by Phillip Routh

Dead letters

After early success with his tales of the South Seas, Melville met negative critical and popular reaction to both Moby Dick and Pierre. These huge works were tremendously ambitious. What amount of toil and hope went into them?

Both sank quickly.

For the remainder of his life — almost 40 years — Melville's literary output was minuscule. It had become clear that he could not make a living from his writing. He got employment as a customs inspector in New York and worked at that job for nineteen years; so, in a sense, he carried on with life. But what was the state of his creative spirit? I think he addresses the intimate issue of failure in "Bartleby the Scrivener," a story he wrote shortly after Pierre's devastating reception.

Bartleby is a man beyond depression. He is deep into apathy; for him life is hardly discernable from death (indeed, at the end Bartleby slips into death with hardly a ripple). He has "preferences" but they have no force behind them. The unnamed narrator, the "I" of the story, is an elderly man who carries on with the daily routine of getting up, going to work, making a living. Toward Bartleby he feels an empathy that goes unusually deep. So deep, considering the troubles the clerk causes him, that Bartleby can be seen as an aspect of his own self.

In the first paragraph of the story Melville's narrator alludes to something that he knows about Bartleby's past, though he does not reveal what this is until the end. By setting up matters in this way, Melville is stressing the importance of the revelation.

It is this:  Bartleby had previously been employed in a postal Dead Letters Office. The narrator's reaction is extreme: "Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men?" He thinks how these letters — of love, of hope, of pardon — are burned by the cartload. "On errands of life, these letters sped to death."

As a writer, Melville experienced this; he saw his work going to a Dead Letters Office — his words falling into the abyss of indifference. Sinking, burning — use what analogy you will, it is still death.

Significantly, Melville tells the scribe's story from the stable and compassionate point of view of the non-writer, the man who carried on. He is thus able to achieve a crucial distancing.

"Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" this narrator writes at the close.

Humanity indeed:  the great parade of those whose dreams are unfulfilled. With the story's last word Melville moved from the narrow failure of a writer to the universal.

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Phillip Routh: Primarily a writer of fiction (The South Carolina Review, Third Coast, Louisiana Literature), Phillip Routh has had reviews and essays in magazines such as Rain Taxi, Arts and Opinion and Fourth Genre.

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