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The “Reader Fallacy” and “Bartleby the Scrivener” Author(s): David Shusterman Source: The New England Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Mar., 1972), pp. 118-124 Published by: The New England Quarterly, Inc. Stable URL: . Accessed: 28/03/2013 20:39

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“Dead Letters!… Dead Men?”: The Rhetoric of the Office in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” Author(s): Graham Thompson Source: Journal of American Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, Part 1: Living in America: Recent and Contemporary Perspectives (Dec., 2000), pp. 395-411 Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the British Association for American Studies Stable URL: . Accessed: 28/03/2013 20:41

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Journal of American Studies, 34 (2000), 3, 395-411 Printed in the United Kingdom ? 2000 Cambridge University Press

“Dead letters! … Dead Men?”:

The Rhetoric of the Office in

Melville’s “Bartleby, the




Although a good deal of recent critical attention to Melville’s writing has

followed the lead of Robert K. Martin in addressing the issue of sexuality, the predominant themes in discussions of “Bartleby” remain changes in

the nature of the workplace in antebellum America and transformations in

capitalism.1 But, if one of the abiding mysteries of the story is the failure

of the lawyer?narrator to sever his relationship with his young scrivener

once Bartleby embarks upon his policy of preferring not to, it is a mystery that makes sense within both of these critical discourses. On the one hand, the longevity of the relationship dramatizes a tension implicit in Michael

Gilmore’s suggestion that the lawyer?narrator straddles the old and the

newT economic orders of the American market-place. Although

he may

employ his scriveners “as a species of productive property and little

Graham Thompson is Junior Research Fellow in American Literature at De Montfort

University, Leicester, Leicester lei 9BH.

1 As far as antebellum economic change is concerned

see Louise K. Barnett, “Bartleby as Alienated Worker,” Studies in Short Fiction, n (1974), 379?85; Stephen Zeinich, “Melville’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’: A Study in History, Ideology, and Literature,”

Marxist Perspectives, 2

(1979?80), 74?92; David Kuebrich, “Melville’s Doctrine of

Assumptions: The Hidden Ideology of Capitalist Production in ‘Bartleby,’” New

England Quarterly, 69:3 (1996), 381-405. For male sexuality see Robert K. Martin, Hero,

Captain, and Stranger : Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels

of Herman Melville (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1986); Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Harmondsworth

: Penguin, 1994

[1990]), 91-130; James Creech, Closet Writing/’Gay Reading: The Case of Melville” s Pierre

(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993); Gregory Woods, A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998),


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396 Graham Thompson

else,”2 his attachment to his employees is overwhelmingly paternalistic and protective. On the other hand, James Creech suggests that Pierre

(published the year before “Bartleby”) is a novel preoccupied with the

closeting of homosexual identity within the values of an American middle

class family, while Gregory Woods describes Melville as the nearest thing

in the prose world of the American Renaissance to the Good Gay Poet

Whitman. In this critical context the longevity of the relationship suggests that the lawyer-narrator’s desire to know Bartleby, to protect him, to

tolerate him, to be close to him, to have him for his own, and then to retell

the story of their relationship, needs to be considered in relation to sexual


The strength of the adhesive attachment between the two men,

however, is never signalled explicitly in the text. Revelation seems closest

only at the very end of the story, after Bartleby’s death, when the

lawyer?narrator discovers that his former scrivener once worked at the

Dead Letter Office in Washington, and readily admits that he can “hardly

express the emotions which seize” him.3 More important, I think, is the

representational status that the

relationship assumes in the lawyer

narrator’s imagination when he follows this admission by asking himself

a somewhat confusing question: “Dead letters! Does it not sound like

dead men?” (45). While the literal answer to this question would be

“no,” it is possible to see this question as the final narrative moment in

a story whose whole dramatic development focuses around the ways in

which the emotional attachment between the lawyer-narrator and

Bartleby is figured through the material processes of writing, reading, and


I will show how central these processes are to the representation of

male sexuality, but for Melville they are not separable from economic

considerations. This is evident most clearly in “The Bachelors of Paradise

and the Tartarus of Maids” (1855) where the spermatic rhetoric of chapter

94 of Moby-Dick ? “A Squeeze of the Hand” ?is transplanted to an

industrial paper-mill. Looking

into the pulp

vats the seedsman?narrator

sees they

are “full of white, wet, woolly-looking stuff, not unlike the

albuminous part of an egg, soft-boiled.”4 It is this stuff that will

2 Michael T. Gilmore, American Romanticism and the Marketplace (Chicago and London


University of Chicago Press, 1985), 135. 3

“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street,” in Herman Melville, The Plav??a Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839?1860 (Evanston and Chicago

: Northwestern University Press, 1987), 45. All further references to this text appear in parentheses. 4 “The Bachelors of Paradise and The Tartarus of Maids,

” in Melville, The Pia^a Tales,


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‘ ‘ Dead letters ! … Dead Men ?” 397

eventually solidify and be turned into the paper that will help him

distribute his seed across the country ; its mass production will enable the

growth of the paper economy upon which the world of capitalist office

work is built. Bartleby shares his “pallid” and “blank” outlook with the

maids. When the seedsman?narrator writes the name of his young male

guide Cupid onto a piece of paper and drops it into the spermy pulp, and

watches it travel untouched past the virginal maids through the machine

to come out at the end of the process neatly incorporated into a foolscap sheet of paper, Melville is splicing together economics with gender and

sexuality so that they would seem to underpin the reading and writing that

are so much a part of “Bartleby.”

This is why the economic citadel of the office is so important in

“Bartleby”; it is the place where the reading and writing are supposed to

take place. Although the office has not been entirely overlooked in

previous studies of this story, as a

specific spatial site with the power to

organize and structure personal and social relationships it has remained

stubbornly underdeveloped, and has not been considered at all in the

literary field in relation to male sexuality.5 Yet one only has to consider the

lawyer?narrator’s inexpressible emotion

just mentioned, the


of the screen behind which Bartleby sits in his “hermitage,” or indeed

Bartleby’s refusal to explain himself in the workplace, to see that this office

narrative is constructed from those pairings

? public

and private,

surveillance and self-surveillance, disclosure and secrecy –

which Eve

Sedgwick has described as not only the “crucial sites for the contestation

of meaning” in Western culture since the latter part of the nineteenth

century, but also all “indelibly marked with the historical specificity of

homosocial/homosexual definition. “6

A useful way of thinking about “Bartleby” as a product of the 1850s,

then, is to think about it as a story that stands at the threshold of modern

American anxiety about the crisis of male definition in capitalist culture.

I want to treat “Bartleby”

as a tense, desire-laden tale of an ageing

bachelor7 who is the lawyer?narrator, and a

pale, innocent young


who is his scrivener. As will become apparent, notions of visuality play a

key role in my thinking, and I want to pay particular attention to the

lawyer, since in scopic terms the narrative is framed quite specifically 5

The most interesting comment on the office to date remains Leo Marx, “Melville’s

Parable of the Walls,” Sewanee Review, 61 (1953), 602-27. 6

Sedgwick, Epistemology, jz. 7

For more on the mid-century bachelor, his place in American urban sexual culture, and

spermatorrhoea see Vincent J. Bertolini, “Fireside Chastity: The Erotics of Sentimental

Bachelorhood in the 1850s,” American Literature, 68:4 (1996), 707?37.

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398 Graham Thompson

through the visual logic of his recollection: “What my own astonished

eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him” (13). Surveilling past events for the lawyer-narrator means trying to read Bartleby and his

relationship with him all over again to search for the meaning of the

relationship as it originally occurred.


The first thing to note about the office is that it is perhaps surprising that

it remained outside the orbit of Foucault’s attention in his studies of

surveillance and the “carc?ral city,” especially when one sets what he

writes ?

that it was “the growth of a capitalist economy [which] gave rise to

the specific modality of disciplinary power, whose general formulas …

could be operated in the most diverse political regimes, apparatuses or

institutions”* (my emphasis) –

against the clear facts that the office and its

various functions are tied so closely into capitalist development. Once it

became necessary to control and finance industrialization, and, once

offices became the focal points for communication and the control of

complexity, it was no

longer tenable to run

large, international concerns

from the houses of merchants as it had been in the eighteenth century when administrative functions were often minimal. Only in the nineteenth

century did cities begin to see the growth of specialized office quarters.9 And yet, although Foucault was more concerned with capitalist surveillance in factories and workshops than he was in offices, his analysis of the “imaginary geo-politics” of the carc?ral city with its “multiple network of diverse elements

? walls, space, institution, rules, discourse,”

allows the office to be considered as in many ways the home of those new

disciplines characterizing capitalist disciplinary society: supervision, assessment, visibility, the distribution of bodies in space, normalization, hierarchies of power.10 The office, in its original manifestation, developed

8 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (Harmondsworth

: Penguin, 1991 [1977]),

221. 9

This information is taken from Peter Cowan et al., The Office: a Facet of Urban Growth

(London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1969), 25-29. The subtitle of

“Bartleby” –

“A Story of Wall Street” –

clearly ties it into this growing specialized office and administrative world. For the way in which American business became more

and more office-based and more and more an economy based upon management after

1840, see Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in

American Business (Cambridge, Mass, and London: Harvard University Press, 1977). For a detailed treatment of the relationship of Karl Marx, Max Weber,

as well as

Foucault, to questions of surveillance see Christopher Dandeker, Surveillance, Power and

Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 1990). 10

Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 306?7.

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4 ‘ Dead letters ! … Dead Men ?

” 399

within the same logic and legacy of modernity which bequeathed a

“vigilance of

intersecting gazes”11 to Western culture.

This development of the office was also part of one of the key features

in the shift from a pre-industrial economy to a capitalist industrial

economy in America: the separation of work from home. This separation,

important across class divisions, was particularly important

in terms of

gender for middle-class businessmen and professionals, allowing each of

the developing gender binaries to be allocated, via discourse, a zone in

which they could legitimately operate : very generally, middle-class men in

the workplace,

“their” women in the home. Once men became associated

with the workplace, so male identity increasingly came to be configured

through work.12

The lawyer?narrator

is actually a

very sophisticated manager, one who

despite his age is well-attuned to the requirements of surveillance in

organizing subordinate staff in an office, and his narrative is organized in

a similar fashion. The opening five pages of the story make evident and

crucial the location of bodies in space. The detail of the description of the

walled-in office, which is both poetic and meticulous, as well as again

being dominated by a rhetoric of vision, continues that preoccupation with the mapping of space Melville exhibited in his sea narratives.13

It is with the arrival of Bartleby, however, that the incoherence of this

nominally well-organized office space becomes apparent. After being forced to explain how the office is actually split in two and separated by

folding, ground-glass doors,14 the lawyer?narrator makes two linked

11 Ibid., 217.

12 See E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the

Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic Books, 1993), especially 167?93 and

194-221. Rotundo identifies the growing importance of work and the workplace as one

of the two revolutions in thinking about masculinity in the last two hundred years, the

other being the association of masculinity with aggression, combativeness and sexual

desire, all of which, of course, are implicated in questions of homo/hetero definition.

For a discussion of the contradictions and complicated effects of this public/private

gender organization, see Glenna Matthews, The Rise of Public Woman

: Woman’s Power

and Woman’s Place in the United States 1630?1970 (New York, Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 1992). For particular attention to the office, see pp. 119-50. As this

shift impacted on male homosocial desire and on the role of women in the family in

Britain, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male

Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 134-60. 13

Sedgwick, Epistemology, no?14. 14

Ground glass permits light to pass through it but allows

no direct, unobstructed gaze. It therefore fulfils two objectives at the

same time: it institutes a code of visibility in

the whole office, whilst ensuring that the workers have hidden from their eyes the

inspector who may be watching them. Clear glass could not achieve this ; neither could

it achieve the construction of privacy for the lawyer?narrator.

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4oo Graham Thompson

responses, both crucial to the development of the story. He first of all

describes Bartleby as “motionless …

pallidly neat, pitiably respectable,

incurably forlorn” –

adjectives and adverbs which register him in a role

of passivity –

but then also embarks upon a vital further demarcation of

the office space. Despite thinking that Bartleby’s ”

sedate aspect …


operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one

of Nippers, ”

Bartleby is actually given a desk behind a screen in the

lawyer-narrator’s part of the office. With Bartleby isolated from his sight but not his voice, so, according

to the lawyer?narrator, “privacy and

society were conjoined” (19). Several things are apparent here: the phonocentric conjugation of voice

with society ; the failure of the lawyer-narrator (tellingly) to adduce whose

privacy it is he thinks he is preserving (it cannot be his own since, while

he can intrude behind the screen with his voice any time he chooses,

Bartleby can also step out from behind the screen without knocking whenever he chooses); the admission that space cannot be marked by screens or doors but is more contingent than that and can be infinitely reassessed; and the lawyer?narrator’s disavowing logic which wants

Bartleby to control his other employees whilst keeping him all to himself

in his side of the office. Two classes of space produced so meticulously ?


the office, in the lawyer?narrator’s narrative –

suddenly collapse into one

another upon the arrival of Bartleby, whilst, once more disavowingly, the

lawyer-narrator tries to demarcate them syntactically. By the admission

that privacy and society, the private and the public, are proximate at the

level of being internal to one another, and through this increasing demarcation of his office, the lawyer?narrator is actually destabilizing the

very coherence of the project he is professing. The consequences of this

process will result in him having to keep on classifying and separating in

this manner until he reaches a stage –

which he does later in the narrative

? where the incoherence of his strategy becomes clear to him

(and its link to male sexuality transparent) and he is forced to reorder

? both his office and

sexuality, his attachment to

Bartleby ?

through the ultimate rejection and the ultimate disavowal. This is the

crisis which Bartleby provokes in the lawyer?narrator and which the

lawyer-narrator is only able to piece together in his retrospective narrative, his reordering of events connected to Bartleby.15 It is in the

15 For a more detailed explanation of this idea of retrospective re-ordering and its

implications for questions of male sexuality, see Lee Edelman, Homographesis : Essays in

Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 173-91.

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” Dead letters ! … Dead Men ?” 401

scopic frame of his narrative of Bartleby where he has to confront his own

self and where he recognizes what thus far he has been passing over or

misrecognizing : that his identity as a man in the masculine and public world of work and patriarchy cannot permit the desire he has for Bartleby or other men to be vectored

through sex.

As a way of explaining in more detail how the office and its surveillance

strategies impact on this realm of male sexuality, however, I think

Foucault’s argument that the body becomes the site on which disciplinary power plays itself out16 is insufficient in the light of the emphasis I place on the regime of the visual and needs to be supplemented by some more

recent developments in thinking about male sexuality. Lee Edelman has written how the imperative to produce homosexual

difference as a determinate entity in the twentieth century and before has

often relied on “reading” the body as a textual “signifier of sexual

orientation”.17 As well as having been positioned in such a proscriptive relation to language

? peccatum illud horribile, inter christianos non nom

inandum ?

homosexuality and homosexual men, along with their bodies, their clothes, gestures, language, certain buildings and public places of

meeting, have always been positioned so that they are intimately related

to questions of visibility and legibility. And especially so once it began to

be assumed by the discourses of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western culture that a subject’s

relation to sexuality

and desire was

essential rather than contingent.18 But,

at the same time as the homosexual

16 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (Harmondsworth

: Penguin, 1990 [1978]),

especially 48 and 139?40. 17

Edelman, Homographe si s, 4. 18

This was the transition from the moment when sodomy as a discontinuous act did not

necessarily preclude other forms of sexual relations, to the moment when the

homosexual became a distinct category of person. This is the thesis as set out by Michel

Foucault, History of Sexuality, and subsequently reinforced to varying degrees by

Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), Ed Cohen, A Talk on the Wilde Side (New York: Routledge, 1993), and Alan Sinfield, The Wilde

Century (London: Cassell, 1994). Goldberg is also keen to point out the importance of

the continuation of the terminology of sodomy in the modern period. For a more

sceptical approach to the chronology upon which Foucault’s work insists see Alan

Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1982), but more

particularly Rictor Norton, The Myth of the Modern Homosexual (London: Cassell, 1997). I take the view that the medicalized and psychologized shifts in attitudes towards

homo/sexuality that occur in the second half of the nineteenth century

? and they

clearly do ? are part of the same disciplinary and classificatory project outlined by

Foucault in Discipline and Punish and The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human

Sciences (London and New York: Pantheon, 1970) and which stretches back into the

seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The crucial point about the end of the nineteenth

century, I believe, has been made by Sedgwick: “What was new from the turn of the

century was the world-mapping by which every given person, just as he or she was

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402 Graham Thompson

man comes to be distinctively marked, becomes a text, it must also be

possible for those hallmarks which distinguish him to pass unremarked, Edelman argues. So that

heterosexuality has … been able to reinforce the status of its own authority


“natural” (i.e. unmarked, authentic, and non-representational) by defining the

straight body against the “threat” of an “unnatural” homosexuality

– a “threat”

the more effectively mobilized by generating concern about homosexuality’s

unnerving …

capacity to

“pass,” to remain invisible, in order to call into being

a variety of disciplinary ”

knowledges ”

through which homosexuality might be

recognized, exposed, and ultimately rendered, more

ominously, invisible once

1 Q more.

For Edelman, this entry of homosexuality into the field of writing and

textuality is the first thing his theory of homographesis denotes. But this

writing of homosexuality is reliant upon a second order of visuality, where there is “the need to construe such an emblem of homosexual

difference that will securely situate that difference within the register of

visibility. “20

Such an emblem is effeminacy,21 which increasingly comes to

be interchangeable with homosexuality –

especially as sexuality becomes

more tightly linked with gender ideology.22

necessarily assignable to a male or a female gender, was

now considered necessarily

assignable as well to a homo- or a hetero-sexuality,

” Sedgwick, Epistemology,

2. As far

as my argument is concerned, I see “Bartleby” as existing in a zone of discourse where

the metaphoric and m?tonymie approaches to identity

? reductive as these categories

are ? are woven tightly together, and hence my concentration

on the text as standing at the threshold of developments that were to follow.

19 Edelman, Homographe sis, 6.

20 Ibid, II.

Whilst as a cultural phenomenon effeminacy has a

long history, the relationship between effeminacy and same-sex passion has generated considerable discussion.

Randolph Trumbach has made a case for the early eighteenth century

as the time when

effeminacy came to be seen as a marker of sodomy between men, especially in

subcultural environments, but Alan Sinfield has suggested that “Up to the time of the

Wilde trials –

far later than is widely supposed –

it is unsafe to interpret effeminacy as

defining of, or as a signal of, same-sex passion,” The Wilde Century, 27. See Randolph

Trumbach, ”

Sodomitical Subcultures, Sodomitical Roles, and the Gender Revolution

of the Eighteenth Century : the Recent Historiography,

” in Robert Purks Maccubin,

ed, ‘Tis Nature’s Fault (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Trumbach, “Gender and the Modern Homosexual Role in Western Culture: the 18th and 19th Centuries Compared,” in Denis Altman et al, eds. Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality?

(London: Gay Men’s Press, 1989). What seems apparent is that effeminacy and same

sex passion

are intricately related to notions of gender in Western culture and it might be that one cannot discuss homosexuality and effeminacy without discussing the

cultural discourses defining gender divisions. This is Edelman’s approach. 22 Edelman, Homographesis,

11. For the way that the discourse of sex actually contributed

towards the development of gender binarism in the eighteenth and nineteenth

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‘ ‘ Dead letters ! … Dead Men ?” 403

Under these conditions, male sexuality becomes susceptible to two

different and completely discontinuous readings –

heterosexual and

homosexual. While the necessity of a visual marker to separate them out

is compelling ?

since they must exist in the symbolic order of sexuality in

the same way that gender difference does ?

the necessity of creating “homosexual difference” and “the homosexual” actually impacts upon all

male identities because one has to read all male identities (and, of course, one’s own male identity) to see whether they exhibit the hallmark of sexual

difference ; it textualizes all male identity and requires that all male identity be “read.” The putting into writing of homosexual difference, then, also

puts into writing the essentialized nature of identity, the result being ?


this is the second thing that Edelman’s theory of homographesis denotes

– the deconstruction, or de-scription,

of a metaphorical

notion of

identity, and the consequent deconstruction of the binary logic of

sameness and difference upon which symbolic identity is based.

Edelman’s position clearly suggests the centrality of a scopic constituent

for the organization of male sexuality in modernity. Going further than

Edelman, I want to make explicit that the links here with surveillance

become increasingly irresistible. What I want to argue is that Foucauldian

surveillance is actually a sophisticated form of reading and that this

reading is potently implicated in this man uvre whereby the male subject needs to be positioned in one of two increasingly discontinuous and

hierarchically organized identities during the course of the nineteenth

century ?

the homo and the hetero ?

where the boundary

between these

two needs to be policed constantly. And it is policed by the continuance

of reading and surveillance;23 by the entangled methods of regulation and

deconstruction identified in Edelman’s theory of homographesis.

centuries, see Thomas Lacquer, Making Sex (Cambridge, Mass, and London: Harvard

University Press, 1992 [1990]). This equation of sex-organizing?gender-organizing

sexuality is one which remains underexplored theoretically. 23

This emphasis on the visual nature of society since the Renaissance is mapped out by

Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London : University of California

Press, 1993), Chs 1 and 2. The subtitle of the book, The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth

Century French Thought refers to the way in which French thinkers have criticized the

effects of this emphasis on vision and presented anti-ocular discourses. For the

increasing interest in visual technologies and phenomena, and the importance of vision

as a discourse in the nineteenth century, see Daniel Pick, “Stories of the Eye,” in Roy

Porter, ed. Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present (London:

Routledge, 1997), 186?99; Suren Lalvani, Photography, Vision, and the Production of

Modern Bodies (New York, State University of New York Press, 1996); and Jonathan

Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century

(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990).

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404 Graham Thompson

In a similar vein, Jonathan Dollimore has identified how sexual contact

between men as it has variously been signified through Western

history –

as sin, as vice, as unnatural, as crime –

has carried with it a

contradictory metaphysics of evil which has its roots in an Augustinian

theology which places sexual perversion as a corruption of good that

stands in subordinate but proximate relation to the dominant. This means

that it is only possible to conceptualize evil through good. Dollimore

identifies two kinds of relation which result :

First: those proximities will permanently remind the dominant of its actual

instability, all forms of domination being unstable to a

varying degree, as well as

produce a

paranoid fear of impending subversion. So there

will be both a justified fear as well as an excess of fear; second, that proximity will become the


enabling displacement and

projection, while the justified/paranoid fears will be

their motivation : proximity becomes a condition of displacement ; which

in turn

marks the same/proximate as

radically other.24

Here is why

male?male sexual contact, whilst socially marginalized, has

retained its central symbolic function in Western society. This meta

physical order is played out in the social and the cultural. The proximate is internal and yet has to be made “radically other” in an/other space. As

the lawyer-narrator says, if Bartleby had admitted to having any friends

or relatives, “I would instantly have written, and urged their taking the

poor fellow away to some convenient retreat” (32).

Put simply, then, my argument is that the development of the visual

regime of the office and the development of the twin categories of homo

and hetero in the nineteenth century, whilst they may simply coincide in

temporal terms, are definitely not coincidental in the sense of having an

arbitrary relationship. The office, a surveilling regime constructed from

those discursive pairings so crucial in the development of the epistemology of modern Western sexuality, facilitates a reading regime which works to

reinscribe these discursive pairings. If it appears that this argument

suggests that the office is organized solely in terms of sex, then I should

make it clear that this is not what I am arguing. Clearly, surveillance


capitalism serves other purposes, such

as class control and the policing


human labour and production. And yet these categories

are not separate

from the work of surveillance and the construction of sexuality. Whilst

the office may be the site where many forms of capitalist surveillance take

place, it is also not a site which excludes particular kinds of surveillance.

If the binary of work and home is an incoherent one, then so must be the

24 Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 141.

Original in italics.

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* ‘ Dead letters ! … Dead Men ?” 405

boundary which tries to secure for the workplace exclusive rights to a

surveillance which is only about class and capitalism ?

especially in a story like “Bartleby” which is so concerned with the emotional attachment

between two men.

I think that Edelman’s and Dollimore’s work can join together at this

point to help throw light on the development of the story in “Bartleby” as I have already described it, but more importantly that they help in an

analysis of what subsequently happens to the lawyer?narrator and the way that he manages the desire which only increases as Bartleby refuses to do

what he asks of him.


Bartleby’s initial refusal is a refusal to read, and, whilst this means that

Bartleby is not doing the job for which he is being paid, in a disciplinary

regime of surveillance and self-surveillance the refusal to read –


it be one’s position in one’s surroundings, the surveilling gaze, oneself- is

an act which threatens more than just profits and efficiency. Likewise, in

a regime where the reading of other men is becoming vital to the

consolidation of identity within a gender, Bartleby’s stance is particularly

disturbing. Quite literally, Bartleby refuses to read himself in public; that

is, he refuses to speak about himself in public: “he had declined telling who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any relatives in the

world” (28). Unplaced as a man, the placing, the reading, is all left to the

lawyer-narrator. However, in the process of inscribing Bartleby in some

of the ways I have already mentioned, ways which place his strange

mysteriousness and his unknowability in direct relation to those rhetorical

structures which will later come to denote an effeminate homosexuality25

(ways which the whole retrospective narrative of re-remembrance, reconstitution and general behindsight

of the narrative key into), the

25 Many of the descriptions of Bartleby make

an anachronistic reading of him as

“homosexual” quite possible because of the way in which in the twentieth century these descriptions hint at those markers which have become related to

a particular style

of tragic, upper-class, effeminate homosexuality. I list them here in the order they

appear in the story: strangest (13), motionless, pallidly neat, pitiably respectable,

incurably forlorn, sedate (19), silently, palely, leanly composed (20), flute-like tone (22),

involuntary, strange wilfulness (23), passiveness (24), lean, penniless weight (25), great

stillness, unalterableness of demeanour, strangely tattered dishabille (26), cadaverously

gentlemanly nonchalance, wonderful mildness, dismantled condition, decorous (27),

pallid, pallid haughtiness, austere reserve (28), morbid moodiness, forlornness (29),

calm disdain, perverseness, mildly cadaverous (30), afflictive (32), mute and solitary (33)

strange creature (38), apparition, intolerable incubus, poor, pale, passive mortal,

helpless creature, innocent pallor (38).

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4o6 Graham Thompson

lawyer-narrator actually participates in the second stage of Edelman’s

notion of homographesis, the de-scription of any potentially metaphorical or fixed nature of male identity.

This reversal of the lawyer?narrator’s surveilling gaze begins almost

immediately Bartleby refuses to read: “there was something about

Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner

touched and disconcerted me” (21, my emphasis). Bartleby’s refusal, instead

of reflecting Bartleby back to the lawyer-narrator, actually makes the

lawyer?narrator contemplate himself. The lawyer-narrator disavowingly

convinces himself of Bartleby’s usefulness to him. Not throwing him out

becomes protecting him from a potentially less sympathetic employer: “To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange wilfulness, will cost

me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience” (23?24). Of course,

what it means also

is that the lawyer-narrator can keep Bartleby close to him; Bartleby is

successfully internalized not just by the spatial organization of the

lawyer?narrator’s side of the office, but in the rhetorical man uvre which

means that Bartleby is somehow literally inside the lawyer-narrator, an

ingested “sweet morsel.

” So

desperate is the lawyer-narrator

to maintain

Bartleby in his employ that he allows him all sorts of” strange peculiarities,

privileges, and unheard of exemptions ”

which soon the lawyer-narrator becomes used to, so much so that “every

added repulse

… which I

received only tended to lessen the probability of my repeating the

inadvertence” (26). This inversion or role reversal is continued during the lawyer

narrator’s Sunday-morning visit to his office. When he finds Bartleby

“saying quietly that he was sorry that he was deeply engaged just then, and

? preferred not admitting

me at present” (26), the lawyer?narrator is

the one who is forced into the position of having to “knock” to enter his

own premises. Not only this. Bartleby, having made a home out of the

office, has collapsed the home/work and public/private separation. He

has domesticated the office. Which also means feminizing it. The

lawyer?narrator walks away, disconcerted by the way that Bartleby’s

“wonderful mildness … not only disarmed me, but unmanned me, as it

were. For I consider that one, for the time, is a sort of unmanned when he

tranquilly permits his hired clerk to dictate to him, and order him away from his own

premises” (27). So, the lawyer-narrator is unmanned by not

being able to control his employees, and unmanned by having his office

domesticated. But he is also unmanned, surely, by the rhetoric of

penetration in Bartleby’s refusal to admit him, to allow him to take that

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‘ ‘ Dead letters ! … Dead Men ?” 407

active position in the active/passive binary of sexual contact. Here one can

see the classification of gender division beginning to affect relations

between men. It is Bartleby’s passiveness

– a

description reinforced over

and over in the story ?

his “wonderful mildness,” which is unmanning the lawyer-narrator. It bespeaks a manning which is susceptible to that

second denotation of homographesis, the de-scription of a masculine male

identity. When the lawyer-narrator

returns to the office and embarks upon the

most thorough investigation of Bartleby in his absence, identifying each

of his meagre belongings, and through them his “miserable friendlessness

and loneliness,” (27) he recognizes the fraternal relationship which bonds

him to Bartleby, and which leads him “on to other and more special

thoughts, concerning the eccentricities of

Bartleby. Presentiments of

strange discoveries hovered around me” (28). Considering the internalized

state in which Bartleby exists for the lawyer-narrator, and considering the

points I made in the previous paragraph about penetration, unmanning, and the instability of male identity, the nature of these “special thoughts” and “strange discoveries” would seem to be tied up intimately with this

desire the lawyer-narrator is directing towards Bartleby. What follows is the lawyer-narrator’s intrusion into Bartleby’s locked

desk. This is a key moment in determining the lawyer?narrator’s attitude

towards Bartleby and one which has been prepared for quite thoroughly

by the narrative. This moment needs to be read in the context of the

lawyer-narrator having walked away from his office “incontinently”26 when Bartleby refused him entry; in the context of Nippers’s chronic

indigestion and the references to nuts and spices and the capitalist

emphasis upon bodily regularity and control connected to the time-clock

of discipline ; in the context of a phallic thematics of dis-arming ; in the

context of the lawyer?narrator having noted earlier that the “the interval

between this [outside] wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern” (14); in the context of a scopic regime of private and public and

their importance

in the male washroom ?

which is what the lawyer

narrator’s office effectively

becomes next to this cistern ?

when the urinal

and the cubicle allow, respectively, the display of the phallus in public and

26 The Oxford English Dictionary provides three definitions of

” incontinence

” : i.

” Lack

of restraint with regard to sexual desire; promiscuity. LME. 2. Med. Lack of voluntary

control over the passing of urine or faeces. (Foil, by of.) Mi8. 3. gen. Lack of

constraint; inability to contain or restrain. (Foil, by of.) M19.” My reading of this

section of “Bartleby” clearly suggests a link, then, between the first and second


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4o8 Graham Thompson

the loosening of the sphincter in private.27 In the light of all this, when

the lawyer?narrator intrudes into the desk the presence of an anal

thematics becomes unmistakable. Indeed, this link between the desk and

the anus has been made directly, because the reader has been told already that Nippers’s struggle to accommodate his too tightly controlled

sphincter is dramatized by his inability to find a comfortable height for his

desk (16?17). In the desk:

Every thing was

methodically arranged, the papers smoothly placed. The pigeon

holes were deep, and removing

the files of documents, I groped into their

recesses. Presently

I felt something there, and dragged it out. It was an old

bandanna handkerchief, heavy and knotted. I opened it, and saw it was a savings

bank.”28 (28)

For the lawyer-narrator, it is this extraction of coins from Bartleby’s

desk/anus which leads to the clearest moment of surveillance of Bartleby, the moment when the

lawyer?narrator recalls “all the

quiet mysteries

which I had noted in the man” (28). This passage of revelation is worth

quoting at length:

Revolving all these things, and coupling them with the recently discovered fact

that he made my office his constant abiding place and home, and not

forgetful of

his morbid moodiness ; revolving all these things,

a prudential feeling began


steal over me. My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest

pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew

to my

imagination, did that same

melancholy merge into fear, that pity into

repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to

a certain point

the thought or

sight of misery enlists

our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that

point it does not.

They err who would assert that invariably this is owing

to the

inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain

hopelessness of

remedying excessive and organic ill. To

a sensitive being, pity is

not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity

cannot lead to

effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it. What I saw that morning

persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder.

I might give aims to his body ; but his body did not pain him ; it was his soul that

suffered, and his soul I could not reach. (29)

What is so tempting about this passage is that moment when the

lawyer-narrator sees his “melancholy merge into fear” and his “pity into

repulsion.” In the light of Dollimore’s ideas, what appears to be

27 See Lee Edelman, Homographesis, 148?70, and Lee Edelman, “Men’s Room,” in Joel Sanders, ed., Stud: Architectures of Masculinity (New York: Princeton Architectural

Press, 1996), 152?61. 28

For a more detailed reading of the link between money and anality, see

Sedgwick, Between Men, 161?79.

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‘ * Dead letters ! … Dead Men ?” 409

happening here is that the lawyer?narrator is fulfilling that man uvre his

marking of difference in Bartleby has been moving towards. He is marking “the

same/proximate as

radically other.” The melancholy and the pity

which so connected him to Bartleby that Bartleby became internal to him

now suddenly are transformed –

how exactly does melancholy merge into

fear, pity into repulsion ? –

into the fear and repulsion which will help him

to paranoically separate himself completely from Bartleby. Following Dollimore and Edelman, the lawyer-narrator’s very proximity to Bartleby

is the reason for this fear and repulsion ; it is the proximity caused by evil

being internal to good, and by de-scription being implicated in the process of inscription which relies so heavily on the never-stable visual register. The impossibility of any separation haunts the lawyer?narrator : “I

trembled to think that my contact with the scrivener had already and

seriously affected me in a mental way. And what further and deeper aberration might it not yet produce? This apprehension had not been

without efficacy in determining me to summary measures” (31). The summary measures the lawyer?narrator decides upon are, of

course, to fulfil his final separation from Bartleby. The lawyer?narrator, so culpable in first differentiating Bartleby by spatial surveillance, so

culpable in opening up Bartleby to a surveilling gaze, so culpable in

internalizing Bartleby in his own male identity, is now paying the spatial

consequences, the consequences of a

logic which tries to have as separate

and external what is so proximate

and internal. How can one separate

oneself from that upon which one relies to be oneself? The lawyer narrator is forced to do something once he realizes that Bartleby is

“scandalizing my professional reputation … I resolved to gather all my

faculties together, and for ever rid me of this intolerable incubus” (38).

He moves his chambers and Bartleby is eventually removed to the Tombs

where he dies fairly soon after. And it is here that the lawyer?narrator’s

asks his confusing question: “Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead



One of the features of the Dead Letter Office, and of the dead letters that

would have reached it, was a breakdown in communication. The letters

are deprived of their intended reader and are read instead by someone to

whom they mean something different. The reader of the letters is the

same –

a reader –

but different –

not the intended reader –

and the content

of the letter consequently fails to “mean” because of context. When

asking himself about the similarity of dead letters and dead men, the

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4io Graham Thompson

lawyer?narrator is, I suggest, referencing the reading of men by other

men, and the likelihood that, as with the letters whose meaning is

contextual, so it is with men in the environment of the office and of work.

Relationships between men are now beginning to carry the weight of

reading and recognition and, conscious of this, men now need to display a

meaning ?

masculine, active, solid –

which will be read and understood

in this context so that it will reach its intended receiver. Through his

question, the lawyer-narrator appears to be suggesting that Bartleby fails

to do this. In the world of office work he has displayed all the wrong letters and has consequently been read out of context. Of course, the

lawyer-narrator knows exactly the context in which these letters should

have been read: the context of male?male relations that permit


contact. And he knows because he recognizes that these letters are the

ones internal and proximate to his own identity which relies upon the

disavowal of them and of male?male sexual contact. He reads Bartleby and

himself clearly enough, only then to consign the letters which make up

Bartleby to the Dead Letter Office. He reads then disavows, claims not to


The greatest paradox of all, though, lies in the fact that it is the

lawyer-narrator himself who has been responsible for inscribing all these

letters in Bartleby in the first place. He is the one responsible for

visualizing and writing the narrative of Bartleby. In effect, the

lawyer?narrator has written a letter to himself which he can consign to the

Dead Letter Office once he has disavowed so successfully that he can

satisfy himself he does not understand the content, and therefore that the

message does not really apply to him. This man uvre is reinforced by the

enigmatic way in which the whole story of Bartleby is told by the

lawyer?narrator. He tries to forget his reactions to Bartleby through the

sublimation of his feelings of desire into the rhetoric which shapes the

story: the damaging divisions of private/public, surveillance/self surveillance and secrecy/disclosure which underpin the link between such a

phrase in the story as

“hardly can I express the emotions which seized

me” and others like “strangely disarmed,” “special thoughts,” “strange

discoveries,” and “our best affections.”

That these divisions are understood by the lawyer?narrator himself to

be damaging is witnessed by the way in which it is possible to read in

Melville’s story a meditation on the consequence of this whole process of

surveillance, the marking of difference, and disavowal –

namely death.

Indeed, Robert K. Martin has observed that Melville was unable “to

imagine what it might have been like for two men to love each other and

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‘ ‘ Dead letters ! … Dead Men ?” 411

survive. “29

Bartleby dies as a direct consequence of the lawyer?narrator’s

quest to be rid of that which is proximate and which is made radically other. It is the fracturing of male identity into radically discontinuous

classes of sexuality which one can see beginning to take place in Bartleby, which will become more intense as the century goes on, and which

Melville himself will dramatize so forcefully in Billy Budd. The results of

this kind of epistemological organizing of identity are literally fatal. If

dead letters sound like dead men, then dead men sound worryingly like

dead letters; immediately identifiable but instantly made different and

disavowed, it is the men who are made to bear the letters of their identity so visibly who end up suffering Bartleby’s fate.

29 Martin, Hero, Captain and Stranger, 7.

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  • Article Contents
    • p. [395]
    • p. 396
    • p. 397
    • p. 398
    • p. 399
    • p. 400
    • p. 401
    • p. 402
    • p. 403
    • p. 404
    • p. 405
    • p. 406
    • p. 407
    • p. 408
    • p. 409
    • p. 410
    • p. 411
  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Journal of American Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, Part 1: Living in America: Recent and Contemporary Perspectives (Dec., 2000), pp. 373-551, iv-xix
      • Volume Information
      • Front Matter
      • The Transnational Turn: Rediscovering American Studies in a Wider World [pp. 373-393]
      • “Dead Letters!… Dead Men?”: The Rhetoric of the Office in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” [pp. 395-411]
      • Gender Slurs in Boston’s Partisan Press during the 1840s [pp. 413-446]
      • A “World-Historical Idea”: The St. Louis Hegelians and the Civil War [pp. 447-464]
      • Reassessing Henry Carey (1793-1879): The Problems of Writing Political Economy in Nineteenth-Century America [pp. 465-485]
      • “Sketches of Spain”: Richard Wright’s “Pagan Spain” and African-American Representations of the Hispanic [pp. 487-502]
      • Review Essay
        • Review: Cold War Dichotomies [pp. 503-508]
      • Reviews
        • Review: untitled [pp. 509-510]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 510-511]
        • Review: untitled [p. 511-511]
        • Review: untitled [p. 512-512]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 512-513]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 513-514]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 514-515]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 515-516]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 516-517]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 517-518]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 518-519]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 519-520]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 520-521]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 521-522]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 522-523]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 523-524]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 524-525]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 525-526]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 526-527]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 527-529]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 530-531]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 531-532]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 532-533]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 533-534]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 534-535]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 535-537]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 537-538]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 538-539]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 539-540]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 540-541]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 541-542]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 542-543]
        • Review: untitled [p. 544-544]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 544-545]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 545-546]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 546-547]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 547-548]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 548-549]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 549-550]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 550-551]
      • Back Matter

The New England Quarterly, Inc. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The New England Quarterly.

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Then came the applause of every one who heard his words and saw his deed.18

The death of Whittier, ended a beautiful friendship in which two kindred spirits had communicated in full harmony. Ina Cool- brith’s admiration of Whittier is expressed in the verse which she wrote in 1898:

WHITTIER19 1892-1898

Beneath the still palms, in the smile of God, How seems it in that far and celestial way?

Not strange to him, who, while the earth he trod, Walked in the light and smile of God alway.

18 San Francisco Examiner, Oct. 2, 1892. 19 Mariposa Magazine, 1898 (one issue only), 57.



LIANE NORMAN’s “Bartleby and the Reader” in the NEW

ENGLAND QUARTERLY, XLIV, 22-39 (March, 1971) is an excel- lently written essay whose basic interpretation I agree with sub- stantially, though not wholly-that is, when the chaff is eliminated. By “chaff” I mean Norman’s method of interpretation which, for want of a better term, I will call the “reader fallacy.” One possibly might call it an example of the “affective fallacy,” enunciated by Beardsley and Wimsatt except that they were primarily thinking of poetry. It might be helpful, however, to quote from their essay: “The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does), a special case of epistemologi- cal skepticism, though usually advanced as if it had far stronger claims than the overall forms of skepticism. It begins by trying to derive the standards of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome … is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judg- ment, tends to disappear.”‘ This statement aptly characterizes Norman’s essay; it is basically a confusion of story and its results.

1W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington, 1967), 21.

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My objection, first of all, is to Norman’s initial assumption that “Bartleby the Scrivener” is “a particularly exasperating short story, not because it is difficult to understand, but because of the rigorous and demanding human transaction that takes place be- tween the reader and the story.” “Bartleby” is exasperating to me -and, from my talks with others about it, I believe that my reac- tion is not unusual-because it is difficult to understand what Mel- ville is doing; the story is a difficult one in itself. Norman is not the first to point out that one must keep one’s eye on the narrator, who is an eminently safe Lawyer; certainly the story is mainly about the Lawyer’s changing reactions to the silent, cadaverous young scrivener who is someone out of his ordinary experience. The rigorous and demanding human transaction is that which is going on between the Lawyer and Bartleby; more precisely, the difficult attempts on the part of the Lawyer to comprehend Bartle- by’s strange behavior. If this is so, then Norman’s initial assump- tion is false: Norman has based the whole essay around an as- sumption that is misleading. But this does not mean that she fails to provide the reader of the essay some acute insights into Mel- ville’s story. These insights are, however, in spite of her method.

Every writer creates with an invisible audience in mind, the readers who will pick up his work and appreciate what he has been trying to do. Melville was no exception. Like every other writer, he created his story-in this case “Bartleby”-with the in- tention that it would be understood. But each reader is a unique individual, responding to every story in his own way, and my re- action may differ from that of others. If Melville put into his story a special transaction between “Bartleby” and a hypothetical ideal reader, there is surely no evidence to that effect; it is amazing, moreover, that Norman offers not one iota of proof that Melville did just do that. The most that Norman should have said is that “this is my reaction as one reader; it seems to me that what makes the story difficult for me is that there is a rigorous and demanding human transaction taking place between me and Melville’s story.”

Let us look at some of the flaws in Norman’s method. After stating, in the first paragraph, her initial assumption-stating, but not offering any proof-Norman goes on to say that the reader is “both participant and judge: that is, he finds himself sympathizing with the Lawyer, putting himself in the Lawyer’s place, and then, having identified his interests and reactions with the Lawyer’s,

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being required to judge the Lawyer and, thus, himself.” Un- doubtedly, this is what has happened to Norman and probably to many readers; and there can be little doubt that the Lawyer is try- ing to do just that: he is a special pleader for himself, whatever else he is, because he is looking back, after a period of time, on his strange relation with Bartleby and is still somewhat puzzled by it. He undoubtedly seems to want the reader to realize what he has gone through, to understand his ordeal; he also wants to convey all that he has been able to learn about Bartleby. But this is not the same thing as saying that the reader will always react in the way that Norman says he is supposed to: that Melville presupposes an ideal reader who is fated to react in a particular way. One of the difficulties about this story is that the reader may balk at almost the beginning.

“As a consequence of recognizing that he shares the Lawyer’s assumptions and attitudes to a large extent,” Norman goes on to say in the third paragraph, “the reader is made to find the Lawyer ultimately wanting in humanity and to recognize Bartleby, who disrupts the functioning of what the Lawyer represents, as an ex- treme example of one who is protected and even celebrated by the laissez-faire, democratic, and Christian code of value.” The reader is not “made” to do any such thing. What happens, it may be asked, if the reader does not share at all the Lawyer’s assumptions and attitudes, not even at the very outset? For example, the Lawyer tells us that “I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.” Many people do not believe that the easiest way of life is the best; one does not have to be a puritan-though the puritans would certainly reject such a view of life-to see the fallacy of such an attitude. It is probable that someone like Melville, who was filled with such a deep awareness of the power of blackness in man’s heart, the importance of original sin, as expressed in his famous review of Hawthorne’s tales, would have rejected such an attitude. One may, therefore, ask this: Can it be that Melville, with his profound awareness of human psychology, expected some readers to reject the Lawyer at the very outset, to find him suspect even before they have read very far into his story? Such readers will not have to wait to find the Lawyer ultimately wanting in humanity; they may find him wanting immediately.

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When the Lawyer then goes on to expound his conviction that he is an “eminently safe man,” who is not insensible to “the late John Jacob Astor’s good opinion” and so loves the name of Astor that he loves to repeat it for it “rings like unto bullion,” I, for one -and I have found others who react in the same way-look at him somewhat askance. Possibly there were not so many people who would reject the Lawyer’s reaction towards Astor when the story first appeared as there are now, but surely there were some; it is hard to believe that Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville himself would think that the Lawyer was a very sensible person. When I read this passage I find myself feeling that the Lawyer is insufferably smug; moreover, I feel that anyone who boasts about being a “safe” man and loves to repeat the name of Astor in his manner must be somewhat deficient in humanity and quite obtuse towards human beings; he is more concerned with money than anything else. Surely this was Melville’s intention: to have his reader not to sympathize with the Lawyer, not to identify with him, not to put himself in the Lawyer’s place. What, then, be- comes of Norman’s argument?

Melville was surely more cunning than Norman would make him out to be; Norman is, judging from her essay, that type of reader whom Melville may have thought would fall easily for the Lawyer’s kind of special pleading. Melville, I think (but I must confess that I am not so sure as Norman as to what Melville in- tended doing), would have it both ways in his kind of readers; those who reject the Lawyer almost immediately; and others, who would fall for the Lawyer’s views and only gradually, like Norman, find themselves rejecting many of them and, in doing so, find themselves identifying with Bartleby. There may, conceivably, be other reactions as well, and this additional factor helps make this an exceptionally cunning story: possibly there are some readers who would reject the Lawyer at the outset but who would not identify themselves with Bartleby at any costs, who would feel that both the Lawyer and Bartleby are found wanting; there may also be some readers who would identify themselves with the Lawyer completely and still reject Bartleby, who would never under any circumstances comprehend Bartleby and feel that he has received all he should have, that death in the Tombs is a fitting end for such an unwilling participant in the problems of life. These latter

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-and I think, though I am not sure, a few of my students in the past would be among their number-would believe that when the Lawyer says at the end that Bartleby is with kings and counselors, he is being simply ridiculous; that when, after learning that Bartleby was employed in the Dead Letter Office, the Lawyer can state in his conclusion to the sad story, “Ah, Bartlebyl Ah, human- ityl,” he is stating, not only something entirely cryptic, but also in excess of the facts. These readers are surely the most obtuse of all, one feels; their humanity seems to be totally lacking, they are on the side of John Jacob Astor, whom they admire excessively, and believe that there is nothing wrong with the laissez-faire attitude towards human beings, even such a pitiful one as Bartleby. These varying reactions towards the story are as a result of Melville’s ambiguity, a quality which Norman rightly says is built into the story; and if Norman had gone on to expound an interpretation based on “Bartleby the Scrivener” in this light instead of bringing in a fallacious hypothetical reader who must react in a certain way, nobody could have quarreled much with it.

I must emphasize that I am not altogether at odds with Norman’s views about the story; my chief quarrel is with her method. Never- theless, Norman does appear to be too dogmatic in some of her method which makes her not sufficiently aware of Melville’s am- biguities. “The Lawyer,” Norman states with assurance, “is at no point cruel or even unkind to Bartleby.” Cruelty it may not be, but one might quibble as to whether the Lawyer is being kind or unkind to Bartleby when, in exasperation, he says: “What earthly right have you to stay here? Do you pay any rent? Do you pay my taxes? Or is this property yours?” Those who feel by now in the story that Bartleby is a clear-cut case of extreme dementia, might possibly believe that the Lawyer is not only exhibiting his obtuse- ness but also is saying something terribly unkind to a very sick man. There are certainly others-and I have found a few readers who believe this-who not only believe that the Lawyer is being unkind to Bartleby but applaud him for being so. And how else can one interpret the Lawyer’s statement when he tells us, after Bartleby has said that he likes to be stationary, that he now lost all patience and for the first time “fairly” flew “into a passion”? He shouts an order to Bartleby that he must quit his premises be- fore night; and even though he absurdly concludes with the ridicu- lous statement that if Bartleby does not do as he insists, then he’ll

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have to quit the premises himself, I can’t see how one can doubt that, whether justified or not, the Lawyer has been abusive of poor Bartleby.

Norman is probably quite correct in saying that when the Law- yer states he is going to “purchase a delicious self-approval” in befriending Bartleby, it “is impossible to approve of so commer- cial a view of goodness”; at least one would think that most readers would feel the same way as Norman does. But then she goes on to add: “yet because the reader has so recently identified himself with the Lawyer, sharing his indignation, sharing his sympathy, the reader cannot dissociate himself quickly enough to escape the scorn that follows on this disclosure.” One throws up one’s hands with dismay and exclaims, “Speak for yourself, Norman.” I, who have not identified myself with the Lawyer to any great extent, can only say that I demur: it seems to me to be sheer innocence on Norman’s part to react as she does and, furthermore, to say that I must feel self-scorn upon hearing of this disclosure. What I do feel is that the Lawyer is just being himself, humbugging himself possibly, but in any case just continuing in his original role of smug fool.

It can easily be seen, if one has followed my reaction to the story, that I cannot accept what Norman thinks about what is finally called “The most important stratagem in the story. . . .” “To be the reader’s problem,” Norman states with assurance near the conclusion of the essay, “the reader must participate in a relation- ship with Bartleby. He does this by finding the Lawyer, on the whole, normal, reasonable, essentially like himself. The contempt he feels for the Lawyer must be no more than he can bear to turn upon himself.” As one reader, I do believe that the Lawyer is con- temptible; and though I think that I am on the whole normal (whatever that means) and reasonable, I do not believe that I can identify myself with the Lawyer to any extent, even from the be- ginning of the story; nor do I feel that Melville has expected all of his readers to do so. It is possible also that I may not be normal and reasonable; I may be as mad as a hatter. If so, how could I identify myself with the “normal and reasonable” Lawyer? I have deliberately reduced my argument to the level of absurdity in order to show merely the absurdity of Norman’s use of the “reader fallacy.” I am not as sure as Norman that Melville expected all of his readers to believe that the Lawyer has been normal and reason-

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able; from the very beginning, it may very well be that Melville has been trying to show that the Lawyer has acted abnormally and unreasonably to poor Bartleby. If so, his attempts at the end of the story to reverse himself and point out Bartleby’s relationship to kings and counselors of the earth and to state, more succinctly, Bartleby’s relationship to humanity as a whole, may be interpreted either as more of the same humbuggery or else a complete reversal of values; no more, presumably, if the latter is the case, does he feel as he once did towards John Jacob Astor; now he scorns that worthy financier.

The ambiguities in this story are indeed greater than Norman has perceived. The struggle with the reader is more profound than Norman has realized; not quite so clear, not, by a wide margin, so easily deduced from the story. Newton Arvin’s words would seem to be, in conclusion, very appropriate: “Is the setting of ‘Bartleby’ a Wall Street law office or the cosmic madhouse?” And, as he goes on to suggest: “It is of course both, and ‘Bartleby’ has the quality, small though its scale is, of suggesting a whole group of meanings, no one of which exhausts its connotativeness.””2

2 Newton Arvin, Herman Melville (New York, 1950), 242.

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  • Article Contents
    • p. 118
    • p. 119
    • p. 120
    • p. 121
    • p. 122
    • p. 123
    • p. 124
  • Issue Table of Contents
    • The New England Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Mar., 1972), pp. 1-160
      • Front Matter [pp. 1-2]
      • America’s First Romantics: Richard Henry Dana, Sr. and Washington Allston [pp. 3-30]
      • President Adams’ Billiard Table [pp. 31-43]
      • Religious Liberty and the Problem of Order in Early Rhode Island [pp. 44-64]
      • Hawthorne’s Treatment of the Artist [pp. 65-80]
      • “Hellships”: Yankee Whaling along the Coasts of Russian-America, 1835-1852 [pp. 81-95]
      • Memoranda and Documents
        • Folk Poetry in Longfellow’s Boyhood [pp. 96-105]
        • A Proposal for Peace, 1945 [pp. 105-109]
        • Ina Coolbrith’s Friendship with John Greenleaf Whittier [pp. 109-118]
        • The “Reader Fallacy” and “Bartleby the Scrivener” [pp. 118-124]
      • Book Reviews
        • Review: untitled [pp. 125-127]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 127-129]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 129-131]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 131-132]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 133-134]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 135-137]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 137-139]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 139-141]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 141-144]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 144-146]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 146-148]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 149-151]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 151-153]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 153-155]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 155-158]
      • Back Matter [pp. 159-160]