Long considered the author's strangest novel, this work is a comic allegory aimed at the optimism and materialism of mid-18th-century America. A mysterious shape-changing confidence-man approaches passengers on a Mississippi steamboat and, winning over the (not quite innocent) victims with his charm, urges them to trust implicitly in the cosmos, in nature, and even in human nature - with predictable results. This novel represented a departure for Herman Melville, a satirical and socially acute work that was to be a further step away from his sea novels. Yet it confused and angered reviewers who preferred to pigeonhole him as an adventure writer. Some have argued that the book was a joke on the readers loyal to his sea stories, but if so, it backfired. Dismissed by critics as unreadable, and an undoubted financial failure, the novel's cold reception undermined Melville's belief in his ability to make a living writing works that were both popular and profound, and he soon gave up fiction. It was not until the mid-20th-century that critics rediscovered the book and praised its wit, modern technique, and wry view that life may be just a cosmic con game.
HERMAN MELVILLE (1819-91) was an American novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. His novels include Moby-Dick, Typee, and Omoo, all published in authoritative editions by Northwestern University Press.