Herman Melville: “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853)

But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of. While of other law-copyists I might write the complete life, of Bartleby nothing of that sort can be done. I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature. Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report which will appear in the sequel.

~~ Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”

Ah, Bartleby: a longish short story, printed in two consecutive issues of Putnam’s in November and December 1853 and later included in Melville’s collection The Piazza Tales, to good response (“It touches the nicer strings of our complicated nature, & finely blends the pathetic & ludicrous” [Richard Henry Dana, Sr.]; “One of the best bits of writing which ever came from the author’s pen” [Berkshire County Eagle]). It’s been made into several movies, plays, and operas, and serves as the go-to story for every junior high school English teacher in the US, not to mention what must be hundreds of thousands of term papers, dissertations, and theses.

Yes, this is another item on the syllabus for the upcoming “Fiction of Relationship” mooc taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University Coursera (alas, the course no longer appears on the Coursera schedule).

Since it’s also one of the most analyzed stories in the Western canon, I’ll bypass a great deal of very interesting symbolism (Bartleby the Inscrutable, a collection of essays edited by M. Thomas Inge, served as a primary source for me) and just focus on the relationship aspects.

Or, I should say, on the possible relationship aspects. One of the fun things about this story is that anyone can read anything into it – or nothing at all. As it happens, a great many scholars have read a great many things into the relationship between the unnamed Lawyer and Bartleby, and seen in them reflections of a variety of relationships.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment. Even so, for the most part, I regarded Bartleby and his ways. Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary. He is useful to me. I can get along with him.

~~ Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”

One of the (to me) more obscure and thus more interesting interpretations, put forth by Egbert S. Oliver in “A Second Look at ‘Bartleby’” is that Bartleby represents Thoreau, with Melville as the Lawyer. He starts off discounting his own thesis – Melville never wrote anything about Thoreau, never discussed him, never met him, and may never have read “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (he did borrow Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers from a friend in 1850, three years before Bartleby was written but that’s it). But he knew a guy who knew a guy – in this case, he knew Hawthorne, who had a collection of essays including “Civil Disobedience.” That’s pretty thin. Oliver’s essay has been debunked by several other scholars.

However, I’m always intrigued by someone who swims upstream.

Thoreau says with a defiance which Melville must have admired: “I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion.” Bartleby’s associates, his neighbors, his jailers even, did not know what to make of him, and Thoreau had found the same reaction of bewilderment. “They plainly did not know how to treat me… for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall”… This is the kind of challenge which intrigued Melville and set his mind to working out the implications. Here is a man who lives in society, certainly to a real extent dependent on it, yet withdrawing, aloof. Bartleby, when asked to join in cooperative tasks, replies, “I would prefer not to.” He gives no reasons. He simply wishes to refuse. Thoreau’s advice is explicit. He is encouraging a withdrawal from life, even an attaching of one’s self to others, as he had built his cabin on Emerson’s land.… Melville quietly writes the satire to show that one cannot afford such a boast: to squat somewhere and live within yourself is to refrain from living.

Oliver equates Thoreau’s “I declined to pay” and the resulting wish “to withdraw and stand aloof” with “I would prefer not to.” The diarist becomes the scrivener, the green trees of Concord with the green screen the Lawyer uses to keep Bartleby out of sight but within easy reach; “Bartleby, too, simply wished to refuse. He stood aloof. He never gave reasons. He never argued. He embodied passive noncooperation.” Of course, Thoreau did give reasons for his refusal to pay the tax, and during his time of aloof withdrawal in the woods, he showed up at Emerson’s house for dinner regularly and sent his laundry out to his mother. Not that it matters, since Walden is a different book.

I don’t have the knowledge of either man, or either writing, to support or defend Oliver’s theory. The notion of passive resistance and civil disobedience is obviously central to both texts, which may imply a causal link but certainly does not require one. It may be more likely that Melville had read Thoreau’s essay and incorporated those ideas into the story without specifically intending there to be a symbolic relationship between the two people. Or he may have chosen the idea for a different reason.

Leaving the Thoreau connection behind, as academia has done, as more of an interesting diversion than a serious theory, we come to the more popular interpretation of Bartleby as the artist vs. society. Here I rely on Richard Chase’s “A Parable of the Artist” from Herman Melville: A Critical Study (1949).

The short stories of this period of Melville’s life are personal and introspective. Melville was thinking of himself as an artist and trying to understand the artist’s relation to his society. Bearing this in mind and on the internal evidence of the story, there seems no doubt that Melville was consciously writing a parable of the artist… Bartleby is a scrivener – that is, a writer. He insists on writing only when moved to do so. Based by the injunction of capitalist society that he write on demand, he refuses to compromise… The other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers, represent what we might now call “middle-brow” culture. They have sold out to the commercial interests and suffer from the occupational diseases of the compromised artist in a commercial society – neurosis, alcoholism, and ulcers.… They maintain a grudging and suspicious attitude toward Bartleby, their acknowledged superior as a scrivener – the attitude of the uneasy middle-brow toward the genuine artist.

Just a few weeks ago I went off on a rant about the relationship between Art and Commerce, so this piqued my interest. Things get even more interesting when family gets mixed in, since not only were two of Melville’s brothers lawyers, so was his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, and all contributed to the support of the Melville family during the lean years. I think it’s as if Melville is reassuring himself he has made the right choice, for to do otherwise would be to abandon the Artist in favor of Commerce, and look what would happen to both of them.

Chase heads in the direction of family connections as well.

I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.

~~ Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”

In fact, there’s a wealth of analysis out there describing the story as a depiction of Melville as Bartleby and either his brothers or his father-in-law as the Lawyer; in “Melville, Lemuel Shaw, and ‘Bartleby'” John Stark goes so far as to cite a specific legal opinion, Brown v. Kendall (establishing “ordinary care” as the standard in tort law), which Shaw as judge adjudicated. Writers frequently – always? – use writing to work out their own complicated feelings; I think Steve Almond says something in This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey to the effect that it’s why writers become writers. Looking at the family through the lens of Bartleby provides an interesting view. I wonder: did they recognize themselves? Did they care? Did they, for that matter, even read the story? Consider this: today, how many people know the name Allan Melville, or Lemuel Shaw?

In vain I persisted that Bartleby was nothing to me—no more than to any one else.

~~ Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”

But relationships with others aren’t the only relationships we have; what about our relationship with self? We might say, “I’m so proud of myself” or, for that matter, ashamed, when we do something we thought was beyond us. We surprise ourselves all the time, wonder where some feat (or craven act of cowardice) came from. I think it’s pretty common to look back on our younger selves and wonder what we’d think of the person we’ve become, and at least now, it’s almost a parlor game to write a letter to the “you” who will be some number of years from now; even in business, there’s the variation, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” We’re very capable of evaluating ourselves as somewhat, if never entirely, separate from ourselves, even if we can’t quite admit it – or if we often don’t want to.

It’s a common interpretation that Bartleby is the double for the Lawyer, a part of himself he’s not sure he likes, a part that just isn’t cooperating. To pick one, Mordecai Marcus, in “Melville’s Bartleby As a Psychological Double”:

Evidence that Bartleby is a psychological double for the lawyer-narrator is diffused throughout the story, in details about Bartleby and in the lawyer’s obsessive concern with and for Bartleby. The fact that Bartleby has no history, as we learned at the beginning of the story and in a later dialogue, suggests that he has emerged from the lawyer’s mind.

The professional friends represent the rationality of the “normal” social world, an external force which recalls the lawyer from his tentative acceptance of the voice of apparent unreason represented by Bartleby….The last action which suggests identification of the two occurs when in the prison yard Bartleby behaves as if the lawyer is responsible for his imprisonment and perhaps for his hopeless human situation as well.

I can see this easily: the Youth confronting the Adult he has become, particularly in the prison scene when the Lawyer visits and is rebuffed: “”I know you,” he said, without looking round,—”and I want nothing to say to you.” This is perhaps the clearest point, for me, of the double interpretation, the artistic Youth wanting nothing to do with the practical, commercial Adult who first demands, then abandons, then imprisons him and lets him die. Of course, the Adult did none of these things directly to Bartleby, but it must seem that way to the Youth inside, betrayed following peer pressure, whose promise, needs, desires went unfulfilled in favor of what turned out to be a rather trivial life. It’s an accusatory look back on what could have been.

I’m interested in Marcus’ observation that “The lawyer is not visibly changed after a struggle with his double.” This echoes Chase’s comment about the father/son nature of the pair here and in “Benito Cereno” in that the son-figure dies but the father-figure remains unenlightened. I do see a similarity in the two stories: the main character is baffled by the odd behavior of a second character, yet is unable to resolve the problem which eventually comes to a messy end. And there’s the ambiguous utterance in both stories: Benito Cereno’s last words, “The negro,” is as intriguing as “I would prefer not to.”

Without any symbolic interpretation, the relationship is just as interesting. The Lawyer is baffled, alternates between private rage and tolerance, and seems to feel some strong connection to Bartleby. It’s highly unusual; under no circumstances would an employer permit such an employee to remain past the first refusal to perform an expected part of his duties. It’s the sort of reaction I recall from some hidden-camera scenarios, where people will tolerate incredible strangeness, possibly out of fear that they are misunderstanding or overreacting. But this tolerance lasts past the credible stage for Bartleby; yet it remains a credible story. Puzzling, perhaps, but not farcical or outlandish.

The “I would prefer not to” line gets all the attention, but there are others: “I know where I am” speaks volumes to me.

If Melville had published this story today, say, in The New Yorker (it has the proper elements of the classic TNY story: urban setting, ambiguity), he’d have done a Page-Turner interview and answered questions about exactly what he meant by every puzzling phrase. When the story ended up anthologized in a prize volume (wouldn’t it?) he’d do more interviews, end notes, and explanations, and by the time I got to it, I’d be able to determine exactly what he was thinking. Perhaps there’d be some commentary, a few people who would go past what was offered, link what was said to a theory about short stories or psychology or lawyers that they hold near and dear, but we wouldn’t have hundreds of books and tens of thousands of essays putting forth ideas.

I think we would’ve lost something very special. There’s a lot to be said for each of us reading the text and creating a story unique to us, a story that includes episodes from our pasts and hopes for our futures, instead of looking at the story as something with a definitive answer that could appear on a midterm in multiple-choice form. Ah, humanity.


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