Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Herman Melville Biography.com

Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. He worked as a crew member on several vessels beginning in 1839, his experiences spawning his successful early novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). Subsequent books, including his masterpiece Moby-Dick (1851), sold poorly, and by the 1860s Melville had turned to poetry. Following his death in New York City in 1891, he posthumously came to be regarded as one of the great American writers.

Short 2 minute biography

Longer 33 minute Biography

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street (1853)

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street

Bartleby was originally published anonymously in two parts in the November and December 1853 issues of Putnam’s Magazine, and reprinted with minor textual alterations in Melville’s The Piazza Tales in 1856.

Character List

  • The Lawyer – The unnamed narrator
  • Bartleby – A scrivener, or law- copyist
  • Turkey – Eldest employee, works better in the morning
  • Nippers – Young employee, the opposite of Turkey, works better in the afternoon
  • Ginger Nut – Errand boy

The Plot

The plot of the story is rather simple. A lawyer on Wall Street hires a new scrivener, Bartleby, to copy legal documents. Though Bartleby is initially a hard worker, one day, when asked to proofread, he responds, “I would prefer not to.” As time progresses, Bartleby increasingly “prefers not to” do anything asked of him. Eventually he dies of self-neglect, refusing offers of help, while jailed for vagrancy. Source

1969 Film Adaptation

Here is a terrific twenty-seven minute short film version. The film was made for the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1969. Bartleby is played by Patrick Campbell. The lawyer is played by James Westerfield.

“The first filmed adaptation was by the Encyclopædia Britannica Educational Corporation in 1969; adapted, produced & directed by Larry Yust and starring James Westerfield, Patrick Campbell, and Barry Williams of The Brady Bunch fame in a small role.” Wikipedia.

Meaning and Interpretations

The meaning of the story is much more complex. Since it was published, this story has troubled readers. The story is taught in many different ways.

  • A morality play
  • An existentialism story
  • Depression
  • Protest
  • Criticism of society.
  • Modern (then) treatment of writers
  • Modern interpretations include Autism, Asperger’s, Depression