“That Herman Melville has gone ‘clean daft’, is very much to be feared; certainly, he has given us a very mad book…The sooner this author is put in ward the better. If trusted with himself, at all events give him no further trust in pen and ink, till the present fit has worn off. He will grievously hurt himself else – or his very amiable publishers.”
This grotesque reaction of a reviewer of a new work of Herman Melville, the author of “Bartleby the Scrivener”, shows that something went indeed wrong with Melville. But he didn’t go mad – he did something even more unforgivable: he disappointed the expectations of his readers!
After his adventurous youth as a sailor and living on Pacific islands with cannibals, he became famous with adventure novels like Typee and Omoo. But instead of staying in this line of work and becoming a bestselling author, he delivered Moby Dick, an already very difficult to swallow piece of literature, too dark and too philosophical for the biggest part of the 19th century audience. And as if this was not already enough, he came up finally with one of the strangest literary heroes of all times: Bartleby.
What hasn’t been written about this story! Especially since the 1920s, when psychoanalysis and the publication of Franz Kafka’s (and Robert Walser’s with its countless office clerks) works lead to a Melville renaissance,
Melville’s oeuvre and especially Bartleby has been interpreted again and again – Bartleby, the psycho-pathological case study; Bartleby as a criticism of Thoreau’s flight from civilization; Bartleby as a self-portrait of Melville (who had to work as a customs officer after the publication of this story due to his falling out with the reading public of his time); Bartleby as a parable concerning the life of the artist in a world dominated by business interests (the story takes place mainly at Wall Street); Bartleby as a predecessor of Camus and existentialist philosophy; Bartleby as a modern Hiob or even Jesus (the story is full of biblical references). – And this is just a small choice of possible interpretations!
But this is not my main point here – Bartleby is one of the few cases in literature that is open to such a big variety of possible interpretations. So read it – in case you haven’t done it so far. Or re-read it again: it is just 60 pages, and at least for me one of the most unforgettable literary works ever.
Do not expect a longer review here: “I would rather prefer not to”, as Bartleby used to say…Just read it!
Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener, Hesperus Press (and many other editions)
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