Anarchists and left-wing daydreamers have, among other resistance-minded works of middle class prose, made Herman Melville’s Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street (1856), one of their most fetishized works of literature. Bartleby is seen to be a revolutionary cocktail of passive resistance, civil disobedience and intellectual freedom.
Last week, when chatting about high, low and class, I told my colleague, curator Nora Sternfeld about the Astor Place Riot, where Melville had a way different role. The story of the Astor Place Riot is a story about class war anchored to high and low culture. Described in detail in Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchies in 19th century America (1988) it could be said to be uncanny from the point of view of aesthetics.
Shakespeare was only popular culture in early 19th century America, and so the first British highbrow performance was booed out (partly with the help of eggs, potatoes, apples, lemons and shoes) in New York, May 1849. The backslash of ‘cultural development’ made the cultural elite frustrated.
Aesthetically the polarization was lead by the two then leading actors of their own Shakespeare genres. Edwin Forrest’s network was the working class and the gangs of New York, drawing followers from the violent immigrant area of Five Points (the site of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York). Upper class Anglophiles supported the freshly imported Briton, William Charles Macready.
As a member of the highbrow mob of New York, Melville signed a demand that highbrow theatre should get a new chance, and that the police should be defending its second coming. As things escalated a couple of days later, the demonstration of the lower class Shakespeare fans grew in the end to be an attack on the Astor Opera House in the evening of May 10, 1849. (Just imagine how football fans would act if their sport would be taken away from them and made into a creepy highbrow act.) Not only the police, but also the militia, mounted troops, light artillery and a total of 550 men defended highbrow Shakespeare against the lowbrow crowd.
22-31 rioters were killed, 48 were wounded, and 50 to 70 policemen were injured. The high version of Shakespeare had so won, and the popular one slowly faded away, not to be back before the advent of the feature movies.
Nora asked me: “but Melville… he wrote Bartleby?” I had never given it a thought, so I had to get back to the short story.
The protagonist of the story, a Wall Street lawyer, hires a new helper into his office. His name is Bartleby. Bartleby's presence is soon found out to be not just vague, but nearly surrealistically passive. Whatever he is supposed to do, he answers - not even laconically, but in a totally disinterested manner: “I would prefer not to”.
The protagonist, the man running the office tries in vain to start a constructive dialogue with his employee but nothing helps. Bartleby does not even leave the building when the lawyer moves out with the other members of the crew. In the end, Bartleby is taken out from the house by force. He dies in jail.
The story was published 7 years after the Astor Place Riot. Did Melville feel sorry for the people who's art he stole, or is his human touch here just about the solidarity and compassion between two privileged men? Or, was New York’s cultural life so bad, that he was actually just fighting for diversity when he took a side against the lower classes in the case of the Astor Place Riot? It could have been hard to predict that popular Shakespeare dried out after the victory of the highbrow interpretation.
Civil disobedience has, anyway, been too much reserved for middle class males, and one cannot say that Bartleby would be much about anything else, however idealistically you'd be reading the story.
Anyway, if we forget the political bubble surrounding the work, Bartleby is a beautiful narrative.
And Melville, should he be labeled an enemy of the people? I would prefer not to. In Moby Dick, which was published in 1851, the sailors and the poor people helping on boats might be a bit appropriated and romanticized, but still they are portrayed as human beings with dignity. The book is as great as Billy Budd, another sailor romance by Melville.
Budd's story is way different from Bartleby's. Melville wrote on it 1888-1891.It was published posthumously 1924.
Budd is an innocent, beautiful man, who, in the era of mutinies, in 1843, happens to become an object of jealousy for an officer, who keeps constantly nagging and lying about Budd. In the end Budd, a simple man for whom talking is not the easiest form of self-expression, hits the officer, who dies. Budd gets hanged, and the whole Foucauldian story about hierarchies, unjustice and the complex ethical question of how to punish or how to think about Budd (in the end, he was under heavy pressure and with no human rights), dominates the experience of the book.
Differing from Melville's misanthropy in Moby Dick, the story of Billy Budd shows many positive, idealistic sides of the human species. Many characters in the book really strive to do the right thing, but in real life that is of course often very hard.
I got into Budd following my love affair with Claire Denis' witty and sensitive film Beau Travail (1999). Denis transfers the story to the world of the French Foreign Legion (La Légion étrangère), where it gets way more oriented towards gay erotics, post-colonialism and men's studies. The film is, though, so much more obscure, that I recommend to first read the book.
Crime, punishment, hierarchies and antagonisms - both in books and real life. Melville has never been an easy writer for me. But I cannot say that I would regret reading him.