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Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) - Herman Melville

Related: existentialist literature - Herman Melville - 1800s literature - 1853 - absurdist literature - American literature

Inspirational to: Gilles Deleuze (his analysis of Bartleby) - Franz Kafka - Albert Camus

Titles: Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853)

Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853) - Herman Melville [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

"In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”" --Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853)

Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" is among his most important pieces, and has been considered a precursor to Existentialist and Absurdist literature. [Jul 2006]


"Bartleby the Scrivener" is a short story by Herman Melville. The story first appeared, anonymously, in Putnam's Magazine in two parts. The first part appeared in November 1853, with the conclusion published in December 1853. It was reprinted in Melville's The Piazza Tales in 1856 with minor textual alterations. The work is said to have been inspired, in part, by Melville's reading of Emerson, and some have pointed to specific parallels to Emerson's essay, "The Transcendentalist." The story was adapted into a movie starring Crispin Glover in 2001.

The narrator of the story is an unnamed lawyer with offices on Wall Street in New York City. He describes himself as doing "a snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds." He has three employees: "First, Turkey; second, Nippers; third, Ginger Nut," each of whom is described. The first two are copyists or scriveners, and the lawyer decides his business needs a third. Bartleby responds to his advertisement and arrives at the office, "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!"

At first Bartleby appears to be a competent worker, but later he refuses to work when requested, repeatedly uttering the phrase "I would prefer not to." He is also found to be living in the lawyer's office. Bartleby refuses to explain his behavior, and also refuses to leave when dismissed. The lawyer moves offices to avoid any further confrontation, and Bartleby is taken away to The Tombs. At the end of the story, Bartleby slowly starves in prison, finally expiring during a visit by the lawyer. The lawyer suspects Bartleby's conjectured previous career in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, DC drove him to his bizarre behavior.

"Bartleby the Scrivener" is among the most famous of American short stories. It has been considered a precursor to Existentialist and Absurdist literature even though at the time that this story was published it was not very popular. "Bartleby" touches on many of the themes extant in the work of Franz Kafka, particularly in The Trial and A Hunger Artist. However, there exists nothing to indicate that the Czech writer was at all familiar with Melville, who was largely forgotten until after Kafka's death.

Albert Camus cites Melville (explicitly over Kafka) as one of his key influences in a personal letter to Liselotte Dieckmann printed in the French Review in 1998. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartleby_the_Scrivener [Jan 2006]

Inspired by Gilles Deleuze

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