At the risk of annoying the apolitical or infuriating the politically antithetical, I admit I’m dismayed by all the brickbats hurled at the spreading Occupy Wall Street movement. The main accusations are that OWS, a nonviolent, nonsubsumable protest I find encouraging, is waging class warfare and lacks a coherent message or list of demands.
What would Bartleby say to that?
When I first read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street,” I let out a reflexive chuckle every time the titular character greeted his boss’s request to do work with this mild-mannered reply: “I would prefer not to.” At one point, Bartleby’s boss felt as if he had been “turned into a pillar of salt.” Such was his lot or, in keeping with Genesis 19.26, Lot’s wife. Then he “began to reason with him.”
How long do you think a boss today would reason with Bartleby? My guess is that security guards would have swooped down on him—“drop your pen and back away from your scrivening, sir”—and hustled him to the door before the word “prefer” lolled again from his “I would prefer not to” lips.
One of the greatest American short stories ever written about work, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” was published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1853. By then, Herman Melville had been a bank clerk (starting at age 12), fur-cap store functionary, farmer (twice), country schoolteacher, and whaler deckhand. The best “day job” he ever had was a political appointment in 1866: deputy customs inspector in New York. At various times in his life Melville was broke or heavily in debt, unemployed (especially after the Panic of 1837, akin to our own Great Recession), disparaged by reviewers (especially for his 1852 book, Pierre), deemed crazy by some of his in-laws, and afflicted by rheumatism, sciatica, and faltering eyesight. “All my books are botches,” he noted despondently in a letter to his then better-known and more respected contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The Job of jobs, Melville knew the world of work firsthand and usually failed at it. Would we call him, in the cruel parlance of today, “loser”? I would prefer not to.
Melville died in 1891, by which time his foundering literary reputation had slowly begun to re-aright itself—in England. His home country would take longer to re-assess and re-appreciate his work properly. In fact, the resuscitation of his literary reputation in the United States started in earnest in 1919, the centennial of his birth.
In “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” re-read the coda that Melville wrote for the fictional boss to deliver. Based on a “vague report” of what possibly befell Bartleby, the following lines were surely inspired by Melville’s own multivocational miseries: “Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”
Bartleby, the precursor of Maynard G. Krebs, would have doubtlessly taken a pass on joining the Occupy Wall Street protesters in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. He would have been puzzled by the sight of a crowd hungering for any job, especially one that he would consider more servile than scrivening. But if alive, his literary creator would, I think, have visited and perhaps marched there—even if only to gather background information for his next story of Wall Street.
Still, I don’t think Melville would have bowed to the harsh, dismissive lexicon of today and entitled his new work “Bartleby, the Loser.” Maybe, in light of the kinds of jobs now available to college graduates, he’d entitle it “Bartleby, the Barista.” After all, Melville’s Moby-Dick does have a character named Starbuck.
Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!
[My blog entry for tomorrow, October 25, will resume the subject of work depicted in literature as I discuss the verse of current U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine.]