In The Confidence Man, how does Melville satarise Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau through Winsome and Egbert?

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The Confidence Man was Herman Melville's last novel, published in 1857, and served as both a coda to his prose work and as a satire of culture. The titular Confidence Man appears in several disguises, interacting with characters on a steamship and exposing their weaknesses.

During the novel, Melville satirizes several major literary figures, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom were his contemporaries in the field. While Thoreau and Emerson were Transcendentalists, believing that nature and living things all had a spark of the divine, allowing connection with and understanding of "the Oversoul" through meditation and simplicity, Melville was far closer to Nihilism (although he rejected the term), believing that cruelty was closer to the soul than we like to admit.

In the book, the character of Mark Winsome is a parody of Emerson, and exists as a sort of guru whose words are used as scripture. He engages in a long debate with the Confidence Man, who is disguised as "The Cosmopolitan." Winsome is:

...a blue-eyed man, sandy-haired, and Saxon-looking; perhaps five and forty; tall, and, but for a certain angularity, well made; little touch of the drawing-room about him, but a look of plain propriety of a Puritan sort, with a kind of farmer dignity.

This describes Emerson quite well, and the continuing conversation takes many semantic turns. Later, Winsome introduces his disciple, Egbert, described as:

...the last person in the world that one would take for the disciple of any transcendental philosophy; though, indeed, something about his sharp nose and shaved chin seemed to hint that if mysticism, as a lesson, ever came in his way, he might, with the characteristic knack of a true New-Englander, turn even so profitless a thing to some profitable account.

Again, the physical description -- as well as the specific heritage of New England -- is directly relatable to Thoreau. Melville even throws out a barb against Thoreau's massive influence and success in peddling Emerson's ideas.

The ideas of both men are shown, and possibly shown up, in the ensuing conversations. While Winsome remains content in his ideas, Egbert is thrown off by the Cosmopolitan's semantic arguments, and is left in doubt.


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