2019 is a year to celebrate the richness of American literature, as poet James Russell Lowell was born on February 22, 1819, two months ago we marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman, and now we certainly want to pause and note that Herman Melville has his bicentennial natal day on August 1. While many associate Herman Melville with tales of the high seas and exotic locales, we also want to recall Melville, the New Yorker. Assuredly, there are autobiographical elements in his novels Redburn and Pierre that place us in New York, and we should not forget that Moby Dick’s narrator “Ishmael” gives us a little tour of the “insular city of the Manhattoes” before heading off on his epic whaling voyage. But, for now, we’ll take a little walk through the short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”
“Bartleby” makes its first appearance in the periodical Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in two installments in late 1853. Putnam’s was established in New York with the purpose of showcasing American literature, and Herman Melville was recruited to contribute.
Bartleby is an office copyist who famously declares “I prefer not to” to his boss, the lawyer who is the story’s narrator. This calm refusal begins with checking a work assignment and follows with balking at, or rather “preferring not to,” run errands; it extends to demurring at vacating the premises, and, alas, finally to not consuming food when incarcerated.
There is no mistaking the New York City setting: In timeless fashion, Bartleby’s office mates like to patronize food carts during the workday, in this case, the “numerous stalls nigh the Custom House and the Post Office” that sell apples and ginger cakes.
The narrator is precise only to a point about the location of the office. He calls it “No. __ Wall Street” but informs us that it is only a three minute walk to the post office and a bit too far from City Hall. City Hall was the same beautiful structure we know today, but the post office was a renovated church at Liberty and Nassau Street. Bartleby, we would only later learn, had experience working in a post office.
Dating from the time, this atlas, made for fire insurance purposes, can place us in the neighborhood:
The lawyer-narrator’s impotent reactions make up the heart of the story. He allows Bartleby to get away with so much through a mixture of compassion for the scrivener’s poverty and the simple immobilization that comes in response to the flagrant disregard of social norms. Bartleby, he admits, has a “wonderous ascendancy” over him.
However, when he finds himself alone in the office with Bartleby and facing this persistent unwillingness, the lawyer fears his temper could finally get the better of him, extending all the way to violence. He specifically recalls the Colt-Adams murder, an 1841 case that required no explanation to contemporary readers, many of whom consumed illustrated pamphlets about sensational murders and trials. Suffice to say, this matter also involved mundane work—accounting and printing—and a solitary office. The reaction of John C. Colt (brother of firearms inventor Samuel Colt) to his crime of impulse was to pack printer Samuel Adams’s body in a crate and ship it off to New Orleans. Bartleby’s boss’s fears are tellingly revealed in his phrase, “the tragedy of the unfortunate Adams and the still more unfortunate Colt,” seemingly expressing more sympathy for the out-of-control perpetrator than the victim.
Bartleby’s story ends in “The Tombs,” the house of detention where the landlord, acting on behalf of the new office tenant, places him as a vagrant. Melville’s clarification, “the Tombs, or, to speak more properly, the Halls of Justice,” isn’t entirely necessary because even the New York City Directory of 1853 uses the nickname. The moniker, we believe, was drawn from the architecture of the jail and the fashionable mid-century interest in ancient Egypt. Even as the buildings were replaced in the twentieth century, the jail was known to New Yorkers as “The Tombs” until as recently as a generation ago.
Within the jail, an observer likens Bartleby’s pale passivity to notorious forger Monroe Edwards, another famous crime story New Yorkers may have read about in yet another sensational pamphlet.
“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” concludes the narrator. We respond by sending off a Happy Birthday wish to Herman Melville who depicted that humanity in all its perverseness and resilience.
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarians for Printed Collections.