“Cheating the cheaters”: The confidence artist in postwar American literature

Elizabeth Ann Hubbard, Fordham University


This project explores the ways in which the confidence artist in post-World War II American literature works to subvert and destabilize a culturally pervasive practice that Martin Heidegger terms "Enframing," a scientific mode of thought and behavior that objectifies human beings with the ultimate goal of power and domination. Enframing divests its practitioners of the ability to recognize the otherness of the self or the other, an ability upon which the capacities for love and freedom are founded. While Herman Melville's Confidence Man highlights the dark underside of the ideals of the nineteenth century frontier, the twentieth century confidence artists I discuss draw attention to the destructive potentialities of the "New Frontier" of science as intellectual and material capital. Focusing primarily on works by Flannery O'Connor, Don DeLillo, Ken Kesey, David Mamet, and Han Ong, this project explores the ways the confidence artists in each work undermine this dangerous pattern of technological fundamentalism. They are paradoxical and ambiguous figures because even while they are experts at human taxonomy, they make their own identity impenetrable and incalculable to their victims. Those being deceived are individuals whose humanity has been eroded by their own habitual practice of Enframing, who, in their calculative thinking, have objectified themselves and others. In their deceptions, these confidence artists expose the hollowness, inadequacy, and hypocrisy of the belief systems of their victims—potentially to the victims themselves. In this sense, they function as restorative agents for their victims. For the writers considered in this study, an apprehension or acknowledgement the otherness, mystery, and incomprehensibility of the self and the other is the precondition to any sort of restoration. In some of these works, those being deceived include the readers, as the most significant deception is wrought not by the confidence character within the text at all, but rather, by the author himself.

Subject Area

American studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Hubbard, Elizabeth Ann, "“Cheating the cheaters”: The confidence artist in postwar American literature" (2008). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3337630.