David's Bookclub: Bartleby the Scrivener

11.26.12 12:11 PM ET

Bartleby, the Scrivener must be the most famous short fiction in American literature. The novella's final lines rank among the most quoted in the canon: "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" But we can't read everything, and until this fall I'd never read the story all the way through.

Although told in Herman Melville's more humorous style, Bartleby is a story as enigmatic as anything in Kafka. A lawyer hires a law copyist. Almost immediately the copyist refuses to perform basic elements of his job: proof-reading for example. The refusals quickly escalate, until the copyist is doing nothing at all, excusing himself each and every time with the same phrase: "I would prefer not to." The copyist moves into the office, won't be dismissed, won't accept a gift of money to go away. Finally the lawyer himself changes premises to escape him. Bartleby ends in debtor's prison, where the lawyer visits him and finds him - dead.

The story was weird enough already. Melville then appends an ultra-weird coda:

There would seem little need for proceeding further in this history. Imagination will readily supply the meagre recital of poor Bartleby’s interment. But ere parting with the reader, let me say, that if this little narrative has sufficiently interested him, to awaken curiosity as to who Bartleby was, and what manner of life he led prior to the present narrator’s making his acquaintance, I can only reply, that in such curiosity I fully share, but am wholly unable to gratify it. Yet here I hardly know whether I should divulge one little item of rumor, which came to my ear a few months after the scrivener’s decease. Upon what basis it rested, I could never ascertain; and hence, how true it is I cannot now tell. But inasmuch as this vague report has not been without a certain strange suggestive interest to me, however sad, it may prove the same with some others; and so I will briefly mention it. The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; 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!

Dozens if not hundreds of Ph.D. dissertations have sought to make sense of Bartleby's strange history and sad end. The story is, among other things, a meditation on human suffering. We're invited to assess whether the lawyer narrative is really quite so sympathetic a person as he represents himself as being. The critics of the story make much of the following admission by the narrator, let drop in the course of explaining his indulgence of Bartleby's impossible behavior:

Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange wilfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.

Yet is this second excuse, offered later in the story, not also profoundly true?

My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it.

Is that not how we respond when, to make an example, we read the news from Syria?

I found myself brooding most on this question: what on earth did Melville mean when he subtitled Bartleby, "a story of Wall Street"?

To be sure, the story takes place physically on Wall Street; or rather, above it.

My chambers were up stairs at No. — Wall-street. At one end they looked upon the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom. This view might have been considered rather tame than otherwise, deficient in what landscape painters call “life.” But if so, the view from the other end of my chambers offered, at least, a contrast, if nothing more. In that direction my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which wall required no spy-glass to bring out its lurking beauties, but for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed up to within ten feet of my window panes. Owing to the great height of the surrounding buildings, and my chambers being on the second floor, the interval between this wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern.

The street itself otherwise hardly appears in the book, except when one of the other employees in the office - the lawyer employs two other copyists and a messenger boy - steps out for food or drink. Bartleby never leaves the office. Bartleby subsists on food brought to him, little round, flat ginger cakes sold "six or eight for a penny." Already by the time of Melville's writing, the early 1850s, Wall Street had long lost any residential character. Bartleby might well be the street's only constant inhabitant.

What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall-street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!

Near the end of the story, when he has been turned out of the now-abandoned office, he is described as literally "haunting" Wall Street. Yet though Bartleby is the street's "sole spectator," he sees nothing. The office in which he lives is blind on both ends, and he himself habitually stares only at a blank wall. The man who haunts Wall Street lives unaware of all the street's doings. Even more paradoxically, Bartleby possesses his own secret hoard of wealth, a heavy handful of coins bundled into a handkerchief and secreted in a deep pigeon hole of his desk. He has access to more, for the lawyer presses money upon him, unsuccessfully. Instead, Bartleby ends up jailed for debt, neglected, starved - and suspected, ironically, by his fellow-inmates of forgery. I say "ironically" because forgery is a form of writing, and writing is the work that Bartleby has progressively repudiated and refused.

And there is one of the many punchlines in the whole Bartleby enigma: the protagonist of this great piece of writing is a man who won't write at all - not because he can't, but because he prefers to die rather than pen one more word.