[Close Reading Rainbow Part 2]: Dead Letters, Dead Walls, and Dead Men: Artistic Uncertainty in “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 in New York City. He wrote short stories, novels, and poetry between the 1840s and 1880s. His most famous work is that of Moby-Dick. Despite his recognition and acclaim now as the author of Moby-Dick, in its time the novel nearly ruined Melville’s career as a writer, as the length and complexity of the novel served to alienate his readers and pushed him out of the literary limelight that he experienced through writing adventure/travel novels.

Melville had written travel/adventure stories like Typee: A Peep at Polynesia (1846) and Mardi, and a Voyager Thither (1849), both based on Melville’s own travels in the South Pacific, which were highly regarded during the time and well-received. His two Moby Dick (1851), which he regarded as his masterpiece, and Pierre (1852) were financial and critical bombs. Regarding this dilemma, Melville once wrote to his close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne However, despite his earlier success with these stories, after the publication of Moby-Dick and Pierre, Melville waited in vain for letters assuring him of at least an ounce of critical attention and the possibility of making some sort of profit off of his hard work. Melville admired Hawthorne and wrote an incredibly helpful review of Hawthorne’s collection of tales and sketches Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). He considered Hawthorne as a friend and gave praise to his tales and success as a story teller and his masterful prose style. In one letter Melville laments the underwhelming public response to Moby-Dick: “Dollars damn me; and the malicious devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar… I shall be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most to write, that is banned” Melville continues, “—it will not pay. Yet altogether write the other way I cannot” (Frederick Busch vii-viii).

After the reception of Moby Dick, and Pierre, Melville wrote several short stories that explored the feelings of utter despair and rejection he had felt at the hands of publishes and critics. One of those stories was “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” This tale of frustration and annoyance can be seen as Melville’s own response to what he perceived as his literary downfall. In the story, the narrator relates his experience with a scrivener (law copyist) named Bartleby, who was “the strangest [he] ever saw, or heard of” (Melville 3). The narrator, a lawyer, is considered by many to be a “safe man” because he does a “snug business among rich men’s bonds” (4). He is “a man who, from his youth upwards, [had] been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (3-4). Though he sees himself as a successful and well-to-do lawman, he meets his match when Bartleby begins to work at this office. Bartleby is described as being “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, [and] incurably forlorn!” (11). Hard-working as he seems to be at the beginning of the tale, Bartleby develops a disdain for doing anything that he prefers not to do. Throughout the story, the compromising and adaptable narrator is faced with unchanging and stubborn Bartleby as he prefers not to do anything at all. Bartleby prefers not to do anything to the point that the narrator moves his office because Bartleby won’t leave, and Bartleby is subsequently taken into custody and sent to prison where he dies because he “prefer[s] not to dine…[for i]t would disagree with him; [he being] unused to dinner” (44). Rather than preferring to do anything a sane person would do, Bartleby stares only at the “dead wall” outside his office window, and when he enters prison, he stares at a wall rather than doing anything he is told. Upon further examination after Bartleby’s death, the narrator discovers that he had been employed at the “Dead Letter Office in Washington” where letters that have incorrect return and forwarding addresses are sent, sorted through, and finally burned. Despite the narrator’s efforts to get Bartleby to move and do something, he is unsuccessful. Much like Melville’s own career, he felt that things were not moving, and that publishers and critics were preferring not to consider his work seriously. Through looking at the relationship between the narrator, Bartleby, the wall, and the Dead Letter Office, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” becomes an angry cry from a rejected artist and an accurate depiction of the total anxiety and dejection that struggling artists everywhere no too well. As Melville writes in his letter to Hawthorne, Bartleby exemplifies the emotions surrounding critical and financial failure that Melville felt as he bore the shame associated with what he felt was the “malicious devil… forever grinning in upon [him].”

The narrator feels as though he were secure in his identity as a semi-successful lawyer who is in the know about those under his control, but his interaction with Bartleby proves to expose his true character. He knows the routines, eccentricities, schedules, and personalities of every scrivener in his office. He gives definite and methodical descriptions of his employees three employees: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut

“Turkey was a short, pursy Englishman, of about my own age – that is, somewhere not far from sixty. In the morning, one might say, his face was of a fine florid hue, but after twelve o’clock, meridian – his dinner hour – it blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals; and continued blazing – but, as it were, with a gradual wane – till six o’clock, P.M., or thereabouts; after which, I saw no more of the proprietor of the face, which gaining its meridian with the sun, seemed to set with it, to rise, culminate, and decline the following day, with the like regularity” (5).

Nippers is described as being “a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man, of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers – ambition and indigestion. The ambition was evinced by a certain impatience of the duties of a mere copyist, an unwarrantable usurpation of strictly personal affairs, such as the original drawing up of legal documents. The indigestion seemed betokened in an occasional nervous testiness and grinning irritability, causing the teeth to audibly grind together over mistakes committed in copying; unnecessary maledictions, hissed, rather than spoken, in the heat of business; and especially by a continual discontent with the height of the table where he worked” (7-8).

Ginger Nut, “was a lad, some twelve years old. His father was a car-man, ambitious of seeing his son on the bench instead of a cart, before he died. So he sent him to my office, as a student of law, errand-boy, cleaner and sweeper, at the rate of one dollar a week. He had a little desk to himself, but he did not use it much. Upon inspection, the drawer exhibited a great array of shells of various nuts. Indeed, to this quick-witted youth, the whole noble science of the law was contained in a nutshell” (10).

The narrator is able to easily profile each of his employees and is even able to work within each of their strange personal schedules. They, unknowingly, all work together to make the office work as efficiently, without too much effort needed, as the narrator wants. In each description given, the detail is methodical; it is a brief, but detailed character sketch of each scrivener. From eating habits to grinding teeth, the narrator has each of his employees figured out. They are round characters who have quirks that are relatable and understandable. Turkey can’t work efficiently in the afternoon in evening, so the narrator frontloads his work day and doesn’t give hardly any work to him in the afternoon and evening. Nippers is the opposite; he doesn’t work as hard in the morning, but come the afternoon and evening, his work is admirable. According to what the narrative deems fit, each employee is given specific workloads and tasks to enable the office to function like clockwork.

With Bartleby’s arrival, the narrator knows nothing about him. He has no next of kin or close family relationships that are on record. Bartleby is an enigma. After one of the first instances in which Bartleby “prefers not to” accomplish a task that the narrator expects of him, the narrator “look[s] at [Bartleby] steadfastly. His face [is] leanly composed; his eyes dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises” (13). Although the narrator feels strongly about Bartleby’s insistence that he “prefer not to” do anything, the narrator feels pity rather than anger. At one point the narrator even claims that he became “considerably reconciled to Bartleby. His steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation, his incessant industry (except when he chose to throw himself into a standing revery behind his screen), his great stillness, his unalterableness of demeanor under all circumstances, made him a valuable acquisition.” The narrator even applauds Bartleby’s integrity stating that he “had a singular confidence in his honesty. [He] felt [his] most precious papers perfectly safe in his hands” (20). Though these admissions seem to be heartfelt, the narrator is only trying to reconcile with the fact that Bartleby is no doing what he, the narrator, would prefer that he would do.

These feelings quickly turn to agitation and frustration and finally to apathy, but for a moment the narrator feels as though he has figured Bartleby out. While the narrator believes that he can understand Bartleby’s character, he speculates many of the details that are more readily apparent of his more long-time employees. With the passage of time, Bartleby’s obstinance proves too much for the narrator. After giving up copying completely, Bartleby, according to the narrator, becomes “a millstone to [him], not only useless as a neckless, but afflictive to bear” (29). Bartleby prefers to do nothing but stare at the wall outside of the office, in what he narrator defines as “dead-wall reveries” (24). Though the narrator shows compassion on Bartleby during this, and other occasions, his patience quickly runs dry leaving him with no other choice than to ditch Bartleby and part ways with him. This task becomes difficult for the narrator because, unlike his other employees, he has not yet been able to conquer the wall that is Bartleby.

The wall outside the office serves as an important symbol in both the obstructions faced by the narrator and those faced by Melville. Outside the narrator’s office stands a “lofty brick wall” that is white on one side and “black by age and everlasting shade” (5) on the other side. This wall creates a deficiency “in what painters call ‘life’” (5). Like the wall that stands outside of the office, Bartleby becomes a wall to the narrator; a barrier that prevents him from figuring this employee out and fitting him within the system of the office. Likewise, to Melville, he published his work according to what his readers wanted to read. He knew the publishers like the narrator knows his employees. Much like Melville’s experience with Moby-Dick, he had been publishing in journals, magazines, and periodicals for years before publishing Moby-Dick. He was an experienced and talented writer, but unlike his earlier novels, Moby-Dick was long, complicated, and difficult for readers to grasp. In a sense, Moby-Dick was dense, deep, and in many cases enigmatic. Readers approached it the same way one would approach a towering white and black wall. How can I climb this? Should I even bother? What can I use to destroy this so that I can just get to the other side? For Melville, the same questions were posited when trying to overcome the obstacle of the negative reviews and poor reception of Moby-Dick.

Questions like these are exactly the questions that the narrator asked regarding Bartleby. Before the narrator can truly understand Bartleby’s character, Bartleby is imprisoned and shortly thereafter starves to death. Following his death, the narrator recalls a rumor that was floating around concerning Bartleby’s history:

“Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, from which he had suddenly been removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, hardly can I express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?… a bank-note sent in swiftest charity – he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

In Melville’s attempts to write, publish, and see the success of Moby-Dick, he like the narrator and even in some ways like Bartleby, was met with insurmountably dead-walls, dead letters and submissions, and dead hopes and dreams. Melville’s hopes were not fully actualized until decades after his death. Between his death and the recognition he would later receive at the hands of modernists poets like D.H. Lawrence, his most famous work, his life’s work, sat on the shelf while readers and critics preferred not to recognize him for his masterful prose style and devotion to his craft. Oftentimes writers like Melville who go against conventional writing forms and styles are not widely accepted and recognized in their own time. Melville’s interjection of “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” at the end of the story serves as a sometimes unwelcome reminder to readers and society generally of the importance of supporting and being involved the arts. In a time when civil discourse is on the decline in the media (social or otherwise), we would do well to step back and learn from authors and writers like Melville who hoped to illuminate moral and social issues and help us discover truths that need to be discussed so that we can learn what it really means to be human.

What do you think? What are your thoughts about Herman Melville? What can we learn from “Bartleby” in 2019? What piece of literature would you like to see next on the blog?

Also, a special thanks to Terence Wride for suggesting “Bartleby” for this series! Check him out on WordPress at Wride Rants.

 

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