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The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
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's review
Jan 08, 13

Read in June, 2010

Here is a 1966 paper which I don't think is available online relevant to "a Green Prophet from Utah" (Confidence Man Chapter 2)



In letters to three different people, not long after Mardi had been published, Melville spoke of what he felt was its latent excellence. To his father-in-law Judge Lemuel Shaw, he wrote, “Time, which is the solver of all riddles, will solve 'Mardi'.”1 In a letter to Richard Bentley, 5 June 1849, Melville assured him, “'Mardi' in its higher purposes, has not been written in vain” (Letters, p. 86), and added in a letter the following month, “Your report concerning 'Mardi' was pretty much as I expected; but you know perhaps that there are goodly harvests which ripen late, especially when the grain is strong” (Letters, p. 87). And to his friend Evert Duyckinck, to whom he was sending a gift copy of Mardi, he likened the novel to a plant, “...a plant, which tho' now unblown (emblematicaly [sic], the leaves, you perceive, are uncut) may possibly — by some miracle, that is – flower like the aloe, a hundred years hence --or not flower at all, which is more likely by far, for some aloes never flower.” Further showing his confidence he added that Mardi ought to be sealed with “a bit of old parchment (from some old Arabic M.S.S. On Astrology) tied round each volume, & sealed on the back with a Sphynx, & never to be broken till the aloe flowers--” (Letters, p. 102).

Melville was almost prophetic in these letters, for only within the past few years have scholars begun to unseal the parchment of meaning in which Mardi is bound and to look at it as an important document in the development of Melville's literary genius. Perhaps the Mardi aloe finally flowered when James Baird praised it: “...this book is the most important of all American experimental literary works documenting the development of the symbolistic imagination.”2 For the first time, as Merrell Davis and Harrison Hayford have pointed out, Melville followed the impulse to write for “truth” rather than money.3

This paper is an attempt to discuss the possible influence of The Book of Mormon, hitherto not discussed in relation to Melville's writing and not listed by Merton M. Sealts, Jr., in his valuable study, “Melville's Reading.” But as Sealts points out, “it must not be forgotten that Melville read and sometimes in his own works cited more books than can be found in records of purchases and library loans. Important as they are, therefore, these listings [of books known to have been read or borrowed by Melville] do not tell the full story of his voluminous reading during these productive years.”4 Melville could have encountered The Book of Mormon in one of the many libraries to which he had access.5 He might even have known Mormon missionaries who had been distributing copies since 1830, especially in the Eastern and New England states.6 Of interest to Melville would have been the Mormon teaching that The Book of Mormon was a history of the ancestors of the Polynesians.

The only specific mention of The Book of Mormon in Melville's writing appears in the twenty-first chapter of Pierre, published three years after Mardi. Here it is listed with five other volumes given to Plotinus Plinlimmon by a certain rich nobleman: Cardan, Epictetus, Abraham Tucker, Condercet, and the “Zenda-Vesta.” Plinlimmon refuses this gift, not even bothering to open it. He tells the nobleman that it was “missent.” The questions that immediately arise are” What do these books have in common that would cause Plinlimmon to reject them? And what is significant about his rejection of them?

Plinlimmon is the author of “Chronometricals and Horologicals,” a pamphlet which the exiled Pierre finds in a coach on his way to New York from Saddle Meadows, its essence being that there is a vast solecism between the morality expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and that found in the actual world. Christ's morality was meant not as a rule of conduct for this life but the life hereafter. In fact, argues Plinlimmon, if a man tries to live by this higher law he will bring “woe and death” upon himself as Christ foolishly did. Plinlimmon calls his morality “A virtuous expediency.”7 Later we find Plinlimmon, who is the leader of a religious sect, a hypocrite. (He drinks wine even though he admonishes his followers not to.) When Pierre meets Plinlimmon he feels that there is an atmosphere of inscrutability and an aura of “non-Benevolence” about him. Plinlimmon is an anti-Christ in that he rejects Christ's principles of moral conduct.

All of the books of authors rejected by Plinlimmon contain teaching antithetical to his philosophy or morality. Abraham Tucker (1705-1774), the English philosopher and moralist, in his The Light of Nature Pursued,8 encourages the imitation of Christ and denounces hypocrisy and non-benevolence. Marie Jean de Condorcet (1743-1794), although an anti-religionist of sorts, believed both in the natural goodness and the perfectibility of man.9 The teachings of Epictetus (ca. A.D. 50), a Greek Stoic philosopher, closely parallel those of Christ. Jerome Cardan (Girolamo Cardano, 1501-1576) the Italian physician, mathematician, philosopher, and astrologer felt that “if men would have reverence for the commands of heaven...they would live more devoutly and would lead exemplary lives.”10 The principal virtues of Zoroastrianism as taught in the Zend-Avesta, are “truthfulness, righteousness, loyalty, cleanliness, industry, a peaceful disposition, and charitable activity...”11 The Book of Mormon's purpose, as stated in the preface, is “... the convincing of the Jew and the Gentile that JESUS IS THE CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself to all nations...” Its Christian teachings closely parallel those of the new Testament.

The fact that all these books contain elements antithetical to Plinlimmon's philosophy is evidence that Melville knew something of the contents of each and had reason for placing them together. Since Plinlimmon does not see the books but refuses the package without opening it, his rejection is intended to be symbolical. In this way Melville demonstrated that Plinlimmon's rejection of Christ was irrational.

The greatest evidence of Melville's having read The Book of Mormon, however, is the parallel between the character Alma in Mardi and two characters of the same name in The Book of Mormon.12

In Melville's Mardi: A Chartless Voyage, Merrell Davis suggests two sources for the name “Alma”: The Faery Queen, Book II, Cantos ix and xi and Matthew Prior's poem, “Alma or the Progress of the Mind.” Actually there is little resemblance between the Alma of Mardi (who represents Christ) and the Almas of Spenser and Prior, both of whom are allegorical female characters. In The Faery Queen Alma signifies the dominance of the spiritual over the physical. As the personification of the soul she serves as a guide to Sir Guyon and Prince Arthur. There is little character development in Spenser's Alma.13

Prior's Alma represents the soul in its progress in the body and life of man. A supposed dialogue between Prior and his friend Richard Shelton, the poem is essentially a comment on the weaknesses of contemporaries and the vanity of human wishes. Of the Cambridge Wits, Prior says,

“Alma, they strenuously maintain,
Sits cock-horse on her throne the brain:

Wise nature likewise, they suppose,
Has drawn two conduits down our nose:
Could Alma else with judgment tell,
When cabbage stinks, or roses smell?14

Melville's Alma and the Almas mentioned above have little in common.

Although we never see Alma in Mardi, we hear much about him from one of his disciples at Serenia and from Taji's companions. In the chapter, “They Discourse of Alma,” Mohi tells his fellow travelers (Taji, Yoomy, Babbalanja, and Media) that Alma was “an illustrious prophet and teacher divine” who appeared in earlier times under different titles (“Brami” and “Manko”), but whose final and most important avatar was as Christ” “...adapting his lessons to the improved conditions of humanity, the divine prophet and completely unfolded his scheme; as Alma, he had made his last revelation.”15 After Mohi tells of Alma's purpose in visiting the world, a discussion follows about the discrepancy between his teachings the the practices of his followers. And though they determine that this variance is due to their misconceptions of the teaching and not to Alma himself, Mohi is unsuccessful in convincing his friends to follow Alma. Media says, “Well, well, your Alma's faith concerns not me...” and Yoomy says, “I reject it. Could I, I would not believe it” (p. 286, cxiii). And, unconverted, they sail to the next island.

The subject of Alma arises again when they reach Serenia (an earthly Christian utopia) where they are welcomed as “brothers.” One of travelers asks, “Call ye us brothers, whom ere now ye never saw?” And the old man who greeted them says, “Even so, is not Oro [God] the father of all? Then are we not brothers? Thus Alma, the Master, hath commanded” (pp. 520-521, clxxxvii).

In Serenia the real and the ideal are one: its inhabitants take care of the fatherless and the poor; they love their enemies; they pay little heed to formalized religion and creeds. After observing this society, governed completely by love, all the group except Taji are converted to Alma's religion (clxxxvii).

After going with him though the rest of the islands, Taji's friends try to persuade him to return to Serenia. Says Media, “Away! Thy Yillah is behind thee, not before. Deep she dwells in blue Serenia's groves; which thou wouldst not search” (p. 541, cxciii). But Taji desires to be the “unreturning wanderer,” and leaving his friends to return to Serenia he sails off into eternity in quest of Yillah, his lost love.

The two Almas of The Book of Mormon16 are Alma the Elder (ca. 173-91 B.C.) and his son, Alma the Younger (ca. 135-73 B.C.). Alma the Elder had been a priest of the wicked King Noah before his conversion to Christ. He left King Noah to preach and was successful in converting many people. Alma and his son Alma the Younger dominate the next seventy-five years and the next hundred and forty-two pages of The Book of Mormon history. “The Book of Alma” is that part of the record kept by the two Almas and Alma the Younger's son, Helaman. It is the longest in The Book of Mormon, comprising almost one-third of the whole. It tells of the missionary trials of Alma the Younger and his companions and of their success in bringing the heathen to Christ; it also contains much Christian doctrine.

One association Melville could not have missed in reading The Book of Mormon is that of Alma and Christ. Whereas neither Alma in The Book of Mormon is Christ, both are prophets or disciples of Christ. The names “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Jesus Christ,” and “Christian” together are found over eighty times in “The Book of Alma” and that part of “The Book of Mosiah” (Chapters 17-29) which records the history of the two Almas. Besides this, other names for Christ (God, Lord, Redeemer, Creator, The Good Shepherd, The Holy One, The Son of God, The King of All the Earth, The King of Heaven, The Only Begotten of the Father, Supreme Being, The Eternal Father, The Great Spirit) together are used hundreds of times in the record. More important, The Book of Mormon contains an account of the visitation of the resurrected Christ to the inhabitants of Ancient America.

Clearly, then, the Almas of The Book of Mormon are associated with Christ: they receive revelations from Him; they teach His principles to others; and they prophesy his coming. Most of the parallels between the Alma of Mardi and the Mormon Almas are also found in the Bible, but this would be natural since the Christ of The Book of Mormon is identical with the Christ in the Gospels. The problem still remains as to why Melville chose to call Christ “Alma” in his novel. The following discussion, I hope, will provide an answer.

Like Melville's Alma, the Mormon Almas are “illustrious prophets” and “teachers divine.” What Mohi says of Alma could easily be said of them: “...[He] came to redeem the Mardians from their heathenish thrall; to instruct them in the ways of truth, virtue, and happiness; to allure them to good by promises of beatitude hereafter; and to restrain them from evil by denunciations of woe” (p. 284, cxiii).

During their visit to Serenia, the travelers learn that there is no king in Serenia, “for Alma's precepts rebuke the arrogance of place and power” (p. 523, clxxxvii). When Alma the Elder is offered the crown, he refuses it to be a teacher of his people: “And the people were desirous that Alma should be their king, for he was beloved by his people. But he said unto them: Behold, it is not expedient that ye should have a king” (Mosiah 23:6, 7). Later Alma the Younger relinquished the position of chief judge to go on a mission to the heathen. Thus, both the Almas of The Book of Mormon and the Alma of Mardi are more interested in being teachers than rulers.

While they are at Serenia, the old man tells the visitors: “Where 'er we go, our faith we carry in our hand, and hearts. It is our chiefest joy. We do not put it wide away six days out of seven; and then, assume it” (p. 525, clxxvii). In The Book of Mormon, Alma the Younger says, “And moreover, I would ask, do ye suppose that ye must not worship God only once in a week?” (Alma 32:11)

The gospel of love is central in the teachings of Melville's Alma as well as in those of the two Almas of The Book of Mormon. The old sage tells Babbalanja, “The master's great command is Love; and here do all things wise and all things good, unite. Love is all in all. The more we love, the more we know; and so reversed” (p. 525, clxxvii). Of Alma the Elder, we learn: “Thus did Alma teach his people, that every man should love his neighbor as himself, that there should be no contention among them: (Mosiah 23:15). This same theme characterizes the teachings of Alma the Younger.

All the Almas teach that this love should be carried into practical living. When asked whether or not they claimed to live by the teachings of Alma, the old man who had welcomed Taji and his companions to Serenia said,

“Nothing do we claim; we but earnestly endeavour.”
“Tell me not of your endeavours, but of your life.”
“What hope for the fatherless among ye?”
“Adopted as a son.”
“Of one poor, and naked.”
“Clothed, and he wants for naught.”
“If ungrateful, he smite you?”
“Still we feed and clothe him”
(p. 521, clxxxvii).

In Alma 1:30, we are told of the followers of Alma the Younger, “Thus in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished....”

When asked about their social state, Alma's disciple says, “It is imperfect, and long must so remain. But we make not the miserable many support the happy few.... By the abounding, the needy are supplied” (p. 523, clxxxvii). This is similar to Alma the Elder's teaching: “And again Alma commanded that the people of the church should impart of their substance, every one according to that which he had; if he have more abundantly he should import more abundantly; and of him that had but little, but little should be required; and to him that had not should be given” (Mosiah 18:27).

In speaking of those who hypocritically profess godliness, Alma's disciple tells the visitors, “He who hourly prays to Alma, but lives not up to world-wide love and charity — that man is more an unbeliever than he who verbally rejects the Master, but does his bidding. Our lives are our Amens” (p. 522, clxxxii). When Alma the Younger goes on a mission to reclaim the degenerate Zoramites, he criticizes hypocrisy in their prayers and stresses the importance of charity over outward form. (Alma 31:22, 23)

This same episode with the Zoramites contains other similarities with the Alma of Serenia. After preaching at some length among them, Alma and his companions began to have success “among the poor class of people”: “For behold, they were cast out of the synagogues because of the coarseness of their apparel-- Therefore they were not permitted to enter into their synagogues to worship God, being esteemed as filthiness.” As Alma preached to the poor he said, “Behold thy brother hath said, What shall we do?--for we are cast out of our synagogues, that we cannot worship our God. Behold I say unto you, do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?” (Alma 32:2, 3, 9, 10; and also 33: 1-11).

Two things here are similar to the account of Alma in Mardi — Alma's preaching to the poor, and his teaching that temples or synagogues were not necessary for the worship of God. We are told, “When Alma dwelt in Mardi, 'twas with the poor and friendless.” And when Babbalanja says, “I see no temples in your groves,” the old man replies, “Because this isle is all one temple to his praise; every leaf is consecrated his.... Ye speak of temples; behold! 'tis by not building them that we widen charity among us” (p. 524, clxxxvii).

But, we are told, Alma didn't go to the poor alone: “From lowly places, he looked up, and long invoked great chieftains in their state; and told them all their pride was vanity; and bade them ask their souls” (p. 526, clxxxii). Similarly, The Book of Mormon Almas cry repentance to the kings and rulers of their time.
The most important parallel between Melville's Alma and the Mormon Almas is that both are clearly associated with Christ. In addition, both are prophets and teachers; both rebuke kingship to administer to the poor; both are concerned with regenerating the heathen; both condemn a mere sabbath religion; both emphasize the Christian principle of love; both teach the importance of carrying religion into practical living; both condemn prayer without righteous living; both emphasize that it isn't necessary to worship in temples or synagogues; and both are concerned over those of high station. Other parallels not touched upon here can readily be found.

That Melville could have used The Book of Mormon in writing Mardi is apparent. Nathalia Wright had said concerning his use of the Bible, “Biblical lore Is indiscriminately mixed with ancient and medieval history in Melville's attempt to create an indefinite, infinite background, and finally loses its separate identity. It is but part of the great past, indistinguished otherwise in the sum of human experience.”17

One last fact: In the letter to Duyckinck quoted at the beginning of this paper Melville compares the fate of Mardi to that of an exiled Mormon, an interesting comparison in view of the foregoing discussion. He says, “Again; (as the divines say) political republics should be the asylum for the persecuted of all nations; so if Mardi be admitted to your shelves, your bibliographical Republic of letters may find some contentment in the thought, that it has afforded refuge to a work, which almost everywhere else has been driven forth like a wild, mystic Mormon into shelterless exile” (Letters, p. 102; italics added). 18

University of Wisconsin

footnotes available on request
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