Blog Post

What Bartleby Can Teach Us About Occupy Wall Street

"Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street," composed in 1853, is perhaps Herman Melville's most famous short story. It's certainly his most inscrutable.

Melville's account of how the eponymous scrivener, whose job is to produce multiple copies of legal documents, slowly and deliberately withdraws from everyday life with the sole explanation, "I would prefer not to," has continued to resist interpretation. Does Bartleby's "extraordinary quantity" of mechanical writing suggest a reading of the story as representing the increasing industrialization of nineteenth-century America? Do the avoidant actions of the story's narrator—Bartleby's boss—point to the limits of benevolence and charity? Does Bartleby's former employ, the Dead Letter Office, correspond to Melville's own feelings about the trajectory (and content) of his failing literary career? And most inscrutable of all: why, precisely, does Bartleby so often "prefer not to"? What on earth (or above) could be motivating his willful, but undeniably passive resistance?

As any reader of "Bartleby" knows, these questions cannot be answered with certitude. "To read Bartleby well," as H. Bruce Franklin once wrote, "we must first realize that we can never know who or what Bartleby is, but that we are continually asked to guess who or what he might be"—this from Franklin's The Wake of Gods: Melville's Mythology (1963). For Franklin, the significance of being "continually asked to guess" who Bartleby is, or what he means, is not only the function of the story, but the obligation of its readers. Or, to extend this from the literary to the political realm, when presented with a person's resistance—passive or otherwise—it is the obligation of observers—indeed, of all in a democratic society—to think about the possibilities of what that person might stand for, even if we cannot pinpoint a single issue, meaning, or demand.

The lesson of the inscrutability of "Bartleby" has in fact already been applied to the Occupy Wall Street movement. MediaBistro reported on a group reading of Melville's story last week at Zuccotti Park, and over at The New Republic, Nina Martyris weighed in on how what she called "America's first slacktivist" might inform a contemporary critique of Wall Street.

But what can be learned from "Bartleby" today, as OWS enters its third month, and as its founding principle of passive resistance is increasingly challenged by violent means, is not simply the importance (and obligation) of an active interrogation of social and political life; it's that an inscrutable phrase—"We are the 99%," or "I would prefer not to"—can enter into daily conversation, can itself be replicated, and in this way effect fundamental change. Consider this passage from "Bartleby," in which the narrator recognizes the impact of Bartleby's language on himself and his employees:

Somehow, of late I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word "prefer" upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions. And 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 means.

As Nippers, looking very sour and sulky, was departing, Turkey blandly and deferentially approached.

"With submission, sir," said he, "yesterday I was thinking about Bartleby here, and I think that if he would but prefer to take a quart of good ale every day, it would do much towards mending him, and enabling him to assist in examining his papers."

"So you have got the word too," said I, slightly excited.

"With submission, what word, sir," asked Turkey, respectfully crowding himself into the contracted space behind the screen, and by so doing, making me jostle the scrivener. "What word, sir?"

"I would prefer to be left alone here," said Bartleby, as if offended at being mobbed in his privacy.

"That’s the word, Turkey," said I—"that’s it."

"Oh, prefer? oh yes—queer word. I never use it myself. But, sir, as I was saying, if he would but prefer—" 

"Turkey,” interrupted I, “you will please withdraw."

"Oh, certainly, sir, if you prefer that I should."

Here, the narrator—himself a boss—recognizes his own "involuntary" way of using the word "prefer," and "tremble[s] to think" of the other ways in which Bartleby might have "already and seriously affected" him. He observes how his employee, Turkey, has also "got the word," even if Turkey himself does not realize how that "queer word" has entered into his everyday lexicon.

As the narrator dismisses Turkey, he has a brief exchange with his other employee, Nippers, who similarly asks "whether [he] would prefer to have a certain paper copied on blue paper or white." Of this, the narrator observers: 

He did not in the least roguishly accent the word prefer. It was plain that it involuntarily rolled from his tongue. I thought to myself, surely I must get rid of a demented man, who already has in some degree turned the tongues, if not the heads of myself and clerks. But I thought it prudent not to break the dismission at once. 

It is at this point—the point at which Bartleby's language has entered into each character's mode of expression—that the narrator decides to take action to remove Bartleby from the premises. And it is at this point that Bartleby, himself, decides to cease writing altogether; his work is done.

The work of Occupy Wall Street is not yet done. Indeed, as police respond with unprovoked violence, and as politicians unnecessarily legislate in order to remove the OWS protesters from the public eye, the Occupy Wall Street movement has begun to expand with significance. But as OWS moves away from a Bartleby-esque resistance to meaning, and towards a clearer set of issues and demands, it is important to pause, and to recognize what has been accomplished so far.

And this is what we can learn from "Bartleby": the signifiance of impacting a society's everyday language. For as much as the narrator of "Bartleby" resists the idea that his employee's passive protest has affected his thinking, it is evident from the response documented in the story, just as it is evident in the media's response to the OWS movement, that introducing new language into conversation—even with inscrutable intentions—leaves its mark on tongues, minds, and hearts.

Lauren Klein is an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Her research interests include early American literature and culture, food studies, media studies, and the digital humanities. Her writing has appeared, most recently, in Early American Literature, American Literature, and American Quarterly. She has taught at Brooklyn College and at Macaulay Honors College, both branches of the City University of New York. Between 2007 and 2008, she worked as an educational technology consultant for One Laptop per Child, a non-profit aimed at bringing low-cost laptops to children in the developing world.