2 February 2010

Herman Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street' (1853)

To me the central figure in Herman Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street' represents the spirit of non-conformity in a conformist environment. I far prefer this interpretation to any other, but the story is of course open to other takes.

In Elizabeth Hardwick's Bartleby in Manhattan: And Other Essays (1983), the short essay on 'Bartleby' begins by mentioning some of those other interpretations: it has been seen as a story of schizophrenic deterioration; of Melville's expression of his rejection by the reading public; and of Wall Street '"walling in" the creative American spirit'.* Hardwick adopts a very different approach as she is more interested in analyzing the short sentences spoken by Bartleby himself, and finds that out of 16,000 words in total, the story contains just 37 short lines by Bartleby, one third of which are solely taken up by the famous 'I'd prefer not to' repetition. Interestingly, she sees him as a 'master of language, of perfect expressiveness. He is style.'

I'm grateful to a New York writer for informing me when the essay 'Bartleby in Manhattan' was first published, and for also providing me with a link to a review of the book itself from 1983 in The New York Times.

*First published in The New York Review of Books in 1981.

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