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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, the copyists are introduced with their Dickensian tics and their tic-names: Nipper, Turkey, and Ginger-nut. An atmosphere of comedy, of small, amusing, busy particulars, surrounds Bartleby and his large, unofficial (not suited to an office) articulations, which are nevertheless clerkly and even, perhaps, clerical.

The narrator, a mild man of the law with a mild Wall Street business, is a “rather elderly man,” as he says of himself at the time of putting down his remembrances of Bartleby. On the edge of retirement, the lawyer begins to think about that “singular set of men,” the law-copyists or scriveners he has known in his thirty years of practice. He notes that he has seen nothing of these men in print and, were it not for the dominating memory of Bartleby, he might have told lighthearted professional anecdotes, something perhaps like the anecdotes of servants come and gone, such as we find in the letters of Jane Carlyle, girls from the country who are not always unlike the Turkeys, Nippers, and Ginger-nuts.

The lawyer understands that no biography of Bartleby is possible because “the materials do not exist,” and indeed the work is not a character sketch and not a section of a “life,” even though it ends in death. Yet the device of memory is not quite the way it works out, because each of Bartleby’s thirty-seven lines, with their riveting variations, so slight as to be almost painful to the mind taking note of them, must be produced at the right pace and accompanied by the requests that occasion them. At a certain point, Bartleby must “gently disappear behind the screen,” which, in a way, is a present rather than a past. In the end, Melville’s structure is magical because the lawyer creates Bartleby by allowing him to be, a decision of nicely unprofessional impracticality. The competent, but scarcely strenuous, office allows Bartleby, although truly the allowance arises out of the fact that the lawyer is a far better man than he knows himself to be. And he is taken by surprise to learn of his tireless curiosity about the incurious ghost, Bartleby.

The lawyer has a “snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds,” rather than the more dramatic actions before juries (a choice that would not be defining today). He has his public sinecures and when they are officially abolished he feels a bit of chagrin, but no vehemence. He recognizes the little vanities he has accumulated along the way, one of which is that he has done business with John Jacob Astor. And he likes to utter the name “for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it and rings like unto bullion.” These are the thoughts of a man touched by the comic spirit, the one who will be touched for the first time in his life, and by way of his dealings with Bartleby, by “overpowering, stinging melancholy…a fraternal melancholy.”

A flurry of copying demand had led the lawyer to run an advertisement which brought to his door a young man, Bartleby, a person sedate, “pallidly neat, politely respectable.” Bartleby is taken on and placed at a desk which “originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy backyards and bricks, but which owing to subsequent erection, commanded at present no view at all.”

This is a suitable place for Bartleby, who does not require views of the outside world and who has no “views” of the other kind, that is, no opinions beyond his adamantine assertion of his own feelings, if feelings they are; he has, as soon becomes clear, his hard pebbles of response with their sumptuous, taciturn resonance.

Bartleby begins to copy without pause, as if “long famishing for something to copy.” This is observed by the lawyer who also observes that he feels no pleasure in it since it is done “silently, palely, mechanically.” On the third day of employment, Bartleby appears, the genuine Bartleby, the one who gives utterance. His first utterance is like the soul escaping from the body, as in medieval drawings.

The tedious proofreading of the clerk’s copy is for accuracy done in collaboration with another person, and it is the lawyer himself who calls out to Bartleby for assistance in the task. The laconic, implacable signature is at hand, the mysterious signature that cannot be interpreted and cannot be misunderstood. Bartleby replies, I would prefer not to.

The pretense of disbelief provides the occasion for I would prefer not to soon to be repeated three times and “with no uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence.” By the singularity of the refusal, the absence of “because” or of the opening up of some possibly alternating circumstance, this negative domination seizes the story like a sudden ambush in the streets.

Bartleby’s “I” is of such a completeness that it does not require support. He possesses his “I” as if it were a visible part of the body, the way ordinary men possess a thumb. In his sentence he encloses his past, present, and future, himself, all there is. His statement is positive indeed and the not is less important than the “I,” because the “not” refers to the presence of others, to the world, inevitably making suggestions the “I” does not encompass.

Bartleby would prefer not to read proof with his employer, a little later he would prefer not to examine his own quadruplicate copyings with the help of the other clerks, he would prefer not to answer or to consider that this communal proofreading is labor-saving and customary. About his “mulish vagary”—no answer.

As we read the story we are certain that, insofar as Bartleby himself is concerned, there is nothing to be thought of as “interesting” in his statement. There is no coquetry; it is merely candid, final, inflexible. Above all it is not “personal”; that is, his objection is not to the collaborators themselves and not to the activity of proofreading, indeed no more repetitive than daylong copying. The reply is not personal and it is not invested with “personality.” And this the kind and now violently curious and enduring lawyer cannot believe. He will struggle throughout the tale to fill up the hole, to wonder greatly, to prod as he can, in search of “personality.” And the hole, the chasm, or better the “cistern,” one of the lawyer’s words for the view outside Bartleby’s desk, will not be filled.

What began as a comedy, a bit of genre actually, ends as tragedy. But like Bartleby himself it is difficult for the reader to supply adjectives. Is Bartleby mysterious; is his nature dark, angular, subterranean? You are deterred by Bartleby’s mastery from competing with him by your command of the adjective. He is overwhelmingly affecting to the emotions of the lawyer and the reader, but there is no hint that he is occupied with lack, disuse, failure, inadequacy. If one tries to imagine Bartleby alone, without the office, what is to be imagined? True, he is always alone, in an utter loneliness that pierces the lawyer’s heart when he soon finds that Bartleby has no home at all but is living in the office at night.

(No home, living in the office day and night. Here, having exempted this story from my study of Manhattanism because of its inspired occupation with an ultimate condition and its stepping aside from the garbage and shards of Manhattan history, I was stopped by this turn in the exposition. Yes, the undomesticity of a great city like New York, undomestic in the ways other cities are not—then, and still now. Bartleby, the extreme, the icon of the extreme, is not exactly living in the office. Instead he just does not leave it at the end of the day. But it is very easy to imagine from history where the clerks, Nipper and Turkey, are of an evening. They are living in lodging houses, where half of New York’s population lived as late as 1841: newlyweds, families, single persons. Whitman did a lot of “boarding round,” as he called it, and observed, without rebuke, or mostly without rebuke, that the boarding house led the unfamilied men to rush out after dinner to the saloon or brothel, away from the unprivate private, to the streets which are the spirit of the city, which are the lively blackmail that makes city citizens abide.

  1. *

    Melville’s brothers were lawyers, with offices at 10 Wall Street; a close friend was employed in a law office and seems to have been worn down by “incessant writing.” About the story itself, some critics have thought of “Bartleby” as a masterly presentation of schizophrenic deterioration; others have seen the story as coming out of the rejection of Melville by the reading public and his own inability to be a popular “copyist.” Some have found in the story the life of Wall Street, “walling in” the creative American spirit. All of these ideas are convincing and important. “Bartleby” may be one or all of these. My own reading is largely concerned with the nature of Bartleby’s short sentences.

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