Why does a 19th century novella about an obstinate copyist continue to resonate in a time of Instagram, Mars rovers, and electric cars?Literature
The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener, written by Editor in Chief and Publisher Shaun Randol, published by The Mantle as part of our Critical Editions series.
Why does a mid-19th century modernist novella about an obstinate copyist continue to resonate in a time of Instagram, Mars rovers, electric cars, and communication by emoji?
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street was first published anonymously in two installments in Putnam's Magazine, in November and December 1853. The combined story was subsequently included in Melville’s short story collection The Piazza Tales, published in 1856 by Dix & Edwards.
In the story, a Wall Street lawyer hires a clerk whose job it is to hand copy legal documents. From the moment the employer-narrator first sees Bartleby, he is described as incredibly forlorn and forever sad. After a good start of prolific work, Bartleby suddenly refuses to make copies or do any other office task. The feeble clerk registers his protest with a now famous slogan: "I would prefer not to."
Myriad academics have put forth their ideas for Bartleby, the Scrivener’s resilience. The story can be read through the various lenses of resistance, free will, the meaning of work, a critique of labor and capital, religious allegory, a precursor to the human resources corporate function, and the futility of the modern office drama.
Others suggest that Bartleby is a metaphorical stand-in for a grand historical figure. As one Melville biographer remarks, "Bartleby has been associated with everyone from Jesus to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Melville himself…"1
And yes, one can read Bartleby, the Scrivener as a psychological exposition of the writer. In his biography of Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford says Bartleby reflects Melville’s despondency in living hand-to-mouth in pursuit of his one ambition: to write.
To those kind, pragmatic friends and relatives who suggested that he go into business and make a good living, or at least write the sort of books that the public would read — it amounts to pretty much the same thing — Melville kept on giving one stereotyped and monotonous answer: I would prefer not to.2
There is no evidence to suggest that Melville wrote himself into the character of Bartleby. What's more likely is Melville saw in the story an interesting hook on which to hang some of his own experiences. I leave the research to the motivated reader. What’s clear from this wide, speculative range is that Bartleby, the Scrivener, like any great piece of art, is up to the individual’s interpretation.
If Melville’s novella can appeal to anyone at any time, what can make reading Bartleby relevant today? While many of the analyses mentioned above are fascinating, they can be unnecessarily esoteric. One need only put down the quill and descend the ivory tower to have a look around to see why Bartleby remains a powerfully resonant text. To paraphrase the political strategist James Carville, "It’s the economy, stupid."
Ours is a time of vast wealth expansion, comparable to that of the late 19th century’s Gilded Age. Just like in the time of Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, a majority of Americans in the time of Zuckerberg and Bezos feel unjustly left out. The anger is palpable, sometimes rearing its head in movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Extinction Rebellion, and Black Lives Matter. The gross and growing inequity brought on by Silicon Valley’s easy money and an ever-villainous, amorphous Wall Street is enraging.
Since about 1965, the poverty rate in the United States has remained fairly steady, fluctuating between 11 and 15 percent. Meanwhile, the gross domestic product — an oft-cited statistic of the country’s wealth — has grown fourfold from $4.2 trillion to $18 trillion over the same time period.
The economists Jason Furman and Peter Orszag have found that "since 1973, the median family has seen its real income grow only 0.4 percent annually, a rate at which it would take over a century to double." As a result, they say, "28 percent of children have lower income than their parents did."3
In short, during the past few decades, the average American laborer has worked more efficiently over longer hours and seen very little reward. It’s no wonder nearly 70 percent of Americans are not confident that life for their children will be better than their own, and 55 percent believe the "economic and political systems in this country are stacked against people like us."4
So, who has benefited most from these astounding gains? The already rich, of course. While the average annual income for the poorest fifth of American households in 2017 was $12,943, the income for the wealthiest 5 percent was about $375,000.
Moreover, research by the economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman shows that "the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers — about 170,000 families in a country of 330 million people — control 20 percent of American wealth, the highest share since 1929. The top 1 percent control 39 percent of U.S. wealth, and the bottom 90 percent has only 26 percent. The bottom half of Americans combined have a negative net worth."5
Melville’s time was not much different. In the 19th century, there were riots on Wall Street and general strikes across the country as the underclasses revolted against growing social and economic inequality. While Melville was writing Bartleby, the Scrivener immigrants and the destitute lived in squalor while the likes of Astor and Carnegie were amassing unfathomable fortunes. Times change, and yet some things seem to stay the same.
For today’s average American, making $31,000, it can be extremely frustrating to see the country’s wealth — and the wealthiest among them — grow richer by the year and yet feel that they can hardly get ahead, let alone keep up. More agonizing, perhaps, is the fact that the wealthiest seem to be making money out of thin air. Gone are the days when wealth could be visibly attributed to building railroads, running department store chains, or manufacturing household appliances.
Silicon Valley technologies, a huge driver of wealth creation for coastal elites, are often ethereal and intangible — think social networks, apps, and algorithms.
Moreover, the financialization of the economy means, "in contrast to earlier decades, the increase in income concentration over the past 15 years derives from a boom in the income from equity and bonds at the top."6 It’s hard to grasp how wealth can be derived from exotic products like derivatives, call options, and collateralized debt obligations because, well, they literally can’t be grasped.
In other words, Wall Street and Silicon Valley are the conceptual locales where vast sums of wealth are made and hoarded. Thus Big Banks and Big Tech are justifiably targets of scorn and resentment.
And so, Bartleby, the Scrivener is more relevant today than perhaps ever before because, like the story’s namesake and its author, Americans are exhausted, fed up, broke, and stuck. In Bartleby, readers recognize a hero, forlorn and tragic as he may be, who resists the mindless and frustrating experience of work that just doesn’t pay — be it financially or spiritually.
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- 1. Laurie Robertson-Lorant, Melville: A Biography (Clarkson Potter, 1996)
- 2. Lewis Mumford, Herman Melville (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1929)
- 3. Jason Furman and Peter Orszag, “WP 18-4: Slower Productivity and Higher Inequality: Are They Related?” (Peterson Institute for International Economics, June 2018): http://bit.ly/31eQ36H.
- 4. NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey (Study #17281, July 8-12, 2017): https://on.wsj.com/2HZXgQk.
- 5. Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, “Wealth Inequality in the United States Since 1913: Evidence From Capitalized Income Tax Data,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics (vol. 131, no. 2, May 2016): http://bit.ly/2EVpWrW; Ben Steverman, “The Wealth Detective Finds the Hidden Money of the Super Rich,” Bloomberg Businessweek (May 23, 2019): https://bloom.bg/2KzSXgk.
- 6. Saez and Zucman.