For the confidence man to find a comfortable home in the heart of American culture, he needed a mask. And humor has often become an intricate part of the disguise. From the Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor in blackface which were within the confines of ethnic minicry, and part of a longer tradition which began with the Civil War. At the same time, the appropriation intensified a sense of alienation and emphasized gap and distance.Part of what writer Greil Marcus has termed ” the old weird America”.
Its a hidden landscape, a parallel society, yet a familiar and recognizable backdrop to a common cultural history. Art critic Luc Sante calls the culture, the “playground of God, Satan, tricksters, Puritans, confidence men, illuminati, braggarts, preachers,and anonymous poets of all stripes”. These minstrel shows,and its assembly of diverse types such as coon hatted, overly fringed pioneer types, drawling Yankees and blackfaced whites, made sophisticated fun of Puritan power, but at the same time deflated a form of modish cynicism which could be termed modern snobbery.
”There is scarcely an aspect of the American character to which humor is not related, few which in some sense it has not governed. It has moved into literature, not merely as an occasional touch, but as a force determining large patterns and intentions. It is a lawless element, full of surprises. It sustains its own appeal, yet its vigorous power invites absorption in that character of which it is a part”. ( Constance Rourke )
Confidence and its use of humour, or appropriation of the idiom, gets put to the test everywhere in the literature, films and commercials that define, reinforce and parody Amrican culture. From Dean Moriarity in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Burt Lancaster executing his scams while bearing his Chicklets grin in the Rainmaker, John Husack in the Grifters,Michael Keaton in Night Shift, those clever Geico Gecko commercials…..all the archetypes have been formed and forged in its basic mold due to democracy and its concomitant mobility and fluidity of people and capital. It may be the consumer society’s need to trade and swap as primal reflex.
”A close view of his figure brought consternation to the men and women lounging at the tavern or near the sheds that clustered around the planter’s gate. “I’ll be shot if it ain’t a Yankee!” cried one. The yard was suddenly vacant. Doors banged and windows were shut. The peddler moved relentlessly nearer, reached a doorway, and laid his pack on the half hatch. The inhabitants had barred their doors and double-locked their money-tills in vain. With scarcely a halt the peddler made his way into their houses, and silver leapt into his pockets….Abreast of the frontier, through the widening settlements of the Mississippi, tramped this long-legged wizard, decade by decade, bringing a splatter of color to farms buried deep in the forests, providing the zest of the new tales and sharp talk. He was forever pushing into new regions, and could be descried down the years, walking to Oregon at the heels of the settlers or on the march across the plains to the gold of California. The farther he receded from view the more completely he changed into a sly thin ogre something greater than human size. He was a myth, a fantasy. Many hands had joined to fashion his figure, from the South, from the West, even from New England. What the Yankee peddler was in life and fact can only be guessed….Racial strains in the Yankee were well mixed. … Peddlers may have been chockfull of metaphysics. Their secret has been closely kept. By the end of the eighteenth century the shrewd image had grown secure…But the peddler was only one aspect of the Yankee myth. A many-sided Yankee had emerged at a stride during the Revolution to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” and soon was scattered in numbers over the earth….The Yankee was often called practical, but in the bits of story and reminiscence quickly accumulating about him, his famed ingenuity often seemed less a practical gift than a knack for making changes….Masquerade was as common to him as mullein in his stony pastures. He appeared a dozen things that he was not….He seemed cautious and solitary. Asked a question, he was likely to counter with another….The Yankee seemed an aboriginal character sprung suddenly, long-sided and nimble, from the gray rocks of his native soil. Surely he was no simple son of the Pilgrim fathers. ” ( Constance Rourke ) The con man’s game is also a humorous one, with absurdity playing a big hand in his success at turning the trick. The social absurdity in tall tale jokes cannot be underestimated.
Between these many shadows and the persistent humor of the Yankee, the gulf was wide. But humor bears the closest relation to emotion, either bubbling up as from a deep and happy wellspring, or in an opposite fashion rising like a re-birth of feeling from dead levels after turmoil. An emotional man may possess no humor, but a humorous man usually has deep pockets of emotion, sometimes concealed away or forgotten. The rigor and routine of pioneer life had deepened, and repressed emotion. This emotion was likely stirred by the terror and fear instilled by fundamentalist religion, yet was trapped within the jaws of its controlling characteristics. Such compression, with such power was bound to result in escapes and explosions. A constant opposition existed between the dark emotions and an earthy humor perhaps best exemplified by Abraham Lincoln as a young man
”Proof of his anterior experiences remained in his use of the mask. The mask was a portable heirloom handed down by the pioneer. In a primitive world crowded with pitfalls the unchanging, unaverted countenance had been a safeguard, preventing revelations of surprise, anger, or dismay. The mask had otherwise become habitual among the older Puritans as their more expressive or risible feelings were sunk beneath the surface. Governor Bradford had encouraged its use on a considerable scale, urging certain gay spirits to enjoy themselves in secret, if they must be convivial. No doubt the mask would prove useful in a country where the Puritan was still a power and the risks of pioneering by no means over.” The Yankee retained it though, he invented it, like a vending machine, it had to be filled and the Yankee was willing to oblige in this service for the gift he had made…
Character had always been a major American subject–character enwrapped in legend, from the Yankee of the fables and the iconic Davey Crocketts to the novels of Henry James followed by a more marked departure from the British tradition with the writing of Edwin Arlington Robinson. He placed the psychological narrative within the realm of poetry in a new and modern sense.His stylistic and form was complementary with Herman Melville’s ”The Confidence Man” which also applied the homelier tradition for the monologue verging upon soliloquy, which had long been part of the popular tradition within a novelly structured comic allegory that cut between fact and faction at impressive speed.
The plot, in ”The Confidence Man”,as such, is of a con man victimizing passengers on a riverboat. Yet, its his victims deeply anchored, contradictory and incoherent desires which are most incisive. The metaphor of the boat, was for a country in perpetual motion. The thesis of Melville being that the restless velocity of America was unique in not being a mere upheaval of a previously stable and relatively settled society. A portrait of an American frontier as perceived through a hall of mirrors with the participants changing identities at dizzying frequency.
The confidence man has also found a home deep in the heart of American popular music. Such as the audacious spirit in the music and character of Bob Dylan, with his multitude of disguises and masks, which he seems almost to appropriate to keep the public guessing at just what his songs really mean.A good example is the film ”I’m Not There” which invokes the reinvention of identity as central theme. Whether masks are employed to hide an underlying terror, fear or dread or a haven of precious sanctuary cannot be determined but is likely related to safety and perspective. However, the position of skeptical outsider, nomadic travelling Yankee, does recall a variant of ”The wandering jew” , but in a less vulgar and deeply profound sense. Individuals loosely rooted in local attitudes, customs and traditions, yet remarked as symbols for their definition and articulation of the culture. But, who is grateful and for what? Its the Hannah Arendt model of uprootedness, migration and anti-belonging, and the fear may be based on the risk of being turned on, as outsiders.