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David Sandberg has long insisted that this is a great story and, after finally caving in and reading it despite his recommendation, I heartily concur.  Melville is, of course, best known for his epic novel Moby Dick, but he also wrote some great short fiction, including Billy Budd and Bartleby.

In Bartleby, he may have written one of the first significant pieces of literature to give voice to the dehumanizing aspects of the modern industrial compartmentalized workplace.  Has there ever been a less desirable job title than scrivener?  They were employed by lawyers to transcribe legal documents, and if that isn't inhuman enough, the office in which Bartleby works has windows which face the brick walls of surrounding skyscrapers.  Bartleby mystifies his employer, our narrator, first by refusing to assist in proof reading documents, averring "I would prefer not to."  But in short order he is preferring not to do most anything, including leave the building after he is fired.  Bartleby is finally removed by the police and starves to death in the Tombs, preferring not to eat.

Melville keeps Bartleby, like Moby Dick,  shrouded in mystery.  The only explanation offered for his behavior is that he was forced to leave his patronage job in a dead letter office when administrations changed over.  This leaves the reader free to freight Bartleby with any significance one desires and makes him a truly haunting figure.


In Herman Mellville's short work "Bartleby the Scrivener" we see the first vague stirring of the coming Socialist revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist economic model. The work is prescient and moving. We are first introduced to the narrator - a man who proudly identifies himself as petit bourgeois and a toad of the industry owning proletarian exploiting classes. Indeed, in the first few paragraphs he mentions the name of John Jacob Astor, one of the very worst of the early oligarchic exploiters of the north American industrial revolution. The narrator feels sickeningly pleased at Astor's encouraging and stroking comments about his dedication and commitment to the exploitative capitalist system. A small financier and lawyer whose legal efforts buttress the repulsive financial system of mid 19th century New York, the narrator is intellectually unsound, ethically bankrupt, and lost in quasi-religious middle class fantasies about his own inherent goodness. He has toads of his own who croak to his whims and tunes. He even belittles them for us - demonstrating the flaws of their characters which seem far worse to him than his own terrible inadequacies.  The narrator is a small man with a small mind - lost in ledger books and incapable of imagining a fairer and more equitable economic class system.

Then we are presented to Bartleby - a scrivener. At first Bartleby is the perfect office drone supporting the horrendous machinations of an economic work model which serves to  denigrate the American working classes. He is productive and servile and this pleases the weak character of the narrator who can only thrive where his limited ideas and mentality are not challenged by persuasive and objective truth. But then Bartleby through some a priori channel begins to reject the system in which he is a key part. he refuses to perform the job functions for which he was hired. At first this rebellion is poo pooed by the narrator who dismisses it as illness or madness. But as Bartleby's rejection of the activities of the lawyer's office grows he becomes a threat both to the authority structure and the ideology that surrounds it. Bartleby's righteous rejection of capitalism is never sadly articulated but he presages socialism through his actions. We cheer as he calmly and flatly refuses to continue with his
demeaning work functions. Bartleby is the man "ahead of his time". Though he has no ideological training and precedes Marx and Hegel, Bartleby senses the waves that will bring them into being in the river of history.

Once Bartleby has rejected the economic structure and challenged the authority of his employer he must die. The employer of course wants to feel that he is being kind and sensitive to his work - but his pseudo-kindnesses and quixotic kindnesses and cruelties to Bartleby help to destroy him. The narrator cannot destroy bartleby outright because he is weak and he knows in his heart that Bartleby is right and represents the future--so he both abandons and supports Bartleby as he is taken off to prison to die for his sin  of rejecting the capitalist system. The narrator is the very worst kind of capitalist - intellectually soft, ideologically despicable, and a hated supporter of the monied imperialist elite. And yet even he, bad as he is, can see the inherent rightness and verisimilitude of the scrivener he seeks to destroy. The narrator is Judas Iscariot, and he knows it. We watch him destroy himself as he destroys Bartleby. The narrator is a hypocrite and a fool. But Bartleby is very interesting. He knows that there is
some better way of living in the world - but lacking the ideas and education which would help him to formulate basic socialist principles he simply refuses to carry on carrying on. He knows there is a better world - but he cannot articulate what that world is or how it should be ordered.  And he is destroyed before he can find the rationale. Bartleby is the archetypal socialist. We cheer him on.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Herman Melville (3 books reviewed)
Herman Melville Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Herman Melville
-PODCAST: 10 Essential Questions About Moby-Dick: From The History of Literature Podcast with Jacke Wilson (History of Literature, January 30, 2023)
-ESSAY: 100 YEARS OF BILLY BUDD (Lafayette Lee, 3/23/24, IM1776)
    -ESSAY: What Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” Tells Us About Memory Loss: Dasha Kiper on Understanding and Caring For Dementia Patients (Dasha Kiper, March 23, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Melville Reborn, Again and Again: A scholar traces Herman Melville’s reputation in American and British literary circles. (Matthew Wills September 28, 2014, Jstor)
    -ESSAY: Ishmael’s Real Name Was Jonah: The Interpretive Key that Allows Us to See Melville’s Work as a Unified Whole (Will Hoyt, 8/29/20, University Bookman)
    -ESSAY: Cooking with Herman Melville (Valerie Stivers April 16, 2021, Paris Review)
    -ESSAY: Herman Melville and the Desolation of Solitude (Jason Katz, 11.23/20, Ploughshares)
    -ESSAY: Satire, Symbolism, and the “Working Through” of Historical Ghosts in The Confidence-Man (Alex McDonnell Articles, Issue 10 2020-21, Irish Journal of American Studies)
-REVIEW: of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade By Herman Melville Edited by Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer (Roger K. Miller, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: of The Value of Herman Melville, by Geoffrey Sanborn (Daniel Ross Goodman, Imaginative Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Cook, Neither Believer Nor Infidel: Skepticism and Faith in Melville’s Shorter Fiction and Poetry (Zach Hutchins, Irish Journal of American Studies)

Book-related and General Links:
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "herman melville"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "Melville, Herman"
    -ETEXTS : Herman Melville (Bartleby)
    -The Herman Melville Page  (1819-1891) (Palo Alto College) : The Life and Works of Melville
    -Herman Melville (Academy of American Poets)
    -Literary Research Guide: Herman Melville (1819 - 1891)
    -The American Renaissance : Herman Melville (A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page)
    -EXCERPT : Melville, Typee; Omoo, Mardi, Moby Dick (Section by Carl Van Doren from the Cambridge History of American Literature)
    -ESSAY : Being as Refusal: Melville's Bartleby as Heideggerian Anti-Hero (Louise Sundararajan, Janus Head)
    -ESSAY :   Melville in Manhattan (J. Bottum, First Things, October 1997)
    -ESSAY : Melville's Magic Mountain (William T. Vollmann, Civilization, 02/01/98)
    -ESSAY : Our Jerusalem (Jonathan Rosen, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Writers Can be Friends (Linda Bamber, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : COLLECTING HERMAN MELVILLE  (William S. Reese, From The Gazette of the Grolier Club, 1993)
    -LINKS : Herman Melville (Books Unlimited uk)
    -ARCHIVES : "Herman Melville" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of  JOURNALS By Herman Melville. Edited by Howard C. Horsford with Lynn Horth (James D. Bloom, , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of HERMAN MELVILLE By Elizabeth Hardwick (Erica Da Costa, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   Herman Melville, by Elizabeth Hardwick Another Brief and Daring Bio: Teasing, Tangled Melville Yarn (David Michaelis, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW: of "Herman Melville" by Elizabeth Hardwick A great critic takes on a great novelist, finding agony, homoeroticism and, ultimately, mystery (Maria Russo, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Melville by Elizabeth Hardwick (Thomas Curwen, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : Go East, Young Man Trekking to the Holy Land.  American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania by Hilton Obenzinger (Bruce Kuklick, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW : of Herman Melville A Biography. Volume 1, 1819-1851. By Hershel Parker (Paul Berman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of MELVILLE A Biography. By Laurie Robertson-Lorant (David Kirby, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE CIVIL WAR WORLD OF HERMAN MELVILLE By Stanton Garner (Christopher Benfey, NY Times Book Review)

    -ETEXT : Moby Dick or, The Whale (1851) By, Herman Melville
    -Online Study Guide : Moby Dick (Jia-Rui Chong , Spark Notes)
    -SUMMARY : Moby Dick  by Herman Melville (1819 - 1891) (Awerty Notes)
    -An Interactive version (etext & essays)
    -Nantucket's Tried-Out Moby-Dick: Robert A. diCurcio's COMPANION READER to Melville's Masterpiece
    -ARCHIVES : "Moby Dick"  (Find Articles)
    -ESSAY : MEN, BOYS AND WIMPS  (George Stade, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : MOBY-DICK (Milton R. Stern, ADE Bulletin)
    -ESSAY : The Scared White Doe: Glimpses of Hawthorne's Influence on the Composition of Moby-Dick (Andy Cline, English 518, Great American Writers I, fall semester 1996, UMKC)
    -ESSAY : Ishmael's New Testament:  Salvation in Moby Dick (James Bair, Electronic Eclectic)
    -ESSAY : Boiling Down the Blubber in "The Try Works" (Jon DeCristofaro)
    -ESSAY : Moby Dick: Mystery and the Chase (Greg Dixon)
    -ESSAY : What's Eating Ahab? The Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby-Dick.(Mark Edelman Boren, Style)
    -ESSAYS : on Moby Dick by American Experience II 1996-1997 GlenOak High School, Canton OH
    -ESSAY : Old Fleece and Religion (Rolin Moe, Engl 307, Dr. Hendricks)
    -ESSAY : The Golden Carp and Moby Dick: Rudolfo Anaya's Multi-Culturalism (Theresa M. Kanoza, Melus)
    -ESSAY : The Power of Blackness: Richard Wright Re-Writes Moby-Dick. (Elizabeth Schultz, African American Review,  Winter, 1999)
    -ESSAY : Notes on Moby Dick
    -REVIEW : of Moby Dick (Bryan Appleyard, New Statesman, March 13, 1998)
    -REVIEW : of MOBY DICK By Herman Melville. Adapted and illustrated by Allan Drummond (Molly E. Rauch, NY Times Book Review)

    -REVIEW : of MEN AND WHALES By Richard Ellis (Robert Finch, NY Times Book Review)

    -ARCHIVES : "The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex" (Find Articles)
    -ARTICLE : Wreck of the Whaleship That Spawned Moby-Dick : The true story that inspired Herman Melville is back in print: The  Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase recounts a harrowing experience (Duncan Spencer, Insight on the News)
    -REVIEW : of IN THE HEART OF THE SEA The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex By Nathaniel Philbrick  (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of STOVE BY A WHALE Owen Chase and the Essex. By Thomas Farel Heffernan (Walter Goodman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE JONAH MAN  By Henry Carlisle (Timothy Foote, NY Times Book Review)

    -ESSAY : Fabricating ideology: clothing, culture, and colonialism in Melville's 'Typee.' (S.X. Goudie, Criticism, March 22 1998)

    -ANNOTATED REVIEW : (Medical Humanities, NYU)

    -Billy Budd Guide
    -ETEXT: Herman Melville: Billy Budd (Bibliomania)
    -Annotated ETEXT: Herman Melville  BILLY BUDD,  Sailor
    -ESSAY: Billy Budd and Capital Punishment:  A Tale of Three Centuries  (H. Bruce Franklin, Rutgers)
     -ESSAY: Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville's Novels (Caleb Crain, Columbia)
     -The Curse of the Somers: Billy Budd's Ghost Ship

    -REVIEW : of American Sea Writing A Literary Anthology. Edited by Peter Neill. Foreword by Nathaniel Philbrick (William F. Buckley Jr. , NY Times Book Review)