‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ by Herman Melville

Melville’s syntax has always baffled me. And for the first few pages of ‘Bartleby’ I’m always telling myself off for ever recommending this story. Then the sentences arrange themselves into focus. The characters Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut arrive on the scene. And I wish, hope, that this time Bartleby is going to make it through.

A few errant thoughts — should we read Bartleby’s line “I would prefer not to” as a catchphrase? Or that ‘Bartleby’ is possibly Melville’s attempt at breaking into TV with a pilot about dysfunctional law clerks? 

First published in Putnam’s Magazine, November-December 1853, and collected in The Piazza Tales, Dix & Edwards, 1856. Now widely available, including in Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, Penguin Classics. Available online at Project Gutenberg

‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ by Herman Melville

This is a predictable choice, but most of the classics are classics for a reason. If by some fluke you’ve never read it, now’s the time to get it under your belt. A century and a half later, we’re still struggling to deal with the truths about the modern workplace that Melville was onto here. But like all the greatest fiction – or all my favourites, at least ­– there’s a genuine strangeness at its heart that can’t be decoded. Just step inside and live there for a while, and feel your spirit shaken.

First published in Putnam’s Magazine, November-December 1853, and collected in The Piazza Tales, Dix & Edwards, 1856. Now widely available, including in Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, Penguin Classics. Available online at Project Gutenberg

‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ by Herman Melville

Okay, I know this is an extremely boring choice and I realise that Melville uncharacteristically classes-up the list – hey, I ain’t a total slob – but… Jesus, do I hate Moby-Dick.

Yeah, yeah, great first line. And sure, Gregory Peck was pretty cool in the movie – Atticus Finch with a harpoon! But then there’s all that endless, endless, endless whale shit. Fuck me! I never finished it – so maybe I am a total slob – and I just don’t give a scrimshaw.

‘Bartleby’, though!


Ah, Bartleby…

First published in Putnam’s Magazine, Nov/Dec 1853 and now widely available

‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ by Herman Melville

Franz Kafka (Smith says) says that a short story is a cage in search of a bird. 
Melville’s story – like Smith’s – employs a leisurely, nineteenth-century frame in which the narrator introduces himself and his other employees before getting on to Bartleby, and ends with an epilogue in which he explains what little he can and generalizes desperately: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” It is desperate because all this paraphernalia is being deployed in a doomed attempt to capture the soul of the competent but wilful copyist whose power over our imagination comes precisely from the fact that he would “prefer not” – to work, to leave the office, to recognize the incongruity of his position. A man who would literally prefer to starve to death in prison than explain himself. Is Bartleby as free as a bird? Hardly, but the story’s inability to capture him is the reason it’s impossible to forget.

First published in Putnam’s Magazine, Nov/Dec 1853, included in Piazza Tales, 1856, and now published everywhere, including by Melville House Publishing, 2004 and online here

‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ by Herman Melville

conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness… Ah, Bartleby. Ah, humanity.

This is a bad choice for this anthology. It’s not exactly an unheard-of hidden gem. It’s not even a short story. It’s right on the edge of what you could read aloud to A-Level students, most of whom would fall asleep halfway through. And yet it is irresistible.

A lawyer hires a third member of staff for his small office. While Bartleby impresses at first, it quickly becomes apparent that he has a unique approach to work and a healthy disregard for authority. The narrator grows increasingly unable to manage or understand his new scrivener, whose catchphrase is sure to come in handy for any teacher in a modern school.

First published 1853. Available online here