Last weekend I scored a tote bag from Melville House Books emblazoned with the words, “I would prefer not to,” the famous refrain from Melville’s 1853 story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall-Street.” I am loath to festoon myself with slogans, but I considered carrying that bag around the Zuccotti Park in lieu of a placard. I wouldn’t be the first: a week earlier, librarian Zach wore a t-shirt with that same phrase while guarding what remained—a table, a bulletin board, and one book—of the Occupy Wall Street Library. (Occupation librarians moved the books temporarily because of fears that Brookfield Properties’ planned cleaning of the park would lead to an eviction. They brought them back later that morning after Brookfield announced that they had postponed the cleaning indefinitely.)
(Zach the librarian, with a few boxes of books coming back into the park)
Of course, both the tote bag and the t-shirt function on one level as indicators of cultural with-it-ness to be recognized by others in the know. And for those who haven’t read Melville’s story—I imagine—the phrase might seem to signal a hip, ironic resistance; at the same time, the privileged idea that one’s refusal could be a “preference.”
A week later, another occupation librarian—Bill, a literature professor who is spending his sabbatical living in the park—read a selection from “Bartleby” as part of the new “Silent Readings” series at the OWS Library. Speaking into a microphone that broadcasted to a nearby crowd of headphone-wearing listeners, Bill recited the tale of the inscrutable Bartleby, who answers his employer’s almost every request with that same reply: “I would prefer not to.” When Bill finished reading, he remarked to me, “I forgot to say that the story is set on Wall Street.” Yes, I answered, and isn’t it such a fitting tale for this encampment!?
I knew the story, but to be honest I had paid intermittent attention to his reading. I was engaged in the task of entering ISBNs into the OWS Library’s online catalog—an endless task, considering the number of donations that come in each day—and so the lines of Melville’s story came and went in my consciousness, and I picked up only the most quotable lines. I “sparkled” (the silent approval gesture of consensus process) when Bill read the narrator’s (Bartleby’s employer’s) frustrated line, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.” And that refrain—“I would prefer not to”—evoked, to my mind, something similar to the combination of exactitude and vagueness that has made the phrase “Occupy Wall Street” a catalyst for affiliation and critique.
Ultimately, however, “I would prefer not to” makes a poor slogan, as do most lines plucked from their context. (One might say that nothing so aggravates a literary scholar like myself as a quote taken out of context.) So, a few days later, I sat down and re-read the story in full. I came away from my reading more convinced that “Bartleby” is a powerful narrative for the moment, but not one that speaks in the language of pithy placards or in the constraints of the miniature life stories on “We Are the 99 Percent”—as truly powerful as those placards and stories may be. (And part of me would love to see the satirical “I am the 99 percent” tumblr post that features Bartleby. Maybe one already exists?) Neither does “Bartleby” offer precise historical knowledge about the inequities that Wall Street represented in the 1850s, though there are some choice passages made even more resonant by the story’s Wall Street setting, like the one in which the narrator describes himself as “one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds.” Lines like that make me want to give Melville a high-five. But what is most powerful about “Bartleby” is the way it challenges the assumptions that make possible the exercise of power.
The story is narrated by Bartleby’s employer, that “unambitious lawyer,” who has recently given up his private practice in exchange for the office of Master of Chancery (“It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative.”) Facing mounting paperwork, the narrator (whose name we never learn) hires Bartleby as an additional scrivener, or law-copyist. From the start, Bartleby works steadily and silently, unlike the other two scriveners, nicknamed Turkey and Nippers, whose drinking and indigestion affect their performance throughout the day. However, when the narrator asks Bartleby to check a document for errors—a routine, expected task—the latter makes his first refusal. In fact, any time his employer asks him to do something, he offers the same response: “I would prefer not to.” It is not that Bartleby doesn’t work; in fact, in the first part of the story he works at a steady pace, not even going out for lunch. He simply does not take direction.
Bartleby’s refusals overturn the hierarchy of the office, revealing it to be based upon assumptions of command and consent. The employer assumes that his commands will be executed, but Bartleby interrupts his “natural expectancy of instant compliance” not through open rebellion but through “passive resistance.” (“I burned to be rebelled against,” admits the employer.) Yet is not just the employer who holds assumptions about compliance. The other two scriveners also take for granted that they must do what they are told. Nippers, for example, constantly adjusts his desk, which never suits him properly, grumbles about Bartleby, and probably wants “to be rid of a scrivener’s table altogether.” Yet Nippers complies, carrying out each of his employer’s commands, thus upholding the office hierarchy. He and Turkey even reassure the employer when the latter starts to doubt his own sense of justice and reason regarding Bartleby:
“Turkey,” said I, “what do you think of this? Am I not right?”
“With submission, sir,” said Turkey, with his blandest tone, “I think that you are.”
“Nippers,” said I, “what do you think of it?”
“I think I should kick him out of the office.”
With their responses, Turkey and Nippers maintain the hierarchy by telling him what he wants to hear, but they fail to reassure the employer, who admits to being “unmanned” by Bartleby. Bartleby has shattered the hierarchy, or at least the idea that the hierarchy is truth and not a social fact constructed by belief and practice.
The employer’s first response to this upheaval is to appeal to Bartleby’s reason, but these overtures fail in the face of his “unprecedented and violently unreasonable” behavior. (One of the story’s most famous bits of dialogue is when Bartleby responds to the employer’s request to “be a little reasonable” and help to examine papers with the line, “At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable.”) Later, upon discovering that Bartleby had been sleeping in the office—making unexpectedly domestic use of the nondomestic space of Wall Street— the employer is moved to pity:
Upon more closely examining the place, I surmised that for an indefinite period Bartleby must have ate, dressed, and slept in my office, and that too without plate, mirror, or bed. […] Yet, thought I, it is evident enough that Bartleby has been making his home here, keeping bachelor’s hall all by himself. Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall-street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!
Suddenly Bartleby becomes an object of pity, not just because of his seeming poverty but also because of his lonely purview of the deserted Wall Street of Sunday afternoon (which, interestingly, the employer compares to ruins). If he can’t relate to Bartleby as an employee, he will relate to him in terms of his humanity. “The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy!”
Yet pity fails also, in part because the employer can’t quite imagine Bartleby as human (early in his acquaintance with Bartleby, the employer doubts that there is “any thing ordinarily human about him”), and also because his pity can’t seem to account for Bartleby’s “forlornness”:
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.
Bartleby is either too miserable or too inscrutable to be cared about or helped. When Bartleby stops working entirely (ostensibly because of eye trouble, but the cause is not quite clear), the employer endeavors to rid himself of this now-unproductive worker, to return him to his “native land” (a line which, among other moments in the story, opens up an anti-colonial reading) or at least get him out of the Chancery office. However, despite giving Bartleby instructions to vacate—and congratulating himself on his superb management skills—he finds him still at the office the next morning; in fact, Bartleby bars the employer’s own entry:
I was fumbling under the door mat for the key, which Bartleby was to have left there for me, when accidentally my knee knocked against a panel, producing a summoning sound, and in response a voice came to me from within—“Not yet; I am occupied.”
It was Bartleby.
That’s right, Bartleby was inside, occupying the office.
“Bartleby” is an imperfect analogy for Occupy Wall Street, but it nevertheless resonates because it is about how a refusal can open up new ways of seeing. Bartleby’s refusal—and his occupation of the Chancery office—punctures the “doctrine of assumptions” that naturalized the power relations governing the employer’s world. Suddenly, the employee is commanding the employer, and the space of the office has become a home. Likewise, today’s encampment has transformed Zuccotti Park into both a forum for employees rather than employers (though I am reticent to draw such hard-and-fast distinctions), as well as a domestic space that is home for scores of occupiers. But it is not only the occupiers of that park who have punctured our “doctrine of assumptions”; it also the supporters of this and other encampments. A Times magazine poll reporting widespread public approval of OWS; police in Albany defying the governor and mayor by refusing to arrest protestors; or the over 300,000 petition signatures in a single afternoon to protest the Brookfield “cleaning” of the park. There are still many assumptions—especially relating to racism, nationalism, and colonialism—that Occupy Wall Street has not quite punctured (or hasn’t even begun to puncture) with the force that it has punctured the market consensus. In fact, the slogan itself carries the danger of perpetuating a discourse of colonialism and military occupation, as many people have pointed out. Yet it is crucial not to lose sight of the new space of imagination that has been opened up by the discordant chorus of refusal.
I haven’t discussed the last part of “Bartleby,” and I leave you to read it, or re-read it—perhaps at the Occupy Wall Street Library—yourself. And I hope you give the story space to breathe—as I have said, it is evocative but not a perfect analogy for the present moment. As Hannah Gersen writes in her own essay on OWS and Bartleby, “If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has — to unsettle.” Such a rich story could never be a neat analogy—or supply brief slogans—and the strength of “Bartleby” lies in the way it escapes singular interpretations.
(Two copies of Melville House’s 2004 reprint of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” are currently [or, rather, probably] available at the Occupy Wall Street Library, along with a few other editions of Melville’s work. You can also read “Bartleby” online or download it for free here from the nonprofit Project Gutenberg Literary Archive, which has been digitizing copyright-free books since 1971.)
(Also, I discovered while writing this post that others have made lengthier connections between OWS and “Bartleby,” from Hannah Gersen’s impressionistic piece on themillions.com, to this dense but awesome Žižek-heavy piece from #occupytoronto, to Nina Martyris’ somewhat irksome TNR column in which she draws a close analogy between Bartleby and OWS.)