Some readers have remarked on the darkness and hopelessness of Melville's vision of America in The Confidence-Man. But for me, the novel, by its courage and audacity in confronting the great crimes of the European colonization of the Americas and the complicity and hypocrisy of Christianity in the great crime, was inspiring.

Melville's genius in using satire and irony and his dark humor filled me with happiness and hope. I was twenty years old the first time I read The Confidence-Man, and I was bound for law school where I thought I would find justice. But I had already been writing fiction since I was eighteen, and the fact that Melville's intelligence and moral vision could reach me more than one hundred years later was an early, important lesson for me about the power of fiction and the novel to transform consciousness even in the most hostile political environments.

That Melville wrote no other novels after The Confidence-Man and turned away from fiction to metaphysical poetry should not surprise us. As new knowledge about his life has emerged, especially how publisher Harper & Brothers cheated him and how Christian missionaries attacked him for exposing their crimes against indigenous people, the only wonder is that Melville did not give up fiction sooner.

Melville had the misfortune to be born at a time when the integrity of the United States and its Constitution were put to the test, only to fail miserably. These failures deeply affected Melville. With The Confidence-Man, he turned his anger into moral outrage at the shining ideals of justice and brotherhood trampled by the elected officials of the U. S. Government. While there are no politicians on Melville's riverboat, they are nevertheless represented by his con men who use the same rhetoric and ploys all politicians use.

As William Ellery Sedgwick, Elizabeth S. Foster, Nathalia Wright, and Hershel Parker have all agreed, the Indian Hater chapters are the crux of the novel. I find ample evidence in the text of The Confidence-Man and in Melville's biography to identify Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, as the chief hypocrite and con man to lead America's masses in their destruction of the only remnants of honor the United States still possessed.

Jackson's inaugural night brought out hordes of drunken supporters who had been promised jobs in exchange for supporting his election. In order to award jobs to his campaign cronies, Jackson removed 919 government officials from their positions, including the “old Major” Thomas Melvill, Herman Melville's paternal grandfather, who was removed from his position in the Boston Custom House. With Andrew Jackson's actions, the “spoils system” was inaugurated in the United States government; it would last for more than fifty years until the civil service reform in 1885. But Jackson did more than remove civil servants.

He was, to use Melville's phrase, an “Indian-hater par excellence” (NN CM 149–50) who campaigned for the presidency on his popularity as an Indian killer in the War of 1812. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Alabama, he led the slaughter of more than eight-hundred Creek Indian men, women, and children. Later, Jackson won the presidential campaign with his promise of “Indian Removal”: all tribes were to be relocated west of the Mississippi River.

Any candidate for the title of “Indian-hater par excellence” should possess at least some of the attributes of a con man and deserves to be heard in his own words. Here is what Andrew Jackson said in his inaugural address, March 4, 1829: “It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and wants which is consistent with the habits of our government and the feelings of our people” (Jackson, “First Inaugural” 180). At the time he spoke, actions for the passage of the Indian Removal Act were already underway. The removal of the Choctaw and Chickasaw people from North Carolina and Georgia was in progress when Jackson delivered his second annual message to Congress on December 6, 1830: “Toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself, or would go further in attempting to reclaim them from their wandering habits and make them a happy and prosperous people” (Jackson, “Second Annual Message” 1105). But Jackson's “sincere desire” to be “humane and considerate” toward America's Indian nations was belied by the realities of his “just and liberal policy” culminating in the infamous “Trail of Tears” march of 1832 in which thousands of native Americans were uprooted from their ancestral homes and moved west.

On three different occasions, in chapters 6, 7, and 8 of The Confidence-Man, the con man seeks contributions for a “Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum.” In fact, Andrew Jackson was the cause of a great many of these Seminole widows and orphans. According to the editor of the Norton critical edition of The Confidence-Man, “Indians … had been much in the news since the time of Melville's birth, when the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, subdued the tribe in Florida, then newly acquired by the United States” (37). Under the provisions of the Indian Removal Act, passed in 1830 during Jackson's first term, the United States in the years 1835–1842 determined to move the Seminoles from Florida west to “Indian territory,” which eventually became Oklahoma. But the Seminoles resisted the Federal troops sent to remove them and fought a successful guerilla war even after the U. S. army treacherously captured their leader, Osceola, while he was negotiating under a flag of truce. Later, an officer under Jackson's command brought a new weapon into play against the Seminoles: land mines.

Remember that litany from the “backwoods’ education” of Indian killers in Chapter 26: “histories of Indian lying, Indian theft, Indian double-dealing, Indian fraud and perfidy, Indian want of conscience, Indian blood-thirstiness, Indian diabolism—” (NN CM 146). Ask Osceola and the Seminoles about the liars and double-dealers, the ”fraud and perfidy.” And yet, it was Jackson who had the want of conscience to use land mines.

In Chapter 26 of The Confidence-Man, in the middle of the Indian-hater section, Melville alludes to the U. S. Supreme Court and the two cases brought by the Cherokee Tribe in 1831 and 1832 seeking the protection of the Federal Government from the violence that white citizens of Georgia were inflicting on the Cherokees to drive them from their homes, farms, and businesses (NN CM 147). The white Georgians had raped Cherokee women and girls; tarred, feathered, and lynched Cherokee men and boys; and burned Cherokee dwellings. This lawlessness grew out of Andrew Jackson's campaign promise of Indian Removal, which helped win him the presidency.

Article I of the U. S. Constitution gives only Congress, not the states, the power to regulate commerce with Indian tribes. Article VI recognizes Indian treaties along with acts of Congress as the supreme law of the land. As early as 1823 in the case of Johnson v. Macintosh, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that Indian tribes were independent nations with their own traditional territories, free of state laws though subject to Congressional oversight. It was on this basis that the court led by Chief Justice John Marshall twice ruled in favor of the Cherokee Tribe in their petitions to get Federal protection from the terrorism of the white citizens of Georgia in 1832 and 1833. But Andrew Jackson defied the Supreme Court rulings in the cases, famously saying, “John Marshall made the decision, let him enforce it,” thus violating the fundamental structure of the new nation's constitutional system in which the Executive branch was mandated to enforce the rulings of the Judicial branch. Jackson precipitated the first great test of the new nation's Federal system, its Constitution, and its rule of law, and the new nation failed miserably.

In 1838 and 1839, the brutal removals and death marches of the Cherokees began. In 1840, young Herman Melville travelled west and down the Mississippi river where he could have seen the Cherokees on riverboats. In five separate removals, 1800 Cherokees were marched 800 miles on what became known as the Trail of Tears. Prisoners of the soldiers, the Cherokees were sent by river routes northwest out of northern Georgia, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee, then south down the Mississippi where they were marched overland to what is now Oklahoma. More than 8000 Cherokees died during these removals.

For Melville, the enormity of these events and the genocide of the previous centuries obliterated all claims that the New World and the New Nation might make for honor or justice or “godliness.” Worse yet, Melville saw little hope for the future because these crimes against humanity were never reckoned with, the slaughter only continued, and the Indian-haters grew in number. The elected officials were the con men, and cash from land deals was the lever that moved everything.

Actually, things have not changed much in the United States since Melville's time. Con men run the political parties, the spoils system still operates though with a new breed of lobbyists, and Indian-haters still abound in great numbers. They hate the undocumented immigrants who come from Mexico, not for their lack of documents but because a great many of the immigrants are Indians. And if you doubt that Indian-hating remains in the psyche of the United States, remember the day that U. S. forces killed Osama Bin Laden, they called their commander and reported “We got Geronimo,” without a thought for the honorable and courageous Apache women and men serving in the military in Afghanistan and Iraq or those Apaches who served and died in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

In 1981, when I began writing Almanac of the Dead, I was not conscious of the impact that Melville's Confidence-Man, and especially its portrait of the Indian-hater, had had on me. I work by instinct, by intuition, and it was not until I agreed to come to the “Melville and Rome” conference and began re-reading The Confidence-Man that I realized the debt I owe Melville.

The core of Almanac of the Dead is the Indian Holocaust in the Americas. In Melville's time, the death toll of the indigenous people of the Americas was put around two million but new evidence in the 1990s puts the figure at 44 to 80 million dead between 1500 and 1900.

Just as Melville confronted the Indian killers with plenty of dark humor to leaven the mood, I also made sure to have laughter in the face of horror. I even have an homage of sorts to Melville in a section where the word “trust” plays a prominent and deadly role. Now I would like to read to you excerpts from Almanac that seem to me inspired by Herman Melville and his work of mighty prophecy and great moral vision. The passages concern the character Menardo, who is ashamed of his Indian ancestry. He sells insurance to businessmen who fear indigenous unrest and the threat of popular uprisings. His circle of associates includes a general, the governor, and the police chief:

Menardo agreed with General J. that the bands of illegal refugees trying to make a run for it should be gunned down from the air like coyotes or wolves. A little blood here and there was better than big pools of blood flashed across the globe by satellite TV … . the best policy was to kill them as you found them. Otherwise, you ran into all the logistical problems the Germans had encountered with disposing of the Jews … . But the Jews would have made far superior slaves than the Indians ever had; Hitler had wasted great potential … . Indians however were the worst workers—slow, sloppy, and destructive of tools and machinery. Indians were a waste of time and money. No refugee camps for them—the best policy was quick annihilation on the spot, far, far from satellite TV cameras. (Silko, Almanac 495).

One of Menardo's business associates, a gangster from Tucson, gives him a bullet-proof vest as a token of friendship, and Menardo becomes obsessed with it:

He did not like to admit this to himself, but he had begun to enjoy the nightly ritual of the brandy, then looking at himself in the mirror wearing the vest and pajama bottoms … . It was perfect. Lightweight and whisper soft; only your wife knew you were wearing body armor. Secrecy was essential; otherwise assassins aimed for the head. The brochure on the vest always made good bedtime reading because the technical details gradually put one to sleep. The photographs of the actual tests filled Menardo with confidence. All of it was a matter of trust—trust of the high technology that had woven the vest fibers, and trust in those most intimate with you. Trust. Menardo had repeated the word over and over until he was asleep. (Silko, Almanac 497)

Menardo decides to surprise his cronies at the country club shooting range with the wonders of the vest by having his Indian chauffeur shoot him:

Menardo wanted perfect timing—he wanted Tacho to wait until the cars had pulled up, then he would greet his fellow shooting-club members, then Tacho must shoot. Snap! Snap! Snap! One two three! Before the others could even open their mouths! What an exhibition they would see! Here was a man to be reckoned with—a man invincible with the magic of high technology.

As the convoy of Mercedeses and escorting Blazers slowed to a halt, Menardo had gestured extravagantly with both arms like a windmill above his head; then he had pointed at both front panels of the vest, then at Tacho, who was holding the pistol at his side. The heads inside the cars stared dumbly at Menardo until he yelled at Tacho to point the gun; as soon as Tacho had raised the automatic, all eyes had been on Tacho. Menardo shouted at his fellow club members, “Watch this! Watch this!” Tacho looked at the stupefied faces of the general and the police chief; he wanted to be sure they did not order their bodyguards to shoot. They seemed to realize Menardo was giving the orders. “Go on! Now! Do it! Fire!” Menardo's voice had been shrill with frenzy as he slapped the left panel of the vest; right over his heart. “Here! Here!” he urged Tacho. Before General J. or the police chief or the others could leap from their cars, Tacho had fired the 9mm automatic once, striking Menardo in the chest.

The fall surprised Menardo, and somehow he had no air in his lungs to speak to the general and the other who knelt over him. Tacho had stood looking down at him, still holding the 9mm in his hand. The police chief and General J. fumbled with the nylon webbing and zipper of the vest, and Menardo could feel himself sinking into their arms. What was the general saying? Had Tacho fired the pistol? Why had he fallen? Menardo could not remember. He felt a warm puddle under himself. Why had the waiters poured soup over him? What were they looking at? They could examine the vest later for damage, but right now he needed help to stand up. He was getting too wet and cold lying there. (Silko, Almanac 503–4)

Menardo is no Andrew Jackson, but as an Indian-hating Indian, he is an “Indian-hater par excellence” far more frightening than the Indian remover Jackson. As Menardo plans his little con game to win the trust of those who would exploit his own people, he falls for the worst con of all: he believes in his own con; he trusts in a technology of violence that is itself a con. Jackson and Melville's Indian-hater were differently obsessed, but years before I fully knew it, they held in my mind an image that came to be Menardo.

Works Cited

  1. Top of page
  2. Works Cited
  • Jackson, Andrew. “First Inaugural Address.” 4 March 1829. In American Speeches: Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War. Ed. Ted Widmer. New York : Library of America, 2006. 178-81.
  • Jackson, Andrew. “Second Annual Message.” 6 Dec. 1830. Excerpted in The Encyclopedia of North American Indian Wars, 1607-1890: A Political, Social, and Military History. Volume 3: Documents. Ed. James Arnold and Roberta Wiener. Santa Barbara, CA : ABC-CLIO, 2011. 1105-1106.
  • Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. 2nd ed. Ed. Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer. New York : W. W. Norton, 2006.
  • Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago : Northwestern UP and The Newberry Library, 1984; cited in the text as NN CM.
  • Silko, Leslie Marmon. The Almanac of the Dead: A Novel. New York : Penguin, 1991.