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~~ A Cultural Context for "Bartleby the Scrivener" ~~



There's a Certain Slant of Light
Emily Dickenson

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—

Heavenly Hurt it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are—

None may teach it-Any—
'Tis the Seal Despair—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air—

When it comes, the Landscape Listens—
Shadows-hold their breath;
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance—
On the look of Death—

Like many reviewers had begun to do, Fitz-James O'Brien in 1853 ripped into Herman Melville and his newest novel Pierre... The same magazine (PUTNAM'S MONTHLY MAGAZINE (NEW YORK), FEBRUARY 1853) that ran O'Brien's slashing review had no qualms publishing Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" later that year (in its Nov./Dec. issue).

The exerpt of O'Brien's review from PUTNAM'S that follows should provide some context for understanding the status of Melville's reputation by the time he published "Bartleby the Scrivener." (If you're interested, you can read through the entire review here.) Just previous to this excerpt, O'Brien has poured out in great rivers his most lavish praise for Melville's earlier work, his sea adventure novels. But as he turns to Melville's more recent work, particularly his latest novel, Pierre, the tone of his review changes sharply.


Mr. Melville does not improve with time. His later books are a decided falling off, and his last scarcely deserves naming; this however we scarce believe to be an indication of exhaustion. Keats says beautifully in his preface to "Endymion," that "The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy, but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted."

Just at present we believe the author of Pierre to be in this state of ferment. Typee, his first book, was healthy; Omoo nearly so; after that came Mardi, with its excusable wildness; then came Moby Dick, and Pierre with its inexcusable insanity. We trust that these rhapsodies will end the interregnum of nonsense to which Keats refers, as forming a portion of every man's life; and that Mr. Melville will write less at random and more at leisure, than of late. Of his last book we would fain not speak, did we not feel that he is just now at that stage of author-life when a little wholesome advice may save him a hundred future follies. When we first read Pierre, we felt a strong inclination to believe the whole thing to be a well-got-up hoax. We remembered having read a novel in six volumes once of the same order, called The Abbess, in which the stilted style of writing is exposed very funnily; and, as a specimen of unparalleled bombast, we believed it to be unequalled until we met with Pierre. In Mardi there is a strong vein of vague, morphinized poetry, running through the whole book. We do not know what it means from the beginning to the end, but we do not want to know, and accept it as a rhapsody. Babbalanja philosophizing drowsily, or the luxurious sybaritical King Media, lazily listening to the hum of waters, are all shrouded dimly in opiate-fumes, and dream-clouds, and we love them only as sensual shadows. Whatever they say or do; whether they sail in a golden boat, or eat silver fruits, or make pies of emeralds and rubies, or any thing else equally ridiculous, we feel perfectly satisfied that it is all right, because there is no claim made upon our practical belief. But if Mr. Melville had placed Babbalanja and Media and Yoomy in the Fifth Avenue, instead of a longitude and latitude less inland; if we met them in theatres instead of palm groves, and heard Babbalanja lecturing before the Historical Society instead of his dreamy islanders, we should feel naturally rather indignant at such a tax upon our credulity. We would feel inclined to say with the Orientals, that Mr. Melville had been laughing at our beards, and Pacha-like condemn on the instant to a literary bastinado. Now Pierre has all the madness of Mardi, without its vague, dreamy, poetic charm. All Mr. Melville's many affectations of style and thought are here crowded together in a mad mosaic. Talk of Rabelais's word-nonsense! there was always something queer, and odd, and funny, gleaming through his unintelligibility. But Pierre transcends all the nonsense-writing that the world ever beheld.

Thought staggers through each page like one poisoned. Language is drunken and reeling. Style is antipodical, and marches on its head. Then the moral is bad. Conceal it how you will, a revolting picture presents itself. A wretched, cowardly boy for a hero who from some feeling of mad romance, together with a mass of inexplicable reasons which, probably, the author alone fathoms, chooses to live in poverty with his illegitimate sister, whom he passes off to the world as his wife, instead of being respectably married to a legitimate cousin. Everybody is vicious in some way or other. The mother is vicious with pride. Isabel has a cancer of morbid, vicious, minerva-press-romance, eating into her heart. Lucy Tartan is viciously humble, and licks the dust beneath Pierre's feet viciously. Delly Ulver is humanly vicious, and in the rest of the book, whatever of vice is wanting in the remaining characters, is made up by superabundant viciosities of style.

Let Mr. Melville stay his step in time. He totters on the edge of a precipice, over which all his hard-earned fame may tumble with such another weight as Pierre attached to it. He has peculiar talents, which may be turned to rare advantage. Let him diet himself for a year or two on Addison, and avoid Sir Thomas Browne, and there is little doubt but that he will make a notch on the American Pine.

(Quotations that follow within my remarks below are from an excellent scholarly study of several well-known 19th century American writers and their relation to the popular culture of their day, Beneath the American Renaissance by David Reynolds. I apologize if these notes seem rough—I hope they're helpful anyway.)

Melville was fascinated by the "sensational literature" of his day. In many ways, he was caught up in the great stream of popular literature that flooded American city streets in the wake of the advent of the penny presses, which churned out cheap papers and pamphlets exploiting the public taste for criminal, erotic, and demonic stories. By the end of the 1850s, sensational literature had been so ubiquitous that one writer wearily observed how "No narrative of human depravity or crime can shock or horrify an American reader" (Reynolds). Any attempts to upbraid the perpetrators of these penny papers and presses, to moralize them into submission, just popularized them all the more, as readers flocked to see what all the fuss was about. Apparently the American appetite for stories of crime, adventure, broken taboos, horror, gore, murder, incest, all manner of perversity, was practically insatiable. The more shocking the better.

Many of those whom we consider our great 19th century writers—Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, to name three who worked in the short story genre—were swept up in this popular sensationalist literature, deeply immersed in it. They came out of it in their own ways. Poe would mine those penny papers for story ideas, and they provided the genesis for many of his so-called "horror" and crime stories. Hawthorne, according to his son, was "pathetically addicted" to the crime pamphlets that circulated widely in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. When Hawthorne was in Liverpool, as an American consul, he had bundles of these papers shipped over to him. He just couldn't be without them. And Melville also was affected in his own way, as we'll see.

One of the more popular stereotypes that arose out the mire of this sensational literature was the "likable criminal" or the "justified pariah." The Billy the Kids were as popular then as they are now. We're still intrigued by the rugged lawlessness of this outsider, who breaks the laws, and makes the laws seem unjust. Bob Dylan expressed (and embodied) the same idea in the sixties when he wrote, "to live outside the law, you must be honest." And that's exactly what Melville's characters came to be, those paradoxically noble ne'er-do-wells. They were one clear debt he owed to the sensational materials he kept his eye trained on. The likable criminal or the justified pariah was the only character with force enough to fully confront the powerful, but deeply entrenched forces robbing the rest of us blind.

But those forces would never give up without a fight. A popular counterforce to America's street fascination with these dark, ambiguous heroes (and with the radical democrats in general) emerged in New York circles, broadly represented by the Young America movement. Writers in this movement were characterized by their ability to don a comfortable conventionality, to achieve a smoothness, genteelness, a polish that would play well "across the water." All the darker elements, the troublesome moral ambiguities, were expelled. It was this "sanitized" literature that Melville deeply hated and which he satirized in his largely misunderstood novel Pierre. A down-to-earth democrat, Melville disliked the bland, elitist sterile conventionality that pervaded the (influential) Young America movement. He felt its values were false, willfully blind to the paradoxes surrounding the idealistic but violent reality of life in America, and that "to be a fully American democrat, one with a realistic vision of the world, was to be a justified pariah, a rebel against what seemed a corrupt society" (Reynolds). The wealthy, aristocratic classes, hiding thier hypocrisy and greed behind that very gentility, feeding off the rest of us from their seats of power, would only be exposed, could only be defeated by the paradoxically likable outlaw. Moby Dick, Melville's masterpiece, is a complex blend of just such paradoxical men—the humane cannibal, the inspiringly robust but monomaniacal captain out for revenge, the good but ineffectual Starbuck, the terrifying force of the whale itself. (But in addition to its thematic complexity, Moby Dick was a full seventy years ahead of its time stylistically, and although some critics reviewed it favorably, it never found a reading audience until the modernists rescued it in the 1920s. At that time he was recognized as one of their own.)

"Bartleby the Scrivener," like a lot of Melville's fiction, came streaming from the same literary spring that gushed out much of the sensationalist literature of his day. There was one novel in particular that seems to have been extremely influential. George Foster, in 1849, wrote a novel called New York Slices that essentially "exposed Wall Street as a totally dehumanizing environment producing puppet-like people and universal misery cloaked by gentility" (Reynolds). It contained a "pale young man" (every office had one, Foster wrote) who lived daily with the understanding that he might suffer the loss of everything at a moment's notice. These pale young men were slashing their wrists all across New York, the novel suggested. Also in Foster's novel: a scene to describe the Tombs (a New York prison), a place that epitomized the very bottom of the pit, the very worst depravity a man might fall into; another scene where Broadway appears alive at noon, but deserted and dead in the gray early morning light; and yet another scene in which the city's pawn shops appear as repositories for possessions of the dead or people who've fallen into poverty. "Bartleby the Scrivener" appears to be a literary version of a similar kind of tale, and it borrows heavily from many of Foster's central images. The difference in Melville's story is his literary skill, his inventiveness—the form he gave to his material—his "skillful invention of the flawed narrator, the symbolism of the setting and the imagery of the "walls," the psychological and metaphysical richness of the characters" (Reynolds). But there's definitely a debt to George Foster, a friendly fellowship in purpose and theme, and the parallels between the tales abound.

Bartleby is a kind of "likable pariah" in as much as he embodies the smoothness, the genteel qualities of conventional society. There's nothing "dirty" or unpleasant or evil about him. He's a thoroughly conventional young man, albiet pallid and even "cadaverous," a kind of ghostly walking dead. You can feel Melville's satiric hand, his vindictiveness against that kind of empty display in the way he draws Bartleby's character. The man literally sinks into his death, curled up on the grass at the Tombs, with utter decorum and gentlemanliness—never a harsh word, no mess, no gore, no popular American sensationalism to it at all. He just dies ever so passively, ever so politely, passing into the next world leaving no blood on anyone's hands. While we get to know him, he's the "pale young man" (a cadaver, in Melville's hands) who along the way to conventional "success" loses his sense of the meaning of it all, who succumbs in puppet-like fashion and with mechanical regularity to his own despair. Bartleby seems almost inhuman himself, and perhaps Melville means him be. Turkey and Nippers, although we may identify with them more easily, are no less mechanistic than Bartleby in the regularity, the predictability of their responses. With clockwork precision they "complement" one another's shifting moods, performing their tasks in equally servile, puppet-like fashion. The office where everyone works itself seems more like a cage than a human habitation—shouldn't a work place be habitable?—with its walls in every window, its lone shaft of light from above. Bartleby, poor man, upon arrival is placed in a cage within a cage—his rebellion, a pitiful joke. There is no rebellion. There is no one listening. There is only the interminable self-interest of the powerful.

On the one hand we feel something for Bartleby. His utter despair seems real, as real as the "heavenly hurt" in Dickenson's poem. His death, his life is pathetic. But...I swear I can hear Melville laughing when Bartleby dies.

Read Melville's works, or about Melville's works, at The Life and Works of Herman Melville, a website "dedicated o disseminating information about Herman Melville on the Internet and the World Wide Web."






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