The organizers of the...
Dr. Michael J. Everton of Simon Fraser University will deliver the Clarence Branton Memorial Lecture at 7:30 p.m. in Yost Auditorium. The subject of his talk will be “Herman Melville and the Vile Business of American Literary Publishing”:
Nineteenth-century Americans worried that the mad dash for wealth at any cost was costing them their souls, or at least their moral compass. The debate over money and morals was particularly loud after the Panic of 1837, as the United States began to industrialize at a spectacular rate. Nowhere was it louder than in the business of literary publishing. Publishers of books like Walden and Moby-Dick had already developed something of a reputation for unscrupulousness, if not outright villainy. Writers took notice. Herman Melville and others adopted a nuanced ethical discourse to criticize not only the business of publishing but what they saw as the prevailing immorality of American business culture.
In the wake of the Crash of 2008 – a downturn that looks a lot that of 1837 – this discourse again moved center stage. And one of the most muscular ethical appraisals of the antebellum economic status quo, Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” has resurfaced, especially amid the din of Occupy rhetoric, as one of the most compelling critiques of our own economic predicament. But we should be careful with “Bartleby.” As much as Melville hated the business of publishing, and as skeptical as he was of the gospel of wealth, he understood that there is such a thing as an ethics of capitalism, and that it is a complicated thing.