Preferring Protest: A Reading of “Bartleby” on Wall Street

I don’t remember when I first read Bartleby. I do remember how it made me feel‚ bemused, disquieted, and finally just sad. It seemed at times, like the rest of Melville’s work, impossibly modern. It could also be as inscrutable as Bartleby himself. It’s the kind of story you keep in your pocket, a talisman, to reach in and touch from time to time. While I never took my English major’s scalpel to the text, my college adviser, writer and Melville scholar Ralph Savarese, published an essay once on the Wall Street scrivener‚ an analysis of dyspepsia and ginger nuts. In it, he offers a knot of capitalist meaning: consumption, digestion, indigestion, and finally starvation.

It should come as little surprise that Bartleby‚ he who prefers and (more precisely) prefers not‚ has been taken up by supporters of Occupy Wall Street. Several writers (including Stephen Elliot, the Adderall Diaries, and Justin Taylor, the Gospel of Anarchy), notable book sellers (of Housing Works and McNally Jackson), publishing folks (of Melville House and FSG), People’s Librarians, and fellow interested parties came together yesterday to read Melville’s story aloud. According to Taylor, an organizer of the event, this reading is as much for the Wall Streeters as for the Occupiers. It’s an invitation to the one percenters to consider making Bartlebys of themselves.

Justin Taylor and Maud Newton listening to "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street."

Less a production of or from Zuccotti Park, the gathering was an expression of solidarity with the protesters by a community of young, savvy, lit-oriented folks. (The event has been tumbled & tweeted vociferously and iPhones were a-flash as the reading commenced.) It occupied a small corner of the large, faux-tropical atrium at 60 Wall Street‚ a room out of a Keaton-era Batman movie. For all of the space’s scale, it was terribly echo-y, and the readers’ voices were often overwhelmed by late lunch-hourers, chess players, backgammoners, groups of Occupiers in their own meetings. Where was the People’s Mike?

Still, many people had their own varied editions of Melville in hand and we tried to follow along. A police officer stood to the side, disinterested, and observed the proceedings. Snippets of dialog from a smaller Facilitation group directly behind us floated up and above the story. (I heard an impassioned he screwed the pooch! and a dark then the GA turned on him‚Ķ) On the other side of the reading, two ratty young men in unwashed-stiff black jeans and black hoodies pulled out a banjo and harmonica and played old-time folk music. As the story stretched on and the audience thinned, Occupiers themselves filtered through us, harvesting chairs for their groups. The audience cheered on Bartleby’s first I would prefer not to and we all murmured when Stephen Elliot-as-narrator asserted, Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.

Stephen Elliot reading from "Bartleby."

Savarese calls Bartleby the ultimate disillusioned egalitarian and Taylor claims he starts out as a functioning part of the system he comes to oppose. His is not an outsider’s but an insider’s critique. But for all of Bartleby as ur-Occupier, what has always struck me about the story is the character’s profound aloneness. One could, and I’m sure many have, read the absence of Bartleby’s relatives or friends as the scrivener’s rejection of the hegemonic, rigidly classist structure of a family and connections‚ the stuff of which so many 19th century novels were made‚ Bartleby’s solitude as protest of all things nuclear and patriarchal. But it’s strange to do so in light of yesterday’s reading and this year’s Occupy movement, which is all about solidarity and community, the creation of new societal structures. I suspect, should Bartleby be set down in present-day Zuccotti Park, he would still prefer to be left alone.

Bartleby does not tell his own story; Melville’s narrator is a man who today would be in the one percent‚ a Wall Street lawyer. His reactions to Bartleby’s preferences veer dramatically, even comically, from resentment to pity, anger, powerlessness. Most effecting, I think, is his fear that his employee’s actions are somehow tainting him, that Bartleby’s very language is infecting the minds of all who surround him:

Somehow, of late I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word prefer upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions. And I trembled to think that my contact with the scrivener had already and seriously affected me in a mental way. And what further and deeper aberration might it not yet produce? This apprehension had not been without efficacy in determining me to summary means.

As Nippers, looking very sour and sulky, was departing, Turkey blandly and deferentially approached.

With submission, sir, said he, yesterday I was thinking about Bartleby here, and I think that if he would but prefer to take a quart of good ale every day, it would do much towards mending him, and enabling him to assist in examining his papers.

So you have got the word too, said I, slightly excited.

With submission, what word, sir, asked Turkey, respectfully crowding himself into the contracted space behind the screen, and by so doing, making me jostle the scrivener. What word, sir?

I would prefer to be left alone here, said Bartleby, as if offended at being mobbed in his privacy.

That’s the word, Turkey, said I‚ that’s it.

Oh, prefer? oh yes‚ queer word. I never use it myself. But, sir, as I was saying, if he would but prefer‚

Turkey, interrupted I, you will please withdraw.

Oh, certainly, sir, if you prefer that I should.

Bartleby’s protest (if we are to see it as such) is communicable, contagious. This ultimately is where Occupy Wall Street and the scrivener’s efforts best mesh. While the Occupy movement has avoided naming specific goals, and Bartleby speaks more about what he would rather not do than do, both have changed the conversation and indeed the very language we use to participate in it. Yesterday’s readers and listeners prefer to be a part of that change together, even if Melville’s Wall Street scribe might have abstained.

Molly McArdle About Molly McArdle

Molly McArdle (, @mollitudo on Twitter) is Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review. She also manages the Library Journal tumblr.


  1. Em says:

    Man, the person who wrote this article seems so smart AND so cute. great job, library journal review.

  2. Pearl Duncan says:

    Fabulous review of the event and the book.

    I enjoyed the reading. The dialog will continue.

    As someone who has researched the history of Wall Street and New York’s colonials, I note a few differences in my interpretation of the characters, setting, and actions in the book. Please note very carefully that the lawyer who narrated the story was downsized from Mastery of Chancery in a grand building to his small office as a lawyer copying and filing documents for the wealthy. He was not part of the 1% in the 1850s, he was instead a lawyer who copied and filed documents and property records for the 1%. I researched business records such as those Bartleby copied to find the identity of the ship that was discovered in the foundations of the World Trade Center near Zuccotti Park.

    One other small note: Bartleby’s “aloneness,” his “solitude” and homelessness was not unusual in Melville’s 1850s. In New York and in the society, there was a significant group of people, slaves, indentured servants and poor workers who had no personal records. Slaves, for example, were legally banned from recording their births, marriages, even their names. Bartleby copied documents — wills, deeds and business records of the wealthy 1%. There were no records of the people at the bottom of the 99%. In Melville’s day, as today, some in the population are so alone they are invisible. Bartleby handled the records of people who left generational records; I know. I researched ancestors, some who were wealthy merchants who left records, and others who left no records for they were banned by the law from recording their births, marriages, deaths, or names. And they had no property to record, for they were considered property.

    I reflected on Melville’s Wall Street places in my blog on

    Yesterday, I was exhausted after researching and writing about the Wall Street places Melville describes in “Bartleby,” so exhausted I went to sleep early. At one a.m. I awoke to the sounds of helicopters. The helicopter (news and police) noise and the lights from the police cars were disheartening once I read in the NY Times online that Zuccotti Park was being raided by the police. It’s vital to act, but also write and leave personal records.

    Because the setting of the novella, Wall Street, is not developed fully, — the places are simply mentioned, it is necessary to look more closely at the history of the Wall Street places Melville highlights. There are as many parallels of downsizing and society’s inequities in the setting as in the characters and the story. The Court of Chancery where the lawyer and his scriveners processed private equity documents was on Wall Street; the lawyer was downsized when the Chancery was disbanded and the processing of documents moved to the Supreme Court and the Appeals Court at Foley Square. Last night’s movements of the protesters as they were dislodged from Zuccotti Park paralleled the movement from Wall Street to Foley Square.