The Trial of Wall Street


Westmount Public Library, 4574 Sherbrooke Street West, Westmount, QC, CA

A Great Trials Lecture with Prof. Peter Gibian (Dept of English)

Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” takes place not in a courtroom but in the office of a Wall Street law firm. This experimental tale doesn’t narrate a literal trial, then, but its overall effect is to put the Wall Street law office itself—an epitome of dominant mid-nineteenth-century American notions of law, economics, politics, and cultural authority—on trial.

When Bartleby “occupies” the Wall Street law office, breaking down the literal and figurative walls that define the divisions in this stratified society, andbreaking up the work routine of legal practice byrefusing to copy the documents that reinforce the status quo of property relations, his small, vaguely Thoreauvian gestures of passive resistance threaten to undermine the foundations of the world of his boss, the lawyer who narrates this story.

What begins as a minor dispute about conventional assumptions in contemporary law reverberates outward, leading the cautious, conformist, uncurious lawyer-narrator into a life crisis—a searing self-examination in which he begins to question the bases of his vision of spiritual, ethical, and legal judgment and his own implication in the dynamics of the larger Wall Street world.

This lecture has been accredited by the Barreau du Québec for 1 hour of Continuing Legal Education: no. 10060910.

Great Trials III Lecture Series: Private Lives, Public Law

Organized by the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI), the Great Trials lecture series considers a collection of history-making trials across time and examines the social and political contexts in which they took place as well as their cultural consequences. The series takes the position that ‘law’ happens as much outside the courtroom as it does within it, and that each of these pivotal events stands as testament to the ways in which constructions of authority, law, and justice have informed cultural consciousness across centuries.

Fees: $60 for the series of five lectures, or $15 for individual lectures.