Course Hero. "Bartleby the Scrivener Study Guide." Course Hero. 15 Sep. 2016. Web. 17 July 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bartleby-the-Scrivener/>.
Course Hero. (2016, September 15). Bartleby the Scrivener Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved July 17, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bartleby-the-Scrivener/
(Course Hero, 2016)
Course Hero. "Bartleby the Scrivener Study Guide." September 15, 2016. Accessed July 17, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bartleby-the-Scrivener/.
Course Hero, "Bartleby the Scrivener Study Guide," September 15, 2016, accessed July 17, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bartleby-the-Scrivener/.
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.
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."
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.
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.
The story includes a number of literary and historical references: