In two installments in November and December of 1853, Putnam’s Monthly Magazine published a longish short story by Herman Melville (1819-1891). “Bartleby, The Scrivener” gained little notice at the time, but eventually it came to be regarded as an iconic American short story. Even today, it’s recognized as a great short story, at least as far as the BBC and Literary Hub are concerned, putting it in a best story list in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
It’s a strange story, and it’s no surprise that it didn’t find an immediate audience when it published or when it was included in a short story collection by Melville three years later. At the time he wrote it, Melville was immersed in (or sinking under the weight of) writing Moby Dick. A well-received writer in the 1840s with works like Typee, Melville’s popularity was on the wane in the 1850s. The literary recognition of his works didn’t really begin to recover until the 1920s, three decades after his death, with the posthumous publication of Billy Budd in 1924.
“Bartleby, The Scrivener” concerns a law practice in New York City. The narrator is an attorney who is the head of the office, and he employs two scriveners and an assistant (errand boy). A scrivener, or scribe, focused mostly on copy out legal documents – arguments, court submissions, and briefs. In addition to copying (and often making several copies), scriveners also worked as a team for proofreading. Because of the volume of work, the attorney must hire an additional scrivener, and one day Mr. Bartleby presents himself. The attorney is so impressed with his quiet demeanor (the story provides details on the quirks and attitudes of the other three employees), the attorney makes room for him in his own office, setting up a screen to afford some privacy.
All goes well, until Bartleby is asked to do some proofreading. His response becomes the most repeated line in the story – “I would prefer not to.” While he first limits the line to proofing, Bartleby soon uses to explain why he won’t run an errand and other simple activities in the office. Eventually, he stops working altogether. When asked to do the copying he was hired to do, his response is the now-familiar “I would prefer not to.”
The attorney will consider every means possible to get rid of Bartleby, but the reader soon knows, if the attorney doesn’t immediately, that he has stopped into a mid-19th century Twilight Zone. And whatever happens, it will not likely end well. It’s such an unusually odd story for the times that its literary value would only be recognized when writers like Franz Kafka and Albert Camus read it and were enthralled by it.
Some critics have seen allusions in the story to Melville’s life and especially his frustrations with writing Moby Dick. Different critical interpreters have focused on the narrator, Bartleby, the legal profession, the changes in business in the mid-19th century, and as a story anticipating the coming cataclysm of the Civil War. It’s a lot of weight for a short story to carry. It’s known that it was inspired by a rather innocuous account of a law office and the work of a scrivener that Melville had read, but that account portended nothing unusual.
To read it today, with the intervening literary cultures of modernism and post-modernism informing what and how we read, it’s an entirely believable story. Perhaps it’s because the figure of the worker who refuses to work, or the employee who manages to evade most of not all assignments, is someone we know or have known (the character of Wally in the comic strip “Dilbert” makes an art out of evading work).
Edgar Allen Poe wasn’t the only writer penning strange stories in the 19th century.