Andrew Delbanco (Center Trustee; Fellow, 1990–91; Fellow, 2002–03)
November 15, 2012
“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?