,” “Benito Cereno,” and Billy Budd.
Wouldn’t surprise me if college teachers, for the sake of immediate relevance, added Melville to their reading lists soon after the “American Carnage” inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2017.
Or high school teachers if they have anything that can honestly be called academic freedom, as this is the stuff that those who harp on “Woke Culture” do not want young people to hear.
Most everyone I know agrees that there was no redeeming quality to the Trump Administration. A few exceptions will cite his business deregulations, overlooking consequences to the environment, to workers, to consumers.
As I’ve started telling these folks, it’s a bit like crediting cancer as a weight-loss program.
However, for us Melvillians, maybe there is a redeeming quality if we take some consolation in a second revival for our guy.
A character who is part of American mythology and known even to those who haven’t read the book, Moby-Dick‘s Ahab was cited from the start of the MAGA campaign all the way to this month’s election.
Trump’s claim that he “could shoot someone” echoed Ahab’s “strike the sun” boast, and in reference to Trumper Kari Lake’s refusal to accept defeat, Nicole Wallace of MSNBC quipped that “Arizona is Donald Trump’s white whale.”
Between those were essays in several publications. Under the headline, “What Melville Can Teach Us about the Trump Era,” Ariel Dorfman of The Nation tells us that:
Melville could have been presciently forecasting today’s America when he imagined his country as a Mississippi steamer (ironically called the Fidèle) filled with “a flock of fools, under this captain of fools, in this ship of fools!”
So, yes, it was inevitable that a book with a Melville title would describe him. And it’s no surprise that a large chunk of the promo for Haberman’s book applies just as much to Melville’s:
The through-line… is the enduring question of what is in it for him or what he needs to say to survive short increments of time in the pursuit of his own interests. Confidence Man is also, inevitably, about the world that produced such a singular character, giving rise to his career and becoming his first stage.
As you might guess, I put a hold on the new Confidence Man and am now awaiting its arrival in any of the 36 members of the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium.
But I won’t be holding my breath. According to the MVLC website, mine is the 166th hold on just 36 copies—one for each library—none of which have yet arrived here in the northeast corner of Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, I’ll content myself with Melville’s trip down the Mississip, grateful to him for limiting it to a single day—April Fools’ no less—while bracing myself for the seven-year-and-counting ordeal outlined by Haberman.
By that time, Louis might be able to tell me all about it.