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Lee on Literature: Bartleby, the Scrivener (Herman Melville)

November 22, 2011, 2:00 pm
By LeeMiller

Within the past two weeks, Anthony Hardwick, a part-time employee at Target in Omaha, Neb., received approximately 100,000 signatures of support on a Change.org petition requesting that the large retail chain open at 5 am on Friday rather than midnight on Thanksgiving.


In short, Hardwick articulated that he would “prefer not to” work late on Thanksgiving evening as Target and other large retail chains such as Walmart, Toys R Us and Best Buy introduce earlier opening times to expand Black Friday shopping. Hardwick’s resistance to obvious encroachment of materialism upon spiritual celebration, his transcendence, is the exact same idea explored by Herman Melville in his humorous 1853 short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

 

Melville’s short story is set in the heart of the 1800s capitalist world: a law office on Wall Street in New York City. The head of the law firm needs an additional “scrivener,” or human copy machine, to transpose, edit and duplicate legal documents. There are two scriveners currently employed in the office, yet these men have the effectiveness of one employee. Nippers has indigestion problems that make him irritable until the noon hour, whereas Turkey works well until lunch when his drinking passes some critical point and he becomes quite rosy and ineffective. Nippers and Turkey are both half destroyed by their jobs, so the elderly head lawyer hires Bartleby to pick up the extra copying work.

 

Initially, Bartleby is assiduous and effective, but one day something strange happens. The boss asks Bartleby to perform a routine task, and Bartleby responds, “I would prefer not to.” The old lawyer is more dismayed than angry at this first rebellion. Soon, Bartleby is refusing more and more tasks, then all tasks, with the refrain of “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby is the first person in the office and unmoved when everyone leaves each day, hardly consuming any food during the many hours staring at a brick wall outside the window of his cubicle. Soon it is discovered that Bartleby never leaves the office at all; he lives there with minimal environmental impact.

 

The psychological impact of Bartleby’s entrenchment is immense. Nippers, Turkey and the errand boy Ginger Nut are belligerent toward Bartleby and want the boss to kick him out the door. The head lawyer, though, has compassion, a deep understanding and respect for Bartleby’s profound sensitivity. The boss understands Bartleby in a mysterious way, and tries many gentle gestures to ease him out of the workspace. Finally, the lawyer decides it is best to move his office and leave Bartleby behind. A new tenant soon complains and then calls the police who escort Bartleby to “The Tombs,” a special ward of the jail. The old lawyer visits Bartleby and later finds him dead of starvation. Bartleby’s death, along with his actions in life, offer the old lawyer a metaphysical glimpse, a transcendental truth.

 

With this humorous tale, Melville vividly displays the essence of American transcendentalism, a philosophy first articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson that resonates today with the actions of Target employee Anthony Hardwick. Transcendentalism contrasts materialists with idealists, delineating the perceptions of each group. Idealists or transcendentalists often perceive the world’s truth and reality through a religious or human lens. Solitude and a close association to nature usually inform the transcendental perception of truth. Slavery was a definitive issue between transcendentalists and materialists. To the transcendentalist, slavery was obviously immoral. Yet to the materialist, slavery was a simple economic reality of life. The same lines could be drawn today between Target executives/hungry shoppers and the modern-day idealists who would “prefer not to” shop or work on Thanksgiving.

 

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