The Lost World of Bartleby the Ex-Officeholder: Variations on a Venerable Literary Form

John, Richard R.

For over a generation, literary critics and cultural historians have pondered the enigmatic relationship between Bartleby, the proud yet emotionally troubled copyist in Herman Melville's haunting short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853), and his employer, a genial yet uncomprehending Wall Street lawyer who did a "snug business" in the mortgages, bonds, and legal titles of the well-to-do. Much of the mystery surrounding this relationship stems from the paucity of information that the lawyer, the tale's narrator, provides us about Bartleby's life prior to his employment in the law office. By the end of the tale, we find ourselves doubting the lawyer's sincerity. Indeed, at times he seems deliberately obscure and even misleading about many features of the copyist's life. The lawyer's inability, or refusal, to understand Bartleby's predicament is an integral feature of Melville's literary design, and our recognition of Melville's artistry in encouraging the reader to question the lawyer's reliability can heighten our appreciation of the tale. One aspect of that artistry that may be less accessible to us today than it was to Melville's contemporaries concerns the "one vague report" the lawyer dutifully relates at the story's close.


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The New England Quarterly

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August 1, 2018