Thursday, August 17, 2017

"Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853)

Read story by Herman Melville online.

I had forgotten that Herman Melville gave his classic short story the subtitle "A Story of Wall-Street." At first this confused me, thinking of the modern version with skyscrapers and superfast computers. But I think a fair translation of the subtitle is actually more like "A Story of Temping." That's the dynamic it has always had for me (at least, after I'd spent some time temping and then circled back to the story) and ultimately it makes sense of what's often taken as a mystifying or even whimsical and certainly odd little tale. A scrivener in the 19th century was a low-level clerk doing the work of a photocopy machine much more slowly. A photocopy machine might be the best way to think of Bartleby, whose famous calling card is "I would prefer not to." The phrase smacks of countless fits of pique I've seen in office temp workers, including myself a few times, not to mention photocopy machines. You are often right up-close and personal with the absurd in such positions. This is also a situation comedy episode of deference and circumspection beyond reason. Melville's story describes the point at which Bartleby may be said to have snapped, though it is a gentle and barely audible sound, and then the aftermath. The narrator is a principal at the law firm where Bartleby was employed. One day he imperiously calls Bartleby into his office to assist him with proofreading a document (accomplished by one person reading the original aloud while the other scans along on the copy). The abrupt interruption is just one of those indignities of the office day—in 1853 when Melville wrote this story as much as in the 1990s when I toiled as a scrivener (then called "word processor"), and no doubt today as well. No doubt. It's the way office life and work goes. People melt down and blow up and leave behind shrapnel in the form of anecdotes told over and over. In this story it is Bartleby's dogged refusal to work again, with his simple affirmation, "I would prefer not to." This is not an isolated case. I knew a temp who was habitually late to his job—the front-line receptionist for a work group, who spent his long days answering calls and taking messages. One day the entire group was scheduled for a daylong morale-building field trip event. But they couldn't leave the building until Michael (the Bartleby in this story) arrived to "hold the fort down" all day by himself. The group manager was a tiny woman in her '50s who dressed very smartly and liked things to run efficiently. She was furious he was late and dressed him down in front of everyone. He waited for her to leave an opening, probably a question of some kind, to which he replied in a stage voice projected to the rear of the group, "Oh shut up you old cunt, I'm here now." Needless to say he was fired on the spot. Perhaps he works now in the same dead letter office where Bartleby finally arrived. Ah Michael! Ah humanity!

"Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville (Library of America)

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