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From Wall Street to Astor Place:
Historicizing Melville’s “Bartleby”
Barbara Foley *
In recent years critics have been calling for a regrounding of mid-nineteenth-century American literature—of the romance in particular—in politics and history. John McWilliams applauds the contemporary “challenge to the boundaryless and abstract qualities of the older idea of the Romance’s neutral territory.” George Dekker notes that recent attempts to “rehistoricize the American romance” have entailed an “insist[ence] that our major romancers have always been profoundly concerned with what might be called the mental or ideological ‘manners’ of American society, and that their seemingly anti-mimetic fictions both represent and criticize those manners.”1 But Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853) has to this point been exempted from a thoroughgoing historical recontextualization; its subtitle remains to be fully explained.
Not all readings of the tale, to be sure, have been “boundaryless and abstract.” Critics interested in the tale’s autobiographical dimension have interpreted it as an allegory of the writer’s fate in a market society, noting specific links with Melville’s own difficult authorial career. Scholars concerned with the story’s New York setting have discovered some important references to contemporaneous events. Marxist critics have argued that “Bartleby” offers a portrait of the increasing alienation of labor in the rationalized capitalist economy that took shape in the mid-nineteenth-century United States.2 But such critical enterprises have remained largely separate, with the result that biography, historical contextualization, and ideological analysis have been pursued in different registers. Moreover, criticism of “Bartleby” [End Page 87] has rarely explored Melville’s interest or involvement in current social conflicts and political discourses; “Wall Street” has thus functioned largely as metonymy rather than as constitutive context and locale.
In this essay I shall argue that a familiarity with mid-nineteenth-century class struggles in New York—and with the contemporaneous discourse about these struggles—is indispensable to a complete understanding of “Bartleby.” In order to historicize the tale fully, however, it is necessary to engage in a certain amount of political—and, it turns out, psychoanalytic—detective work. History in “Bartleby” must be reconstructed from what has been repressed, fragmented, and displaced to the margins of the text. Certain of the narrator’s passing references—to John Jacob Astor, to Trinity Church, to “fears of a mob,” to paying rent and taxes—suggest a historical subtext that the Wall Street lawyer can only subliminally acknowledge. The tale’s very abstractness, then—its apparently “anti-mimetic” quality—is part of its object of critique; the “mental and ideological manners” that Melville represents include the narrator’s inability to see social relations as constituted by relations of economic power. But repression is working in “Bartleby” on another level as well. The Astor Place riot of 1849, I hypothesize, provides a covert historical subtext—one that is denied not so much by the narrator as by the author himself. In its ironic display of the narrator’s attempts to rationalize his acts in relation to his employee, “Bartleby” offers Melville’s critique of the workings of ideology; in its disguised paradigmatic plot of betrayal and guilt, the tale reveals Melville’s own attempt to contend with the return of the political unconscious.
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“Bartleby” takes place some time in the 1840s—although exactly when, as Charles Swann points out, is somewhat difficult to determine.3 The story is narrated retrospectively, leaving the impression that a significant period has intervened between the lawyer’s interactions with his intransigent employee and his later reflections on these events. The narration itself obviously occurs sometime before 1853 (the text’s date of publication) and after 1848 (the year of the death of John Jacob Astor, whose “rounded and orbicular” name the narrator “love[s] to repeat” because it “rings like unto bullion”; Astor is referred to as the “late John Jacob Astor” [italics added]).4 The [End Page 88] events constituting the story itself are somewhat harder to place, however. The...