Herman Melville wrote one of the most important American novels, Moby-Dick, but at his death he was almost forgotten. The novel was rediscovered in the 1920s and began to gain more respect. After that, people began reading his other work with a more appreciative eye.
Herman Melville was born in New York in 1819, the third child of Allan Melville, a dealer in imported fabrics and perfumes. His mother, Marie Gansevoort, was the daughter of a prominent New York family. Melville's paternal grandfather, Thomas Melvill, took part in the Boston Tea Party. His maternal grandfather, General Peter Gansevoort, was the hero of the Saratoga campaign; his portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart.
Melville's childhood was happy and secure. But in 1830, his father's business failed and the family moved to Albany. Unable to cope with his failure, Allan Melville broke down mentally and physically. He died in 1832, leaving his family in genteel poverty, dependent on Marie's family for financial support. Melville attended Albany Academy until 1834, when his family could no longer pay the bills. At age 12, he left school and went to work as a bank clerk. The work was boring and repetitive, and certainly influenced "Bartleby the Scrivener," which he wrote many years later. He later worked as a clerk in the family business, and then as a farm worker.
Bored and dissatisfied, he shipped out to Liverpool as a seaman on a merchant ship. When he returned 6 months later, he taught school for 3 years. But such a life was not for him: in 1841, he signed on for a 3-year whaling voyage on the Acushnet. He and a friend jumped ship in the Marquesas (now French Polynesia) and, while exploring the island, were taken prisoner by cannibals. They were rescued after several months and boarded an Australian whaler to Tahiti, then another whaler, Leviathan, to Honolulu. Melville enlisted in the Navy there and served on the frigate United States until he was mustered out of the Navy in 1844.
He went back home to his family in New York, where he began writing. His experiences provided the material for several novels and stories, among them Typee, Omoo, Mardi, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick, and Billy Budd. His first two novels, Typee and Omoo, were critical and commercial successes. In 1847, he married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, of Boston, and they moved to New York, where he made his living as a writer. In 1849, he published Mardi and Redburn, and then travelled to London to arrange for the publication of White-Jacket.
In 1850, he moved his family to a farm outside Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where his neighbor was Nathaniel Hawthorne. His friendship with Hawthorne was inspirational to him as he was writing Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick was at first intended to be simply another seafaing tale, but as Melville wrote, it became much more: darker, more symbolic, more complex. Melville exhausted himself writing it, working day and night, not eating until 5 or 6 in the afternoon. But when he was finished, he was ebullient: he knew it was a masterpiece.
The critics and the public disagreed. It was published in 1851, and the reviews were at best lukewarm. Few copies were sold. Almost no one understood what he was trying to do.
This was discouraging, but he went on to write his next novel, Pierre; or the Ambiguities. This was an even more dismal failure than Moby-Dick had been. It was disheartening, but also financially a disaster. For the next three years, Melville kept money coming in by writing short stories and essays, but it wasn't enough to support the family, and he had to ask his father-in-law for help.
During this time, Melville wrote "Bartleby the Scrivener." It was published anonymously in two installments in 1853 in Putnam's Monthly Magazine and later collected in Piazza Tales (1856).
Melville's next novel, Israel Potter was not even reviewed in the United States. The Confidence Man (1857) earned almost nothing. From 1857-1860, Melville supported his family mostly on fees he made from lecturing. In 1863, he moved his family back to New York, and in 1866, he took a job as District Inspector of Customs. He was almost completely forgotten in literary circles by now. During the next 25 years, he published only a few poems.
In 1885, he and his wife came into inheritances, and he retired from his Customs job and began again to write. Five months before his death, on September 18, 1891, he completed Billy Budd. It wasn't published until 1924.
"Bartleby the Scrivener"
There are a number of similarities between Bartleby and Melville: Bartleby is a "scrivener," that is a writer, like Melville. Like Melville, Bartleby refuses to copy the work of others to suit popular demand. Like Bartleby, Melville is "withdrawing" from a world that doesn't care about him anymore. Such similarities make it tempting to see the story as a psychological study of Melville himself.
But the story goes far beyond such a narrow interpretation. Critics have interpreted the story in many ways (indeed, it has been noted that Melville's work is so complex and ambiguous that whatever one wants to see in it, one can see), but there are a few obvious themes. The narrator is unnamed. He calls himself a "safe" man, tolerant and methodical. He is neither good nor bad, but a creature of convention and habit. Bartleby's passive resistance and lack of concern for himself puzzle him: he cannot conceive of a life in which one's own needs are unconnected to commercial gain. But he is sympathetic, and his compassion and understanding for Bartleby leave him feeling conflicted. Readers tend to be fascinated by Bartleby, but the narrator is the character who grows and changes during the course of the story.
The story was written at the height of U.S. exploration and expansion; the continent and its resources seemed endless, and the American Dream was being articulated: the idea that opportunities were so numerous that anyone could start with nothing and end up rich and successful. But as the country became more industrial and commercial, many were shut out of these new possibilities. The setting of "Bartleby," Wall Street, representative of immeasurable wealth, is presented as a prison, with images of death, as is the law office itself. There, people are reduced to merely human extensions of their pens. The documents they copy must be exact; there is no room for individuality or creativity. The men work in cubicles, alienated from each other. This law office is no place for American Dreamers: it is a dead end job (literally, for Bartleby), not a steppingstone to a higher position.
Bartleby isn't aggressively rebellious: he doesn't say "No"; he says "I prefer not to," and the narrator is stymied by that response. In trying to reason with Bartleby, he is forced to examine the grounds of his requests, and finds himself unable to justify them. He begins to lose his faith in the way he's always done things. He realizes that his only reason for doing things was not because they were right or had intrinsic value, but because that's how they'd always been done.
The narrator, because of Bartleby, is forced to see--to really see human suffering for the first time, and his whole being is shaken. He is a good man trying to become a better man, but he doesn't know how to proceed. He is brought face to face with the conflict between moral goodness and worldly necessity:
Melville's treatment of the lawyer's confusion over how to respond to this mutilated soul is a finely wrought portrait of a morally vexed man. But it is also a meditation on a large moral issue under dispute in antebellum America: how to define collective responsibility at a time when the old ad hoc welfare system of churches and charities could no longer cope with the growing numbers of workers and families being left destitute by the boom-and-bust cycle of the industrial economy. As casualties mounted, the scope of corporate responsibility was being narrowed in the courts by business-friendly judges who routinely ruled against plaintiffs in cases of workplace injury and property loss. (One suit, brought against the Boston and Worcester Railroad in 1842 by an employee who had been injured in a derailment caused by another employee's negligence, had been dismissed in a precedent-setting case by none other than Judge Lemuel Shaw.) In the 1850s, the United States was fast becoming a laissez-faire society with no articulated system for protecting individuals against impersonal power. In this respect, Bartleby--homeless, friendless, the urban equivalent of "a bit of wreck in the mid Atlantic"--was a figure more representative than eccentric" (Delbanco 220).
For more information on this topic, go to the Links page.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1
2. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature.
3. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism.
4. John F. Gallagher, "Introduction" to The Short Novels of Herman Melville.
5. Andreas Teuber, "Herman Melville," http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/melvillebio.html
6. Andrew Delbanco. Herman Melville: His World and Work.
--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.
--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.