The legal afterlife of Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener"
October 21, 2019 11:12 AM   Subscribe

"Bartleby is referred to again and again in court records, where he is not evoked as a signal of ambiguity but reduced instead to pure obstacle: a bad citizen whose intentions cannot be surmised. There is no room in law for something beyond logic, because rational explanation is the key to argument." In I Would Prefer Not To, Your Honor, Daniel Tovrov looks at references in the American judicial system to Herman Melville's infamously noncompliant Bartleby. Bartleby may primarily be referenced as a flattened symbol of insubordination, but he's also present as a symptom of a flattening system.

Herman Melville's story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street," can be read online or downloaded from places like Project Gutenberg (U.S.).
posted by mixedmetaphors (15 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I recently noticed that the movie with Crispin Glover is on some streaming services. I have no idea how these people wedged this short story into a feature film, or why.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:23 AM on October 21, 2019 [7 favorites]

In contrast to Bartleby, a portrait of inscrutable and stupefying depression, see Melville's Pierre (Pierre; or, The Ambiguities), a portrait of inscrutable and manic passion. It's such a thicket of maddening whorls of thoughts and impulses that it literally took me six months to read.

A film adaptation, Pola X, captures the spirit of the book well and is also not for the faint of heart. (Amusingly, there's a scene that I thought at the time to be a Glenn Branca performance... and I was not far wrong; it was in fact, as I just learned, Sonic Youth and dozens more doing a Brancaesque performance. Somehow I, at the time a Sonic Youth fanatic, did not recognize them.)
posted by sjswitzer at 12:30 PM on October 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

The 1969 short Bartleby (YT) is the one I was shown in some middle-school class. Why it was shown I cannot recall but, for me, the film is memorable and bleak. Run time 27:42
posted by bz at 1:23 PM on October 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

That story drove me nuts when I first read it in school. I couldn't imagine anyone unwilling to help themselves that they'd end up in jail. I had a lot to learn.
posted by tommasz at 1:50 PM on October 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

This weird tale was also covered on the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast.
posted by bouvin at 2:34 PM on October 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

I always thought Bartleby was just particularly devoted to honesty.
posted by surlyben at 2:59 PM on October 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

I have always seen it as Melville's satire of some of transcendentalism's central tenets. You want to be self-reliant? You want to only live life according to your own wishes and desires and not controlled by the whims and orders of others? okay, here's how that would look in real life...
posted by jkosmicki at 4:02 PM on October 21, 2019 [18 favorites]

I must be alone in that I sympathize wholeheartedly with Bartleby. I guess that says something about me.
posted by Literaryhero at 7:41 PM on October 21, 2019 [8 favorites]

Bartleby was looking to nature and following the dicates of his soul, but the window just showed a blackened dead end wall.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:38 PM on October 21, 2019

... as a Christian and a lay philosopher, the [narrator] believes that some things are worth putting above the perfunctory contract—namely Bartleby’s human dignity. This proves to be a serious error—one the judicial system, in its concrete operation of unremitting rule following, tends not to commit.

There is an interesting journal article that explores Bartleby's refusal in the context of changing conceptions of law, duty, and "prudence". John Matteson, "'A New Race Has Sprung Up': Prudence, Social Consensus and the Law in 'Bartleby the Scrivener'", Leviathan (doi 10.1111/j.1750-1849.2008.01259.x). An excerpt that sets up the essay:
Melville's most significant meditations on prudence took place only a few years after Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. However, whereas Thoreau saved his most withering salvos for the vacillations of the federal government, Melville's critiques of prudence dealt with conflicts both private and public. Along with Thoreau and Webster, Melville pondered the ethical basis upon which a republic might sustain itself, asking whether, on a personal level, carefulness and reasonableness were admirable virtues or perversely damning vices. But Melville's meditation on prudence derived its contours from its historical context. Interestingly, much of that context was supplied by the judicial writings of his father-in-law, Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw. In his opinion in Brown v. Kendall, perhaps the most famous torts case decided in nineteenth-century America, Shaw elevated prudence to a legally required standard of conduct.

Brown v. Kendall remains a staple of first-year torts classes because it provided for the first time a concise description of the conditions that constitute negligence. It remains an important document in American economic history because, by making it harder for plaintiffs to win tort cases, it in effect created a legal subsidy for industrial expansion. As a cultural document, the case also reflects many of the tensions that arose as a rapidly changing society labored to define the dimensions of public morality in a young democracy. The story behind Brown v. Kendall reveals the increasingly important role of prudence in antebellum discourses about public virtue. During the Jacksonian era, the underpinnings of American society became less theocratic. As they did so, judges like Shaw, for whom the law represented the moral sense of society, looked for alternative principles to serve as a basis for public and personal ethics. In this search, prudence was a chief value to which they turned. But just as Shaw was advancing reasonableness as a ground for social and legal consensus, a rising generation of legal professionals was coming to regard the law, not as a means of communicating moral values or producing reasonable outcomes, but as a collection of ethically neutral rules that one could manipulate to one's personal advantage. In Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," these conflicting views powerfully coalesce. The narrator-lawyer, in the fashion of Shaw, struggles to decide whether his ethics will be governed by worldly prudence or Christian agape. Bartleby, the immobile scrivener, fails to grasp that law and society will no longer side with a passive person against an economically active one. And behind these conflicts stands a new breed of coolly utilitarian men who find little fascination in ethical debates and see Bartleby, not as a moral enigma, but merely as a dispensable impediment to profit-making. Melville's story not only questions prudence as a culturally sustaining virtue, but also depicts a legal profession whose moral authority is being weakened by elderly indecision and youthful opportunism.
posted by sylvanshine at 1:17 AM on October 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have an inner Bartleby; he’s always telling me I’d prefer not to, and y’know, he’s often right.
posted by chavenet at 1:49 AM on October 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would prefer not to buy the shirt, the mug, the totebag.
posted by steef at 6:26 AM on October 22, 2019

Want to hear a third-wave-ska/hip-hop song whose lyrics are a modernized take on Bartleby?

Yes, you'd prefer to!
posted by foldedfish at 7:21 AM on October 22, 2019

OMG I must have that t-shirt.
posted by praemunire at 8:14 AM on October 22, 2019

The 1969 short Bartleby (YT) is the one I was shown in some middle-school class. Why it was shown I cannot recall but, for me, the film is memorable and bleak. Run time 27:42
Hey, look who's playing Gingernut: It's Greg Brady! And in a moment that's not entirely bleak.
posted by phrits at 12:51 PM on October 22, 2019

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