In a fit of back-to-work doldrums, I picked up this slender novella which was my first time reading Melville. And what a time it was! Narrated by an unnamed lawyer and set in his Wall Street Office, Bartleby concerns “a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener, the strangest I ever saw or heard of.” On his third day of employment Bartleby does something outré: when asked to help his boss compare an original document to its copy, he mildly and firmly declines with the famous words “I would prefer not to.” Subsequent events are only stranger.
What stood out for me while reading Bartleby was the voice, which is orotund as befits a lawyer and often very funny. You can sense the fun Melville had with language in the narrator’s descriptions of himself:
“I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquillity of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me consider me an eminently safe man. The late John Jacob Astor, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grand point to be prudence; my next, method. I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor, a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion. I will freely add, that I was not insensible to the late John Jacob Astor’s good opinion.”
and his scrivener Nippers, who:
“Though of a very ingenious mechanical turn, Nippers could never get this table to suit him. He put chips under it, blocks of various sizes, bits of pasteboard, and at last went so far as to attempt an exquisite adjustment by final pieces of folded blotting-paper. But no invention would answer. If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk:-then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms. If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stooped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back. In short, the truth of the matter was, Nippers knew not what he wanted. Or, if he wanted anything, it was to be rid of a scrivener’s table altogether.”
The writing throughout is as enjoyable and memorable.
Of course, the question hovering over the tremendous pleasure of reading this novella is: What is it about? It made me think of a Studs Terkel quote:
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
It also encourages me to try Moby Dick.