Seminar on Compassion: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville”

Herman Melville (1819-1891), today hailed as one of America’s greatest writers, had in his own time a very mixed career. Some of his early sea-stories and sea-adventures were esteemed by the public, but his epic (and to him, most significant) novel, “Moby-Dick,” was very badly received. Indeed, after it appeared, Melville became something of a pariah in the literary world. Turning to poetry, he encountered similar neglect. In the last quarter-century of his life, he wrote little and published less. (“Billy Budd,” today regarded as one of his finest works, was published posthumously.) Friends feared for his sanity. His wife’s family tried not only to get her to leave him but also to have him committed as insane. He wound up working for nineteen years as a customs inspector in New York, and when he died, he seemed destined for obscurity. One might therefore wonder whether his tale about the mysterious Bartleby is, among other things, intended as a profoundly disheartening allegory about the artist’s—and his own—relation to our commercial, democratic society. But that, of course, depends on what you think the story says and means.

Watch editors Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass, and Diana Schaub converse with guest host Wilfred McClay (University of Tennessee–Chattanooga) about the story. For a discussion guide and more, visit