The year 2019 is witnessing a double feting of Herman Melville. The author was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, and we mostly know of him now because he was plucked from the ranks of obscurity in 1919, when the literary commodity that was Herman Melville was rediscovered in all of its posthumous glory. Melville’s centennial began a journey that the author himself didn’t take in his own lifetime.
Melville knew a first flush of success with the publication of his first two works, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847). The books arose from Melville not really knowing what to do with his life, someone suggesting that he take to the sea, and young Herman doing just that, then fictionalizing a lot of what he saw. These were travelogue novels, lanky on plot, with deep-focus observations spruced up with hyperbole, such that Melville became in hot demand as “the man who lived with cannibals.” They sold well, but Melville—as with all his writing admired by either the public or the critics—felt sickened, a perpetrator of a sham, an artist who had sold out. (His friend Nathaniel Hawthorne would watch this struggle within Melville over the years, certain that the younger author was incapable of achieving a state of contentment in his life or work.)
The most underrated Melville novel of all, Redburn: His First Voyage, followed in 1849, the tale of a merchant seaman written in a litany of styles for a litany of audiences, kind of like a pelagic version of The Pickwick Papers. For those who think Melville writes in an antiquated style, here is proof otherwise, with prose that could have rolled out of bed yesterday morning. Alas, the public had walked away from Melville by this time, Herman himself thought he was being a whore, and so he turned to the composition of Moby-Dick, informing Hawthorne after its completion that he had written a very evil book. Moby-Dick baffled some critics, horrified others, and caused more than a few to play armchair proto-therapist, opining on Melville’s mental health. They’d have ample opportunity to indulge that speculation further upon the publication of Pierre: or, The Ambiguities in 1852.
Pierre was widely panned then and is not widely read today, but Melville considered it his signature work, and, remarkably, the one he assured his publisher would fill both their bank accounts and elevate his name. You could make the case that this is the first true airing of American Modernism, a stateside Ulysses long before Mr. Joyce had gotten to work on his Dublin fixation. The subtitle almost functions as a joke; “ambiguities” is one big white whale of an understatement for a book that plumbs the most metaphysical of souls. Critics pounced. One sententiously expressed hope that Melville’s friends were looking after him, and, as an act of compassion, keeping him far from ink and pen, as if he were an addict seeking to locate the dope needle. Sad!
Well, sad in a sense. Triumphant in our own times, Melville was pissed off in his own—there’s really no other way to put it—and decided to write a short story in response to the reaction from Pierre. It is, in my view, both the best work he ever composed, and one I would personally inject into the bloodstream of every living American at the present moment. Alas, most are too lazy and cocooned to actually read it—which is part of the problem Melville was taking on.
That work was called “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” and was published at the very end of 1853. It’s known today mostly because so many people can quote its famous refrain of “I would prefer not to,” uttered, time and again, by the title character. I know of no other short story, of this age or any other, that is so centrally relevant to the breakdown of our 21st-century minds, our culture, our reason, and our ability to cogitate—with our simultaneous insistence on being coddled, shielded, and lied to, just so we do not have to live life and experience depth of feelings—as “Bartleby.”
The plot is simple. The narrator is a Manhattan lawyer deep into his career, on the backside of the slope. Two scriveners—people who copy out documents—are in his employ, named Nippers and Turkey. These are obviously nicknames—just as there is an office boy, named Ginger Nut, because of his penchant for ginger snap cookies—and they are just as obviously the result of their owners possessing marked degrees of energy. They’re animated, prone to hijinks, but mostly good workers who wouldn’t suffer to have a more measured personality join them as a role model. The narrator interviews Bartleby for the gig. He’s professional, even phlegmatic—a good guy to have in a crisis, the narrator thinks. He hires him.
It’s important to note that Bartleby begins his career as a paragon of earnest industriousness. He is active. He zigs, nags, zooms. He’s akin to the kid who finishes the assignment first, then asks for extra credit opportunities.
This version of Bartleby, before his metamorphosis—for matters are about to get quite Kafkaesque, pre-Kafka—is the metaphorical child. As children, we are all wide-eyed seekers; we wish to uncover truths, not turn our backs on them. We will deal with how they make us feel after. As we shed innocence, we seek to inure ourselves, and this we do now more than ever in the age of the safe space, the performance trophy, and helicopter parenting. Bartleby “grows up,” if you will, which means he no longer leaps into the bed of flowers, but skirts around the edges, assuming that snakes and scorpions must be writhing within, waiting for him—and that would be a reality with which he could not cope.
He does fewer tasks, and spends his day staring out the window—not at a park, or a bustling thoroughfare, but a brick wall. The man is binging a brick wall. It’s his Netflix. The quality of programming, we might say, doesn’t matter. He stares at the wall the way we stare at screens, to help us plaster up our eyes, detach us from the world around us, while telling ourselves that we are doing something with some vague purpose. For Bartleby, it’s about the act of going through the motions of an act; in his case, a desire for the outside world that is not a real desire at all. His boss, our narrator, asks him to do his tasks, and then we are hit with, “I would prefer not to.”
Let’s look at the construction of the line. It’s eminently passive. It’s not a flat refusal, it’s not rude, it puts its emphasis on feelings. It’s safe space talk. Further passiveness comes in the form of that “would.” He could say, “I prefer not to,” but the “would” creates another buffer, separating subject from stated intention by stating the intention more indirectly, but no less clearly. This is the very definition of passive aggressiveness, at least in its verbal form. In its silent form, we might now call it “ghosting.” And make no mistake, ghosting is what Bartleby is doing: both ghosting his employer, while being physically present at work, and ghosting himself with his own life. This is not living. It’s death-in-life, mere existence, protected by a safe space that’s inviolable because the narrator won’t puncture it. He’s not sure how to proceed. He’s at once offended, creeped out, angry, concerned—and curious. He’s never seen anything like this, he’s not sure if this is the new way of the world, and that terrifies him more than anything.
Just as it’s important for Melville to show us Bartleby’s initial childlike qualities, it’s crucial that he reveal the narrator to us as a sympathetic man. He’s trying to get this. It’s against his nature, because he lives. He strives. “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance,” our narrator says. True. What is also true is that the person who practices passive resistance understands this, which allows them to deploy it as weaponry. When they have removed the possibility of censure from the equation—as Bartleby does, and as people do here in the age of the PC-infested safe space—they can mount forms of attack at will. There is no system of checks and balances. It’s a free-for-all of passivity, and aggressive passivity at that.
Melville was also a deeply funny writer, who crackled with pointed, purposeful wit. The narrator quotes one request to Bartleby to do his job being greeted with a quailing, “At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” as if he’s being generous with his time and efforts, flexible, charitable. He is, in short, virtue signaling. He makes himself the victim, and now he is inverting the boss-employer dynamic so that he is the new boss, who is, contra The Who, much different from the old boss.
The narrator terms this reply “mildly cadaverous,” which is funny, and also true; Bartleby is not alive. He exists, but he’s not an absolute, as a human ought to be. He’s the human version of a qualifying remark. The narrator’s problem is that if this is a new form of existence in the world, how can he fit in? He is, remember, older. This is the younger sect, he worries, coming up behind him. Bartleby, meanwhile, is effacing himself right out of his own life. The office is becoming his charnel house—not because he’s such a dedicated worker, but rather because he is not present, quite literally, anywhere else in his world. He starts living at the office.
There are stories of Kafka writing The Metamorphosis and howling with laughter, with his friends thinking he’d lost the plot. It was riotously funny to him, in that way where it feels that the universe has piled up so much against you that you just have to chuckle. When he wrote this part of “Bartleby,” I can picture Melville doubled-over, perhaps with Hawthorne shaking his head and reaching for some calming brandy.
Bartleby starts sleeping at work. Still, the narrator cannot bring himself to fire his scrivener who does no copying. He hopes Bartleby will be roused in time, but together they sail past a tipping point, and he knows that this is how it will remain. We talk now about “living your best life,” a silly notion that usually means, “do as you please, because the world will make allowances for you.” In Melville’s time, there was something called prudence. In fact, this was the era of “new prudence,” which was an over-extension of humane treatments to the point that they became patronizing, and people conflated being patronized with respect. In short, if someone treated you like you were helpless, that meant they cared, not that you were helpless. The same logic applies today.
A little-discussed problem in the story is that the narrator is allowing himself to become helpless as well, by dint of Bartleby’s company and by over-extending himself in trying to help this person who refuses to live actively. Bartleby is clearly depressed, as many of us are in these times. He’s broken, not committed to repair. And he’s encouraged to stay that way, in part, because no one really knows what the hell to do with him.
He gets literally left behind, after having metaphorically left his own life behind. The narrator, unable to evict Bartleby from the office, where he sits on the stairs all day—symbolically going nowhere, reveling in immobility—decides to move his business elsewhere, leaving the new tenants to inherit his former employee. He’s already enabled Bartleby to the tune of asking him to be his roommate, to play Ernie to his Bert, which Bartleby rebuffs. Returning to the old office space after having started work somewhere else on Wall Street, he discovers that Bartleby is still there, and remains so until the new owners have him imprisoned in the Tombs. Again, we are right on the nose, symbolically. The self-prison is a tomb, prison is the Tombs.
Once more, the narrator visits Bartleby, who refuses to take food in his cell. He bribes a guard to try to make sure he eats, but Bartleby—you guessed it—prefers not to, and he dies, formally executing an order that his passive, non-participatory life—if it was indeed a life—had already seen to, informally; which, really, counts for more than enough with these things. The narrator’s concluding words are not as famous as Bartleby’s refrain of deference, but goodness how they tell: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
For the entirety of this story, we have ostensibly focused on one person. But now we realize, with the cry of that last word—humanity—that this was not about the individual, but about a directional flow of the human world, which was something Melville feared in his own time—and did not overrun the world until ours. An awful lot of people are Bartleby right now, decamped on stairwells, going neither up nor down, carping about how they’re being judged unfairly, their vital selves compromised. We are an incarnate mass of “I would prefer not to”s, though we pile on excuses, a level of artifice that Bartleby himself cut from the equation. He was at least honest with himself, honest with the narrator, honest with us, the readers. Perhaps that is a lesson we can take from his story, if we are to reverse the prevailing flow of our lives, so much like his, and head back up the stairs once more with alacrity and purpose in our stride.