Fall 2007

Metaphysics, money & the Messiah: a conversation about Melville’s “The Confidence-Man”

Cornel West and D. Graham Burnett

Cornel West, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1999, is Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University. His published works include “Race Matters” (1993), “The Future of the Race” (with Henry Louis Gates Jr., 1997), and “Democracy Matters” (2004). West recently released a new album, “Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations.”

D. Graham Burnett is an associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of “Masters of All They Surveyed” (2000), “A Trial By Jury” (2001), “Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest” (2005), and “Trying Leviathan” (2007).

Reality used to be a friend of mine . . .
–P.M. Dawn

Editor’s note: This spring, the Princeton historian D. Graham Burnett sat down with his colleague Cornel West to discuss their responses to a quintessentially American parable, “The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade,” the last long-form work of prose fiction by Herman Melville (1819–1891). This strange tale of performance, deception, and sudden intimacies is built out of a sequence of glancing encounters among the passengers of a Mississippi riverboat bound for New Orleans. Who is who in the story is never quite clear, and when money changes hands (as it often does), there are usually reasons for concern–not least because of the shadowy presence of the title character, whose rosy promises entrance even the cautious. Set on April Fool’s Day (and published on April 1, 1857), “The Confidence-Man”–though a critical and commercial disaster at the time–has now puzzled, beguiled, and inspired Melville readers for a century and a half.

D. GRAHAM BURNETT: Cornel, it feels like a good time to have a serious conversation about a difficult text. And I figured we could dig right in, since it is a premise of Melville’s The Confidence-Man that here in the United States perfect strangers can walk right up to each other and start on a serious conversation.

CORNEL WEST: We’re hardly strangers, though, brother Graham.

DGB: So true–it is almost twenty years now since I sat as a sophomore in your course on “Cultural Criticism,” weeping like a baby, along with about three hundred other impressionable youths, at your lecture on the death of Socrates. Many years gone by, and now our offices are a hundred yards apart. Even so, it is a conceit of this book that in some sense we are all fundamentally strangers, no?

.  .  .

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