Bartleby and Manhattan

While preparing some lectures on the subject of New York City, that is, the present landscape in which an astonishing number of people still live, sustaining as they do the numerical sensationalism that qualifies New York as one of the great cities of the world, if not the greatest, the orotund greatest being reserved with an almost Biblical authority for our country as a whole; and also on “old New York,” with its intimidating claim to vanished manners and social dominion, its hereditary furnishings of aggressive simplicity and shy opulence which would prove an unsteady bulwark against the flooding of the nouveau riche—during this reading I thought to look again at Melville’s story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” because it carried the subtitle: “A Story of Wall Street.”

There did not appear to be much of Wall Street in this troubling composition of 1853 about a peculiar “copyist” who is hired by a “snug” little legal firm in the Wall Street district. No, nothing of the daunting, hungry “Manhattanism” of Whitman: “O an intense life, full to repletion and varied! / The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!” Nothing of railroad schemes, cornering the gold market, or of that tense exclusion to be brought about by mistakes and follies in the private life which were to be the drama of “old New York” in Edith Wharton’s novels. Bartleby seemed to me to be not its subtitle, but most of all an example of the superior uses of dialogue in fiction, here a strange, bone-thin dialogue that nevertheless serves to reveal a profoundly moving tragedy.

Out of some sixteen thousand words, Bartleby, the cadaverous and yet blazing center of all our attention, speaks only thirty-seven short lines, more than a third of which are a repetition of a single line, the celebrated, the “famous,” I think one might call it, retort: I would prefer not to. No, “retort” will not do, representing as it does too great a degree of active mutuality for Bartleby—reply perhaps.

Bartleby’s reduction of language is of an expressiveness literally limitless. Few characters in fiction, if indeed any exist, have been able to say all they wish in so striking, so nearly speechless a manner. The work is, of course, a sort of fable of inanition, and returning to it, as I did, mindful of the old stone historical downtown and the new, insatiable necropolis of steel and glass, lying on the vegetation of the participial declining this and that, I found it possible to wish that “Bartleby, the Scrivener” was just itself, a masterpiece without the challenge of its setting, Wall Street. Still the setting does not flee the mind, even if it does not quite bind itself either, the way unloaded furniture seems immediately bound to its doors and floors.

Melville has written his story in a cheerful, confident, rather optimistic, Dickensian manner. Or at least that is the manner in which it begins. In the law office, for instance …

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