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Finding Bartleby

A second take on the ideas put forth in Tufte vs. Bloom 2.

A few years ago Cornell University put up hundreds of volumes of old magazines on a web site, spanning from 1815 to a little after 1900 (when copyright law kicks in). It's called the Making of America archive and, several times a week, more than I want to admit, I find myself going to this site and clicking through ancient issues of The Atlantic, Putnam's or Harper's, reading articles on the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, or the mysteries of China.

As I've been reading, I began to sense that these old words, now scanned and searchable, had something to tell me. For a long time I couldn't figure out what it was. Then one day I was browsing a copy of Putnam's Monthly from November, 1853 when I found Herman Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street,” his greatest short story, just sitting there halfway down page 546.

Finding it there reminded me of my first year in New York. One day, walking up Broadway, I came across the Flatiron building. I'd only seen it in movies and postcards. Something changed. Suddenly I was caught between the image of the building and its reality, trying to balance my idea of this place with the fact of it.

And here was Bartleby, making his debut right after something called The Life of a Dog. No one who read the story then could know that, 150 years later, it would be a staple of college curricula, its ideas teased out, symbolism parsed, Melville's intentions questioned. A number of readers probably skipped it and went on to read the long piece about the traveling through Mexico.

I used to be an English major, and like most I was weaned on the canon of last names: Milton, Melville, Shakespeare, Hardy. These works gleam with the approval of the ages. You can't go wrong reading them.

But those works are like a skyline. They're out of proportion. They show us what it's like to think great thoughts. But aren't they also like the postcards of the Flatiron building, beautiful on their own but devoid of context? The city isn't only in its landmarks but in the smaller spaces, where people cook dinner and park their cars.

In that same 1853 issue of Putnam's there's a description of the Paris World's Fair, a journal of life in the Moosehead region of Maine, the memoirs of an ex-Jesuit, and something called “Fun Jottings.” All of these are forgotten in the shadow of Bartleby, but to my mind they have more to tell me about what has changed in time than Melville's story. Because Bartleby is timeless, permanent, part of the canon, while everything else in that month's Putnam's documents a reality that is long gone. So while Bartleby can tell us what it is to be human, “Fun Jottings” and the memoirs of the ex-Jesuit tell us how it was, and show us how we've changed.

Melville knew about Bartleby, and about whales, and he dove into his memories to write great, lingering sentences. But his words are just a single boat in a great sea of language. Browsing those archives, I find myself in my own boat, breaking down time into vectors, trying to navigate through human experience. Literature is more than the canon, just as the city is more than its skyscrapers.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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