Teaching Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”

Thursday, November 15, 2012
7:00 pm - 8:30 pm (EST) Enter Classroom Enter Forum


Andrew Delbanco
Mendelson Family Professor of American Studies
Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities
Columbia University
National Humanities Center Fellow

About the Seminar

“I would prefer not to.” With those words Bartleby, Herman Melville’s New York law-copyist, turns himself into one of the most enigmatic and infuriating characters in all of American literature. With them he also disrupts the staid, ordered life of his employer. And with them, too, he withdraws from life until he ends his days curled up against a wall in a prison aptly named the Tombs. What does “Bartleby, the Scrivener” tell us about Melville’s genius? What does it tell us about antebellum America, a society in which the impersonal values of laissez-faire capitalism clashed with the religious impulse to care for and about others?

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Assigned Readings

  1. "Bartleby, the Scrivener," by Herman Melville (1853). (downloadable PDF)
  2. Two online sites:
  3. Audio recording: listen online or download for later use.

Seminar Recording