Bartleby & Benito: 2 Melvilles

By | July 21, 2009

It would benefit and uplift every student of nonviolence to read Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) and Benito Cereno (1855.)

Bartleby, a law clerk, answers every unwelcome request with a calm “I would prefer not to.” This resistance disconcerts his boss, who frets, “Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.[. . .] This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do?

As Cesar Chavez said, “Nonviolence is saying no to everything that is humiliating.” Bartleby practiced nonviolent resistance before it even had a name.

In Benito Cereno, an American ship captain is unable to see what to him is unthinkable and impossible: that the slaves are in charge of a troubled Spanish ship. He misinterprets every action, every gesture, every word that is spoken to conform to his ingrained understanding of how the world works, and he is wrong. It is a disturbing and enlightening short novel.

We’re working on a new peaceCENTER book, End of the Line: Five short novels about the death penalty, which includes Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, another excellent book that helps us think in new ways about that ambiguous place between law and justice. It should be ready for publication sometime next month.

What classic literature do you find illuminating in terms of peace and justice?

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