Friday, August 12, 2011

#13: Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville

Bartleby the Scrivener
by Herman Melville
-born in America, 1819
-80 Pages
-more about Melville (via Goodreads)

Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Herman Melville was born to "double revolutionary descent": a paternal grandfather involved in the Boston Tea Party and a maternal grandfather who fought at Saratoga.
- At 18 he set sail on a whaler, and later based many of his works on his travels.
- Starting with Moby-Dick in 1851, his increasingly complex and challenging work drew increasingly negative criticism.  He stopped publishing fiction after 1857.
- He eventually turned to poetry, convincing relatives to fund the publication of several volumes that did not fare well.
- Drifting into obscurity, he ended up working for the customs house on the docks of lower Manhattan and died in 1891.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism, but to readers around the world—even those daunted by Moby-Dick—Bartleby the Scrivener is simply one of the most absorbing and moving novellas ever. Set in the mid-19th century on New York City’s Wall Street, it was also, perhaps, Herman Melville's most prescient story: what if a young man caught up in the rat race of commerce finally just said, "I would prefer not to"?

The tale is one of the final works of fiction published by Melville before, slipping into despair over the continuing critical dismissal of his work after Moby-Dick, he abandoned publishing fiction. The work is presented here exactly as it was originally published in Putnam's magazine—to, sadly, critical disdain.

My Impressions:
Well I still have no desire to read Moby-Dick, but that is due to my aversion to the ocean rather than because of Melville's writing.  It did take me a couple of pages to get into the rhythm of his vocabulary and sentence structure, but I ended up enjoying it.  There is a subtlety in the storytelling that would be easy to miss, I think.  This story is not one that swept me in and absorbed me, capturing my attention like a passing ambulance; it is one that drew me in slowly and steadily and left me wanting to know much more.
The more I thought over my procedure, the more I was charmed with it.  Nevertheless, next morning, upon awakening, I had my doubts--I had somehow slept off the fumes of vanity.
Have you ever thought about the minute human patterns that we associate with normal or healthy human behavior, and how--if those patterns are altered or absent--we immediately think something is wrong, regardless of whether we are able to define or justify exactly why the unexpected behavior is bad?  Bartleby himself is one item of curiosity in this novella, but equally interesting is how everyone else reacts to him.
But he seemed to be alone, absolutely alone in the universe.  A bit of wreck in the mid-Atlantic.
(With this novella, perhaps because of the jump from the crumbling aristocracy of Russia to the bustling busy-ness of Wall Street, perhaps because of the switch in topics from relationships to business, I feel like my reading has jumped from the past to the almost-present.  I'll soon be back in Russia with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, so we'll see if my feeling holds...America just feels much, much newer than Russia.)

I related the  story of Bartleby to my 12-year-old son (my reader & deep thinker) and the "I would prefer not to" lines had him laughing.  It's such an interesting way of looking at the world--a slight twist in typical behavior, a subtle shift that makes a huge difference.
At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable," was his mildly cadaverous reply.


  1. I read parts of this for lit class. Definitely interesting!

  2. Jillian, it really grew on me--I can see how it would be a good one to teach with. There's a lot to dissect and discuss.

    Heidi, Andrew's been replying "I would prefer not to" with a grin to everything today. It's definitely a phrase with lasting "not of general interest" from Cheaper By the Dozen (did you read that one to your kids?)

  3. This is, obviously, a great story. I've read it a few times and even blogged about it last year ( ). I love the "I would prefer not to" mantra (cool bag in your most recent post too, btw).

    I work in banking, and at one point several years ago, I created a strategy for dealing with auditors, examiners, and coworkers. My "Rain Man/Bartleby Strategy" consists of replying to all questions from auditors and examiners with either the phrase "I don't know" or "Ye-ah" (Rainman) and for coworkers, Bartleby's phrase is recommended. Sadly I've never had the courage to implement this scheme... :-)


  4. Jay, I think that strategy should be implemented posthaste, along with your special attention to words like fortnight (what a great word)...Thanks for directing me to your review; there is so much in this novella worth discussion.


I'd love to hear what you have to say, leave a comment!