Sunday, October 05, 2008
Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville
Well, well, well, classics, we meet again. Luckily, this time it’s on my terms!
My edition of Bartleby the Scrivener is by Melville Publishing, published as part of their “Art of the Novella” series to bring this in-between form some recognition. As you may have surmised from my Brooklyn Book Fest entry, each book has a different color cover—arranged just so they look like modern art objects and the feel of the covers is as creamy and pleasing as the toteable size.
I’ve had an interest in reading Melville for a while now but plunging into Moby Dick just seemed unwise. This handsome volume was my chance to sample more than a short story, perhaps dashed off in financially dire times, and less than an epic. Bartleby delivers.
The story is told by the last employer of the titular character, “a rather elderly man.” Bartelby, a scrivener (a copier of legal documents) appears on his doorstep “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn.” The boss decides that he fits in well with the other three in the office, Turkey and Nipper, two dipsos with complementary alcho-clocks and Ginger Nut, a gopher. Melville uses these characters to add humor to the book in a predicable but delightful way. If you are a fan of Dickensian fools, you’ll love these guys.
Bartelby makes little impression on the mind’s eye, but this story is really less about him than about the effect of one man’s curious attitudes on another. He’s a ghost, perhaps of the boss’s lost rebelliousness—an old man; he is comfortable with the rhythms of law, industry and respectability. For, you see, Bartleby’s great distinction from the masses of pale, sickly dudes is that he “prefers not to” do most things. Melville’s choice of this phrase for Bartleby’s character is genius. Fear not, you will be flashed by that genius many times in this short work.
I was hoping to get a larger picture of 19th century New York City from the book, but though a few names, Broadway, Canal and Wall Sts. are bandied about, you really don’t get a feeling of the geography or character of the city.
I predict more Melville in the near future.