Books & Culture's Book of the Week: The Great American Hustle

The first volume of an ambitious new history of America highlights the engine of worldly ideals—and the role of evangelical religion in creating a distinctive American identity.

On April 1, 1857, Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade appeared. Though its ending intimates a sequel, it was the last novel he would publish, and the reviews, though not all damning, partly explain why. Fitz-James O'Brien, writing in Putnam's, said it belonged to "the metaphysical and Rabelaistical class of Mr. Melville's works," and entreated the author thus: "Give up metaphysics." Later in the same month, O'Brien added, "Mr. Melville's Confidence Man is almost as ambiguous an apparition as his Pierre, who was altogether an impossible and ununderstandable creature." The Leader slammed the book, divining that a reader looking for "stirring fiction … will be tolerably sure to lay it down ere long with an uncomfortable sensation of dizziness in the head." The Leader went on, "A novel it is not, unless a novel means forty-five conversations held on board a steamer, conducted by personages who might pass for the errata of creation." Mrs. Stephens' New Monthly warned that, with such a book, "Mr. Melville seems to be bent upon obliterating his early successes." And even Melville's brother-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, Jr., apparently summed up much public opinion in this judgment from a private letter: "It belongs to that horribly uninteresting class of nonsensical books he is given to writing."

Walter McDougall published Freedom Just Around the Corner 147 years later, almost to the day, and he begins this new history (the first of a promised three volumes) with a summary and discussion of Melville's Confidence-Man. Later in the volume, while discussing the first popular American novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, McDougall observes that every book about America, whether fictional or historical, narrates a drama: perhaps ...

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