Matt and Walter on Herman Melville's version of "The Office"
I remember having to read “Billy Budd” and “Moby Dick” back in highschool. If only we had read “Bartleby The Scrivener” 1st.
Teacher: “This week, you are all to read “Billy Budd” by Herman Melville.”
Me: “I’d prefer not to” 😌
Thank you for discussing Melville's short story Bartleby the Scrivener, perhaps the first, last, and best modern short story ever written; and arguably the best American short story ever written. I reckon it is as relevant today as it was when it was first published. I've seen echoes of Bartleby through my lifetime (I'm 72), but most recently in those people who lost their jobs over the lockdown and could not justify going back to jobs they hated and barely paid a living wage. They preferred not to. I think of those people who preferred not to commute to a job in an office when they discovered that they were much happier and more productive working from home. I think of all the people in Peter Turchin's book on elite overproduction, End Times. I think of David Graeber's book Bullshit Jobs. Bartlebys all. Even the lawyer, our narrator, recognizes the Bartleby inside himself and struggles with it. He just doesn't have the courage to say it: I'd prefer not to. Bartleby is perhaps the first existential anti-hero in literature. He is the first, last, and best modern man. We are all Bartleby. Cheers
My brother and I owned a Chevy Pickup truck that we nicknamed "Bartleby" because it would often, at the worst times, prefer not to run.
I love that you are doing these summaries/narratives and I love the interaction between you both. You have such incredible perspectives. Even though this is not something I would have sought out, I very much look forward to Friday and both America This Week and your weekly reads. PS- I now look for all your (both Matt and Walter) work across all platforms- You are both incredible authors and journalists. Thanks for all you do!
When I first read this story 30ish years ago, Bartleby stood out as a kind of anarcho-pacifist, quietly rebelling against the social order. I had, oddly, read Alice in Wonderland around the same time, and there is a great scene where the King says to the Cheshire Cat, "you may kiss my ring if you'd like," and the cat replies, "I'd rather not." And the king calls the executioner, but the executioner can't figure out how to behead the cat, since by then the cat has made his body vanish and is only a disembodied head. Now the two stories are inexorably linked in my head.
I nicknamed my middle child Bartleby due to her unbelievable laziness. I called her Bartleby for several years. One day she admitted that she had no idea why I called her Bartleby. She had never been curious enough to look it up.
I have a friend with exactly zero literary ambitions or pretensions, but - for reasons I could never quite divine - he LOVED Bartleby, the Scrivener. Actually, if I'm stating my friend adequately, it's not that he doesn't have any literary pretensions, it's that he's the very OPPOSITE of an academic or bookworm, yet (somehow) remarkably well-read. When I went to law school he started referring to me as "Bartleby" whenever we would talk and we would both chuckle over it.
Now having listened to you both talk about this, I think I understand what he was saying. Huh.
Sounds like The Scrivener is more Office Space than The Office.
Matt, Walter, or other super nice reader: Is there a way to post a running list of all the stories and books? I have a Christmas wishlist of books I ask for to go in my library (bookshelves, so lame, I know, haha). Just asking.
A delightful way to spend a Saturday morning. Bartley has always resonated with me, but I always thought of it as a precursor to the existentialist movement in literature. It seems to ask, and leave unanswered, the question “Why are we here?”.
This was a really fun--and funny--discussion!
Strip away all artistic expression from the act of writing and you are left with a scrivener. Is it a profession or a form of punishment? A student copying sentences on a blackboard, Bartleby Simpson. Melville seems to anticipate the role of humans in the coming industrial age. Factory workers at FoxConn City, building millions of mobile phones, in buildings surrounded by suicide nets.
Love this. I read Bartleby as a HS sophomore, this conversation brought it back. I read far more books and stories in HS in the 80s than most kids read today, which makes me sad.
"Bartleby the Scrivener" is one of my long-time favorite books. I first read it in a literature class in college nearly six decades ago, and it has stuck in my mind ever since. In my own work life--I was a physician, so not engaged in anything like the mind-numbing copying that Bartleby was--I sometimes invoked the "I prefer not to" response when asked to take on work that I did not want to do. Never was there any pushback or penalty. I re-read "Bartleby" last year and found it just as magical as I did so many years ago.
I do like the Buddhist take on Bartleby's character--that he had achieved a state free of want or need. However, in a modern medical context, he would probably be diagnosed as profoundly depressed and then placed on anti-depressant drugs. Who knows, he might have found more enjoyment in his work and life. But, of course, that would not make for such a delightful book with so much philosophical depth.
Finally, kudos for bringing “Being There” into the discussion. Having read the book and watched the movie, I never made the connection to Bartleby. Did Kosinski have Melville in mind when he wrote it?
I went from mildly interested to enthusiastic in 10 paragraphs! Started Bartleby 20 years ago and never finished the first chapter, I will reread after I listen to it first on tape. Thanks for the wonderful insights and the connection to The Office, Seinfeld and Being There You tube clips .
Thank you Matt and Walter for delving into Melville’s peculiar little story. In 2008, I played Bartleby in a musical adaptation produced by the Antaeus Theater Company in Los Angeles. The evening consisted of two plays, an adaptation of a Mark Twain short story called The Loves of Alonzo Clarence and Rosanna Ethelton and Bartleby. The entire evening was called American Tales. The Twain part of the evening was a comic trifle, a travelogue of two lovers pursued by a mustache twirling villain. Bartleby does indeed have a lot of humor. Bartleby’s central song was called The Wall in which he (I) sing about the brick wall he stares at all day, about the bricks that make up that wall. It’s an utterly beautiful yet despondent song and the only attempt by Jan Powell, our wonderful composer, and Ken Stone our lyricist, to provide a glimpse of Bartelby’s psyche. Here’s an article in the LA Times about the evening.