Transcript: Discussion, "Bartleby, the Scrivener"
Matt and Walter on Herman Melville's version of "The Office"
Apologies for the disruption of the usual pattern, but as before, we’re publishing the short story discussion from America This Week separately. On “Bartleby The Scrivener” by Herman Melville:
Matt Taibbi: We read this week Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, which I had never read before. I’m really embarrassed, but it’s an amazing story. As usual, Walter, I’ll give you the floor to introduce this.
Walter Kirn: Bartleby, the Scrivener, is a tough title for the modern audience. Bartleby is his name. And he is a Scrivener, meaning he’s basically a clerk in a law office, a Wall Street law office. The story was written in 1853, so 170 years ago, Herman Melville wrote this story about a law office on Wall Street, and it’s a story about this little group of clerks who works in it. One’s called Nipper, one’s called Ginger, Ginger Cookie or something like that.Ginger Nut.
Yeah. And then there’s Bartleby, and Bartleby is a peculiar fellow indeed. He has no discernible personality. He’s a paled, skinny, quiet clerk who works behind a screen. And the story is told by the lawyer who runs the office, whose office it is. And one day he gives Bartleby an order to ask him to copy something out. Because that’s the job of these guys, copying stuff by hand, were pre-typewriter, of course. And Bartleby answers simply, I’d prefer not to. And rebuffs the order that way. And then another order is given later, and Bartleby’s answer is, I’d prefer not to. And the boss is so taken aback by the calm, the coolness. The first adjective that’s used of Bartleby in the story is he’s described as emotionless, and he’s truly emotionless. And as the story grows on, he becomes more and emotionless. So, he starts refusing every instruction given to him with the simple rejoinder, I’d prefer not to.
It then becomes clear that Bartleby is living in the office. One day, the lawyer comes by on the weekend and sticks his key in the door. And hears Bartleby saying, not now, I’m occupied. And he realizes that Bartleby is living inside there on the couch. He finds some soap under the couch, and Bartleby is a kind of cosmic squatter. He asked him if he would leave the office, go live somewhere else, and he says, I’d prefer not to. And it is a comic story in that this normal seeming lawyer is constantly rationalizing how to deal with this completely intransigent and immune to pressure employee of his. So, now, Bartleby is living there. And clerks are wondering, will the boss crack down on Bartleby? But the boss finally just even-
Matt Taibbi: They’re the Greek chorus of the story.
Walter Kirn: The boss even starts resorting to sort of Christian religious reasoning for why he shouldn’t do anything. It’s better to love a person and accept them in their oddities, because he really has no weapon against this affectless, and I prefer not to answer. And it ends up that he abandons the office, because Bartleby has become such a fixture in it that nothing can happen there. And Bartleby has by now refused to do any work at all. So, he just moves offices and leaves him there. And the new tenants come to the lawyer and say, hey, can you do something about this guy?
Matt Taibbi: This is on you.
Walter Kirn: At one point, Melville described Bartleby as the last column standing of a temple that he’s irreducible, that immobile. And the story precedes quite logically to its ending. Bartleby starts refusing to eat. He won’t leave the office. The new tenants take him to the tombs, which is the kind of insane asylum of the time, where he just wanders around. And at one point, the lawyer, who’s now developed this perverse kind of affection for Bartleby, comes to visit him in the insane asylum. And Bartleby is sitting on a banister, and the lawyer says, what are you doing? What are you doing here? And Bartleby answers, “Sitting on a banister.” And then he dies.
Finally, a guy comes to the lawyer, a guy whose racket inside the insane asylum is to get them extra food because you’re not actually provided enough food by the institution to live and survive. So, you have to buy your own, and he comes to the lawyer and says, you want me to buy him extra food? And the lawyer says, yeah, yeah, I want him to live, but Bartleby won’t eat it. And in the very end of the story, the lawyer says, well, it will come as no surprise to you, the reader, how this all ended. He died, found him dead in the yard of the insane asylum. And they never learned where he came from or who he really was, or why he preferred not to. And then there’s a little touch at the end that’s interesting. He says, I have heard one rumor about him.
Matt Taibbi: So, I was going to bring this up, but go ahead.
Walter Kirn: Yes, I heard he had a job. Well, you go ahead. Yes, I’ve been talking.
Matt Taibbi: It’s interesting because this story reminded me a lot of The Overcoat, which is also a story about a copying clerk, the famous Gogol story, who also has a little bit of rebellion for the first time in his life, after kind of taking it forever, he decides he’s really going to put his all into getting a new overcoat, and he works and gets it and then loses it tragically in the end. But at the end of the story, Gogol, instead of wrapping things up in neat fashion, does this trick where he talks about how there are multiple endings to the story. He is not sure what happened. One rumor has it that there’s an apparition, a ghost of sorts, who walks around Petersburg and grabs people by the collar and starts demanding their overcoats. It read a lot like that line. I even marked it, here it is. “The report was that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the dead letter office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me.”
But anyway, it’s just the uncertainty of how it ended it. It’s just such a neat little trick for making the story a little bit more mysterious.
Walter Kirn: He also explicitly compares Bartleby to a dead letter, a letter that’s been misaddressed, that’s going nowhere. And he ends the story in this way that you wish all stories could end. But this story has earned its ending, unlike most stories. He goes, ah, Bartleby, ah, humanity. And you suddenly realize Melville has written a story about everything here. He’s written a story about what it is to be a person, and what has he said about being a person in this story, this very comic story of this intransigent squatter, conscientious objector, guy who just sits there and lives in the office and does his job but prefers not to do certain things until he is not doing anything. What seemed like almost a character worthy of Vonnegut or Heller. You can imagine Bartleby on the island in catch-22, who his protest against everything is just to stand in one place and not do anything.
Matt Taibbi: Well, we talked about this a little before the show, because the way Melville rolls out the characters. I’s Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut are the three other clerks, and they all have these peculiarities. It’s very Helleresque, these sorts of satirical characters who respond in a kind of predictably funny way each time. But yeah, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, but it’s very Catch-22.
Walter Kirn: This speaks also to Melville’s characterization in general, and even in his major works. Ahab, yeah, he’s taking revenge for having been injured by a white whale, but he’s also irreducible and just a kind of an algorithm. He is going to get revenge. Ahab is vengefulness incarnate, and Bartleby is immobility incarnate. And when you get to the end, and you hear, ah, humanity, you go, wow, this is one of the first stories about the dehumanization of bureaucracy. Because remember, it takes place in a law office. It could take place in all kinds of settings. You could have a character like Bartleby, but he sets it in a law office. And the job is just copying things out, remember? And the first thing that Bartleby really says he won’t do is check his copy. He won’t go back through it again.
And the lawyer makes a comment, he said, I think a lot of people don’t want to recheck their copy. I know the poet, Lord Byron, the man of romance in action, wouldn’t want to do it either. And you go, well, Bartleby is speaking for all of us, isn’t he. We’ve all been reduced to these boring, legalistic, bureaucratic, repetitive tasks. And he’s a hero. He’s a genius. He’d prefer not to. He’s speaking out of the absolutely honest depth of the human soul when it encountered this systematized, repetitive, meaningless way of living. He’d prefer not to live that way.
Matt Taibbi: And the boss, did we ever even learn what his name is? I’m not sure. The narrator.
Walter Kirn: No, I couldn’t find it.
Matt Taibbi: So, he ends up representing society and the way things are. And while Bartleby, it’s impossible to communicate with him, divine his reasoning, figure out why he’s doing anything, Melville gives us no information at all about what’s going on inside his head. The story plays out. We do see refracted in his head the incredibly detailed monologue of this boss. It’s actually extremely funny how fast and how neurotic his thinking is. He goes from thoughts of extreme generosity… He ponders what the Christian response would be. He comes up with a practical, pragmatic solution to basically bribe him to leave the office. When that doesn’t work, he thinks about it for a second and immediately starts thinking about murder. There’s a really funny passage. It’s like five seconds after he was in sort of beatific, a holy speculation about friendship, and then having come to this great resolution.
And then he moves into this passage. Suddenly he’s like, “Men have committed murder for jealousy’s sake and anger’s sake and hatreds sake. But no man that I’ve ever heard of has ever committed a diabolical murder for sweet charity’s sake.” So, he’s talking himself into the idea that I should kill him, but for good reasons. Anyway, he moves off that very quickly. As you say, so Bartleby represents this figure who’s stuck in this new form of totally dehumanizing, horrible work. The boss represents the person who’s put him in that situation, or at least is on the other side of it. What it feels like to me, the story ends up being about a lot. Is this guy is trying to satiate his own conscience as he considers the problem. And of course, he can’t do it. The only thing he can do is to stop being what he is, and there’s no way to do that. He does end up sort of tricking God a little bit by moving out of the office and voicing it out to somebody else who becomes him, wandering the streets, demanding.
Walter Kirn: In that sense, it is a little biblical. Am I my brother’s keeper? No, I’ll move away. But the effect of the story is interesting. What Bartleby ends up doing to the boss is causing the boss to psychoanalyze himself. In other words, the intransigent and opaqueness and simplicity of Bartleby, who appears to have no ego at all. He doesn’t care how he looks. He doesn’t care how he appears. He doesn’t try to justify his decisions or his inclinations. He doesn’t, in a sense, have a self in the way we now understand it. And the challenge of inclinations causes the boss to run through all these moral philosophies and questions about himself and about society. And at the beginning of the story, the guy introduces himself as a lawyer, and he brags that his law practice was praised by John Jacob Astor.
Astor himself has praised him. And the lawyer takes pains early on to say he wasn’t a fancy lawyer. He wasn’t a lawyer who did big cases or got a lot of attention. He was a steady lawyer. He was an honest lawyer. He was rather a plotting lawyer. So, in a way, and John Jacob Astor, himself, thought he was a good, steady lawyer. So, he has an ego at the beginning, and what he’s all about is just kind of getting praise from somebody. And so he’s not equipped to understand somebody who doesn’t need that. He’s not equipped to understand somebody without an ego, somebody who is completely not susceptible to flattery, pressure, anything.
Yeah. And I can’t help but note that in the mid 19th century in America, we were starting to get little glimmers of Eastern philosophy, Thoreau and Emerson, for example, Melville’s contemporaries. They had some of the first Hindu texts and some of the first Buddhist texts, and we were starting to understand that there was something they would call an Oriental point of view on life. And American transcendentalists and New England writers were discussing it. And Bartleby does in some ways seem almost like a Buddhist monk. He’s like a proto zen master in some ways. We experience him as incredibly frustrating from the boss’s point of view, but if we imagine what’s going on in him, he may indeed be an enlightened being. He doesn’t need anything. He was without need.
Matt Taibbi: Right. He’s achieved nothingness…
Walter Kirn: Yes, he’s without ego, he’s happy to be standing there and he’s completely honest. If you ask him, would you like to copy out hundreds of pages of some meaningless legal document? “No, I’d prefer not to.”
Matt Taibbi: Well, he’s not completely honest. There are really funny lines at the end where they ask him, “Well, do you want a job in this place?” He’s like, “No, but I’m not particular. Remember that.” And they keep offering him jobs and he’s like, “Nah, I don’t want to do that. But I’m not particular.” Anyway, I’m sorry…
Walter Kirn: Yes, he’s like a Buddha. He’s like some kind of a saint. Has Bartleby achieved enlightenment? Maybe if we heard the story from his point of view, we might think he had. But he’s a reproach to the middle-class values of the boss, who just wants praise from a rich guy. The boss likes that one of the clerks dresses well and reflects good credit on the office by always showing up in nice things.
And the boss also has lines on the other employees. One of the guys is very, very agreeable until noon, and then slowly becomes ill-tempered and red-faced as the day goes on. And then his other clerk has the opposite thing where he’s not so good in the morning. And so, one challenge to the boss that Bartleby presents is he overwhelms his ability to make sense of people. The boss likes to think that he has this realism about how people operate, and he’s figured out his other guys and even how to manipulate them and anticipate their moods and so on. But this guy’s just a complete cipher and it hurts the self-image that he can’t figure out how to manipulate him.
In the end, you get the sense that he almost loves him in some ways. I mean, he’s going to an insane asylum that he doesn’t have to go to, trying to buy extra food for the guy. He just wants Bartleby to want to live. He wants Bartleby to want something, and he can’t make him.
Matt Taibbi: And he’s not in touch with his inner self enough to come around to this idea that, “I do love him, I do care for him,” but by his actions, you’re able to read that. But that was another thing that made me think of The Overcoat, because the ending about, “Oh, the humanity,” and everything. There’s a scene towards the end of The Overcoat where I guess the author is trying to read what was Akaky, who’s the Bartleby type character in that story, is thinking. And he sort of intones that what he’s saying is, “I am your brother,” even though he says nothing of the sort. So, he’s inferring a message that you can’t really read because the clerk is sort of this creature and he’s immune to normal human analysis, sort of in the same way as Bartleby. Can we talk a little about the writing style a little bit?
I grew up in Southern Massachusetts, miles from New Bedford. Melville was always around. I fought through Moby-Dick as a young person because I had to, and didn’t like it the first time at all. Then later on in my life I read a book called The Confidence-Man. Did you ever read that? Yes, and then Billy Budd. And one of the things that I never liked about Melville is, I always felt he was a little difficult to read, unnecessarily. And then later in life, I forget what happened, but I was listening to somebody do a reading of Moby-Dick. And when that happens, when you hear it read out loud, there is tremendous humor and melody to the way that Melville writes, and a lot of the lines are just hilarious, even if they’re kind of baroque on the page.
I remember a line from Moby-Dick where somebody says, “Am I a cannon-ball, Stubb, that thou wouldst wad that me that fashion?” I mean, it just sounds ridiculous, but when you say it out loud it’s kind of beautiful. This story though, I feel is very different from normal Melville. And even though, I would highly recommend if you’re going to read this story, to do the book on tape too, because it’s really fun to listen to also. But it’s much faster than his other books.
There’s a scene where he expects Bartleby to be gone after he leaves a bribe for him under the paperweight and goes to the office and Bartleby is still there, and he says, “It was Bartleby.” He tries to get in. And as you say, he says “Not yet, I’m occupied. It was Bartleby.”
“I was thunderstruck. For an instant I stood like the man who, pipe in mouth was killed one cloudless afternoon long time ago in Virginia by a summer lightning. At his own warm open window he was killed, and remained leaning out there upon the dreamy afternoon until someone touched him when he fell.”
This is such an amazing image.
Walter Kirn: And his descriptions of Bartleby’s movements. There’s one point where he calls him, and Bartleby comes out from behind his screen after refusing to. And he just said, “He slid easily out from behind the screen.” It’s a very succinct, dry, rather simple style. It doesn’t have the big biblical overtones or the rolling lyrical cadences of a lot of Moby-Dick. Though, people forget that the beginning of Moby-Dick is... Well, not the very beginning, but almost the very beginning, it’s almost a bedroom comedy where Ishmael and Queequeg have to-
Matt Taibbi: Queequeg and Ishmael?
Walter Kirn: They have to bed down together in an inn. And there’s a lot of comedy and low comedy even. But what’s amazing is not only that he can master this lethal, dry social comedy and this style that is, I think very transparent and very swift, as you say, but that he can master the situation of an office and at the same time be our poet of the high seas. No one, except maybe Conrad who came later, spells adventure and romance and action and the elements like Herman Melville. But that he wrote basically The Office? Because Bartleby is The Office in 1853, the TV show, in some ways.
And that he was also the comic of bureaucracy and emptiness and paralysis. At the same time, he could mount the greatest Shakespearean high seas adventure ever written that. That’s an amazing range for a writer.
Matt Taibbi: Was it Nabokov who I think disliked Melville? He once dismissed Moby-Dick as journalism. He says, “It’s great journalism, but not a great book.” I forget who said it. Somebody said it like that. But it is great journalism. Moby-Dick, in addition to everything else, is an unbelievably detailed story about how things worked in this very interesting industry that we’ll never see again, and also about this small community of basically Quakers and places like Nantucket, who suddenly took over the world financially by mastering this one kind of business. And he described every little aspect of it from every conceivable angle, which is really hard to do.
Most writers don’t have that experience, as you point out. A few have and they write about what they know. Obviously Hemingway saw a little bit, and so he was able to write about Paris and about the war, and Evelyn Waugh went to Abyssinia so he could write Scoop. But yeah, to write Moby-Dick at that level and then also turn around and do this, basically a classic satire of office culture and have it feel really, really natural, is amazing. It’s also two totally different types of stories. One of them is like Shakespearean, huge, epic and written with this very florid prose, and this other one is written differently, almost like a play.
Walter Kirn: It’s very modern comedy. I said it’s like The Office, or it’s like a Seinfeld episode about the guy who won’t leave the office. It’s something that George might encounter on Seinfeld.
Matt Taibbi: Exactly. It could even be him.
Walter Kirn: George Costanza. It’s shockingly modern. When we went back and saw that it was written in 1853, I think our eyes both opened. The thing about Melville as a great American writer, and there are those who quite justifiably argue that he’s the greatest of American novelists, is that his image was consumed by his work. Do you know what he looks like? Do you have a picture of him? You know what Edgar Allen Poe looks like?
Matt Taibbi: Yes, vaguely.
Walter Kirn: He’s got a beard, is all I really could tell.
Matt Taibbi: Yes, the beard is all I know about. Yeah.
Walter Kirn: But he’s not Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sort of craggy, prophetic type. He’s not Edgar Allen Poe. He’s not Ernest Hemingway. He’s not Mark Twain with the big hair and the public persona. Melville is a little recessive. And he died obscurely. The book that we think the most of wasn’t necessarily that big a hit, as I remember, Moby-Dick. And he was somebody who just kind of hid behind his work. He was a little bit like Cormac McCarthy in a way. Cormac McCarthy died recently. Was also capable of these big, epic, violent books like Blood Meridian, which is obviously influenced by Melville, but could also do very terse and not necessarily comic, but swift and lean stories. We had his photograph. We knew what Cormac McCarthy looked like. We live in the age of photographs. He was not a recluse, but he also wasn’t really out front. I think he went on an Oprah once. And Melville was like that. His greatness is in his work and we don’t have a real fix on him as a celebrity, a literary celebrity.
Matt Taibbi: I don’t even think his personality is terribly detectable in the books. He’s like a great actor who you can’t tell what he is really like, like Peter Sellers or somebody like that. He may not even know himself.
Walter Kirn: You mentioned Peter Sellers. Bartleby should have been played by Peter Sellers.
Matt Taibbi: He kind of was.
Walter Kirn: Yes, yeah. Being There is Bartleby, the Scrivener. Because remember, Being There, Chauncey won’t move out of his little garden apartment. I think they leave, the owners of the estate leave or something before he’s made homeless.
Matt Taibbi: They don’t know what to do with him and he’s sort of forced out. But it’s more or less the same kind of story. Clearly he, I think must have read this in some other things. Because Chauncey Gardner just goes into a whole bunch of scenarios and everybody just imagines their own dialogues with him, even though he is not really saying anything or he says these things that are inaccessible, like, Alan Greenspan-ian statements.
Walter Kirn: Right. Spring will bring the rain and rain will bring the flowers.
Walter Kirn: It’s as though Being There by Kosinski is the story of Bartleby walking the streets of Washington. And as I said, his effect in this story is that he causes the narrator to psychoanalyze himself. And in Being There, Chauncey causes everybody to project their own hopes and beliefs and wishes onto this cipher.
Matt Taibbi: Even their sexual desires.
Walter Kirn: Yes, and their sexual desires. Which is why it’s such a great movie, because of Shirley McLean getting turned on by Peter Sellers. And that’s something we don’t want to just read.
Matt Taibbi: She’s really turning herself on. It’s so funny.
Walter Kirn: Yes, yeah, exactly. We want to see that; we don’t want to just read about it. But yeah, I think that if great classics like this often spawn a later classic, this is definitely the precursor to Being There. And for me, it’s almost hard reading the story now not to see Peter Sellers in the role of Bartleby.
Matt Taibbi: As a closing thought, should we address something that... I’m not going to blame one or the other of us for having this enter our conversation, but the idea that Joe Biden is Bartleby is kind of funny. “I would prefer not to govern.”
Walter Kirn: Yes, “I prefer not to leave it.” It’s almost like you sometimes go, “Joe Biden isn’t going to be impeached. Joe Biden isn’t going to be removed from office. We’re just going to have to lock up the White House around him and move the presidency to another mansion and get a different president. And every few years we’ll hear that Biden’s still in there. And he’d prefer not to leave.” We’ll say, “Listen, man, we had a whole other election and we moved the capital city to Kansas City, and the White House hasn’t actually had a coat of paint on it for 10 years.”
Matt Taibbi: It’s overgrown with vines.
Walter Kirn: “It’s overgrown with vines. So, can you come on out? Can you give up that red phone and that briefcase with the button in it? That actually doesn’t work anymore.” And Biden will just say, “I’d prefer not to.” Yes, we may just have to ensconce him in his little fantasy world, lock the thing up and move the whole United States federal government over somewhere else, like to California.
Matt Taibbi: Right. Just build an alternate White House. Maybe do a new color or something like that. But he would be sleeping there. All we’d see is his feet sticking out from under the desk in the Oval Office, basically.
Walter Kirn: Joe Biden, the Scrivener. Yeah.
Matt Taibbi: Biden, the Scrivener. Somebody’s got to write that. Oh, that’s too easy. God, if I were 20 years old I would write that. That’s so funny. But yeah, no, there’s a little bit of that in there. But this is a great story for anybody who was made to read Billy Budd before. Maybe it was necessary when you were 14 years old or something like that, and you have an image of what reading Melville is like. Cast that aside. I was really surprised by the style of this story and how different it is from other reading experiences with Melville. And also, just how fun it is, and as you say, modern. It’s not inaccessible to anybody who works in a cubicle.
Walter Kirn: Well, I think the other week when I proposed it, you were on one of your investigative journalism benders and a little tired and running five stories at once, as you do. And you said, “I don’t know if my head’s up to Melville this week.” And then when you read it, you were like, “Wow, that didn’t hurt at all.” It doesn’t hurt.
Matt Taibbi: Exactly, exactly. It doesn’t. It goes down very easily. So, highly recommend it.
See you all next week.