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Bartleby the Scrivener | Context

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Worker Struggles

The narrator of Bartleby, the Scrivener is looking back on the time Bartleby came to work for him. He refers to "the late John Jacob Astor," the immensely wealthy man who owned a great deal of New York City real estate during that time. Astor died in 1848, so the setting for the story is sometime in the 1840s prior to that date. The decade was a time of great unrest among workers around the world, as the Industrial Revolution brought about drastic changes in working conditions. German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, which called on workers to revolt. In the United States, factory worker revolts protested against the long hours they worked for low pay. Strikes also occurred by workers in bookbinding, upholstering, shoemaking, and tailoring shops.

Voiceless and powerless white-collar workers like the ones depicted in Bartleby, the Scrivener did not stage organized rebellions. They could, however, make personal revolts like the one made by Bartleby.

Social Unrest

Herman Melville was familiar with the social unrest of the day, and Bartleby mentions the narrator's fears of a mob. A mob action with which Herman Melville was very familiar was the Astor Place Riot of May 1849. In the riot, which occurred in New York City, more than 20 people died and more than 100 were injured. It was set off when a famous British actor, William Charles Macready, appeared at an upscale opera house. Macready and Edwin Forrest, an American actor, were rivals. The actors symbolized different sides of the class divisions in New York. When Macready, who was favored by the upper class, took the stage, the audience threw everything at him—from rotten eggs to vegetables.

Herman Melville was one of the signers of an open letter to Macready, published in the New York Herald Tribune, urging him to continue his performances despite the unrest. But when Macready did return to the stage, a crowd attempted to charge the opera house, and police attacked them. Ultimately, the militia came. When the crowd was on the verge of overrunning the militia, they were fired upon. The next day was tense as crowds gathered again. Police stopped the would-be rioters, and calm was eventually restored.

Herman Melville did not explain why he signed the letter to Macready. The English professor and critic Barbara Foley has speculated that Bartleby was his apology for doing so. "Melville knows his narrator so well," Foley says, "because he carries aspects of the lawyer within himself."

American Romanticism

Herman Melville was part of the American Romantic movement. These writers, who also included Walt Whitman and Herman Melville's friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, took as their ideals a celebration of the individual, a strong connection with nature, and the power of imagination and intuition.

John Jacob Astor

The narrator of Bartleby, the Scrivener notes that John Jacob Astor had been one of his clients. When Astor died in New York City in 1848, some say he was the most hated man in the city. He also was the wealthiest man in the country and was characterized by his ambition and love of money. Astor, a German immigrant by way of London, got his start in the fur business. Later he bought vast holdings of New York City real estate, which led to his great fortune. When the War of 1812 ended, Astor and some of his associates rescued the federal government from bankruptcy. While many respected him for his business acumen, many thought of Astor as ruthless and selfish.

Literary and Historical Allusions

The story includes a number of literary and historical references:

  • Bust of Cicero: Statue of the head and shoulders of the Roman philosopher, lawyer, and orator Cicero (born in 106 BCE), who was murdered for his political activities at the age of 63 in 43 BCE.
  • Colt and Adams: An 1841 Broadway murder in which a man named John Colt murdered the owner of a print shop, Samuel Adams, with a hatchet.
  • Edwards on the Will and Priestly on Necessity: Respective works by theologians about free will versus predestination. The Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards was written in 1754, and Joseph Priestley's The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated was published in 1777. (Note the contemporary spelling of Priestley's name.)
  • Job: In the Hebrew Bible's Book of Job, the figure Job is a righteous man who is tested by God. He suffers terribly and loses everything, including his family, health, and wealth. Ultimately, Job comes to regret ever being born, although he never curses God. Job's words quoted by the narrator in Bartleby, the Scrivener—"with kings and counselors"—are part of his lament that if he had died at birth, he would at least be resting peacefully, as even the most powerful men do.
  • Master in Chancery: The Courts of Chancery (also called Courts of Equity) had been abolished by the time Bartleby was written. They heard legal cases that could not be settled through common law, including cases dealing with transfers of property and foreclosures. The Master in Chancery was an officer of the court in various ways.
  • Scriveners: Scriveners made their living by writing or copying legal documents.
  • Sons of Adam: In the Hebrew Bible, Adam's first two children are his sons Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd. When both give offerings to God, God favors Abel's offering, causing Cain to be jealous. He kills his brother, becoming the first murderer.
  • The Tombs: This is the nickname for a lower Manhattan jail built in 1838. Its official name was the New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention.
  • Wall Street: Located in the southern tip of Manhattan, Wall Street is a street in New York City's financial district and the center of American finance. The New York Stock Exchange, the world's largest market for buying and selling stocks (shares representing ownership of a company), has been located there since its founding. The institution took the name New York Stock & Exchange Board in 1817.
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