Brief Thoughts On: Herman Melville - Assorted Works

After reading about Herman Melville’s life up to the publication of The Piazza Tales, which included the short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street”, a few common themes seem to resurface. The first being Melville’s interesting and troubled relationship with work and occupation. Melville worked, “first as a bank clerk, a teacher, and a farm laborer, he then, when he was 19, sailed on a merchant ship to Liverpool as a cabin boy” (Gray 184). This wide range of jobs, all before the young age of nineteen, must have had a serious impression on Melville that would later be reflected in his work, directly in the form of sea tales with novels like Moby Dick, and philosophically in stories like “Bartleby”. Even his family life was fraught with financial struggles, along with his country, when in 1819, “The United States is recovering from an economic depression, and businesses like Allan Melvill’s [the family would add the ‘e’ after Allan’s death] import concern are still struggling. The family is financially unstable and frequently borrows money from relatives” (Hovde 9). This is not just a financial concern but extends into the family’s dependence on relatives as a moral concern, surely injuring their pride. In a country characterized by opportunity, the Melvilles were dependent on family to survive. This moral issue and its complexities, as with many of Melville’s moral struggles during his lifetime, would be reflected through his narrator in Bartleby. The family even looked to a young Herman to support his family, “at the age of 15, Melville left school to support his family (Gray 184). This gave even more significance to this struggle of Herman’s, likely further entrenching his frustration with the American economic landscape in the 19th century along with his required struggle just to keep his family financially afloat at such a young age. A country constantly struggling with political issues and even its own political identity treated him poorly from the start.

This time yielded a sense of isolation that would bleed into many of his works including Bartleby’s sense of individual isolation, “The social alienation of his early narrators, who rail against the callousness of nominal Christians, have their root in the frustrations of this period” (Gunn 18). We can see this take a direct effect on the narrator and Bartleby’s interactions in our story, as the narrator constantly questions his Christian ideals as decision making tools while Bartleby is otherwise occupied with inaction and perceived introspection. This extension of his personal philosophical struggles is consistent. As Gray calls points out, Melville frequently discussed, “the war between meaning and nothingness” (184). This dichotomy is clearly, explicitly explored in Bartleby’s behavior. The duality of Melville’s personal philosophy is exemplified by the story’s characters, “The tension between Bartleby's bleak pathos and the narrator's constitutional but increasingly chastened optimism suggests the antithesis that governed Melville's writing, as it may have governed his life” (Gunn 19). The wider American public were facing economic stress when Herman was a youth, but by his reaching adulthood, around 1850, there was a shift in thinking in both politics and religion, “Melville had come to see America as embodying not simply a new political system but, potentially, what Whitman would call a ‘different relative attitude towards God’ and ‘the objective universe’” (Gunn 18). America was now polarized by its North and South’s varying political views, slavery included, but was even more boldly struggling with its identity as a religious nation. Also notable, his two publications before The Piazza Tales were respectively, “a critical and commercial disaster” and his historical romance published just before was “similarly unsuccessful” (Gray 189). This sets the stage for his perspective in his stories to reflect a man facing significant struggle as a writer, something he never even originally intended to pursue, “Melville did not begin with the ambition to become a writer. Nor did he have an extensive schooling” (Gray 184). Even considering the work in question, The Piazza Tales “attracted little attention” (Gray 189). Amid such severe national struggle and his own personal career in a downturn, Melville was bound to write with a sense of apathy, frustration, and hopelessness.

Within the story, we find a direct relation to current events when the narrator addresses his office, “The good old office, now extinct in the State of New York, of a Master in Chancery, had been conferred upon me...I consider the sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a-premature act; inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits” (Melville 1). We see this represented by the state’s new constitution adopted at the start of 1847, “The offices of chancellor...and surrogate...are abolished” (The Second Constitution of New York, Article XIV Section 8). Melville continues to criticize and point out the shortcomings of the American government and economy, even in such a direct fashion as pointing to them directly through his characters. This, of course, continues as he questions the value of work as a means for fulfillment in American life through Bartleby’s passive subordination and ultimate demise. As Bojesen evaluates, “Bartleby is the inert remainder that education and politics fail to revive or co-opt into their conceptions of life and meaningful exchange” (62). The questioning resulting in a critique of American politics and its failures.

Works Cited

Bojesen, Emile, and Ansgar Allen. “Bartleby Is Dead: Inverting Common Readings of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Angelaki, vol. 24, no. 5, Oct. 2019, pp. 61–72. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.ezproxy/10.1080/0969725X.2019.1655272.

Gray, Richard. A History of American Literature. 2nd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Gunn, Giles B. A Historical Guide to Herman Melville. [Electronic Resource]. Oxford University Press, 2005. EBSCOhost,

Hovde, Carl F. Moby Dick. Introduction and Biography. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.” Columbia University, 1853,

The Second Constitution of New York, 1846 at the New York State Unified Courts System. Article XIV.