Bartleby the Scrivener

Open Source podcast takes on Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener

“I would prefer not to” is Bartleby’s slogan—as familiar on Herman Melville T-shirts as the words that open Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” But how different is the short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” from the great American novel—except that they’re both perfect Melville, in his 200th-birthday season. Bartleby appeared two years after Moby-Dick, in 1853, from Melville, who was still young at 34. It’s 30 pages instead of 600, far removed from the high seas, and more nearly manageable in one radio hour. Bartleby is a cadaverous and solitary young copyist (pre-Xerox machines) in a claustrophobic Wall Street law office. He’s the white-collar drone who opts out, refusing orders. Meaning what? Do we take him as a victim of class oppression, or a figure of extreme and individual depression? We’re open to the argument this hour that Bartleby stands for black America in the nineteenth century, and also he’s modeling a way out of social media and the commercial capture of our attention, and also that he spoke for Melville himself, a prophetic artist facing the futility of his writing vocation which would bring him almost nothing in the way of money, praise, or readership in his lifetime.

Great discussion at Open Source