This short story was published in 1853. I grabbed this from the library shelf on a lark, recalling that I admired Melville’s style, but wasn’t interested in slogging through a tome the size of Moby Dick again. Since this story is a classic work which has been analyzed to death by academics and book bloggers alike, I will dispense with any discussion of the philosophy which may or may not be hidden within it. Nor will I be drawn into character analysis, such as whether Bartleby is an exemplar of irony, melancholy, humor, etc. I’m not even sure Melville intended to provide either a philosophical point or a character study. He may have simply been trying to write an engaging story that would help earn him his living.
What entertained me about the book is its charming style and intelligence. Melville writes with elegance and a mastery of the English language. No publisher today would permit the author of a work intended for the general reader, i.e. mass market, to use the vocabulary one finds in this story. Here’s a sampling: scrivener, imprimis, deign, dishabille, remonstrated, gainsay, maledictions, indecorous, deportment, chimeras, choleric, quietude, obtruded, unwonted, moulders, forbade, incubus, vouchsafed, pugilistic, inveteracy, purveyor, sanguine, beckoned, effrontery, prudential, orbicular, potations, recondite, hermitage, dyspeptic, tenanting, hectoring, upbraided, chancery, blazonry, alacrity. Sure, some of these are either archaic or oddly quaint, but the vast majority of these words are perfectly good words today that one might find in academic papers, legal opinions, or other writings by the highly educated and intelligent. My browser spell check feature only objects to one (blazonry). Yet you are unlikely to find many of these in a best selling novel of today. Sadly, the publisher would require the author to dumb it down. That is why I found it so refreshing to be communicated to by an author who treats me, the reader, as intelligent and well-read.
I consider this trend indicative of societal changes in general. Books have gone the way of televisions and computers. When they were relatively new, the main consumers were relatively educated and relatively wealthy compared to the population as a whole. Thus the content (stories, TV shows, computer programs) were aimed at that demographic to a larger extent than they are now. Of course there were exceptions (The Three Stooges, anyone?) Now, these things are accessible to virtually everyone in the developed world so producers of media content of all kinds are aiming for the biggest slice of the consumer market, which means the peak of that pesky bell-shaped curve. Another quality of this work evocative of an earlier time is its humaneness. It is taken for granted that no respectable human being would be unkind or disrespectful to another. Melville was aiming for the upper end of society, not so much in wealth or social standing, but in intelligence, education, and character. If you’re there, try this quirky story. I think you’ll enjoy it.