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On Teaching Bartleby PETER NORBERG SaintJosephsUniversity It is not seldom the case that, when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all thejustice and all the reason is on the other side.’ remember first reading “Bartleby”at Fairfied Prep, an all-boys,Jesuit high school in southern New-England. In myJunior year, I was required to take I Father. Oliver Nickerson’s English class. Like most Jesuits, Fr. Nickerson was highly educated, perhaps overly so. He held a master’s in theology, a second in colonial History, and a Ph.D. in English. Tall, distinguished, with a friar’shalo of white hair semi-circling his bald pate, he was an intimidating figure when he leaned over his lectern, fixed you with a skeptical eye, and asked, “Mr. Norberg, Do you have anything intelligent to say to us today, about our readings?” He was articulate, spoke with a somewhat affected British accent, and kept order in his classroom with an acerbic wit that was only rarely backed up with physical force. In the first half of the year, Fr. Nickerson taught us “British Literature from Blake to Conrad; in the second half, “American Literature from Cooper to Faulkner.”It was vintage stuff. Years later, while surveying the history of Americanist criticism in graduate school, I realized that “Ollie”-as we called him when he was out of earshot-had been giving us, straight and unadulterated, the theses of Henry Nash Smiths Virgin Land and R. W. B. Lewis’s The American Adam. It was under Fr. Nickerson’ssevere gaze that I first puzzled over the problem of Bartleby. I cannot remember if I even finished the story that first time through, but I do remember being baffled by it, and I will never forget the day we discussed it in class. Fr. Nickerson began, in his usual grand style, by calling on a friend of mine, Mark Guman: “Mr.Guman, would you please explain for us the meaning of Melville’s story.”We all knew Mark was smart, but he did not like to talk much, and for that reason, Fr. Nickerson would often make him initiate class discussion. After a short silence, Mark said in a quiet voice, “I ’Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street,” The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860,ed. Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 19871,p . 22. Subsequent citations in the text are to this edition. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S8 7 P E T E R N O R B E R G would prefer not to.” There were a few barks of laughter, quickly stifled, some nervous shifting in our chairs, and more than a few quizzical looks. What the hell was Gooms talking about? Fr. Nickerson smiled slowly, with real appreciation . “Mr. Guman, you are free to go,” and he gestured broadly toward the door. A little dumbfounded, Mark asked, “Whereshould I go?” “That . . . is for you to determine,” Fr. Nickerson softly replied. Immediately, a second student jumped up, “I prefer not to, too.” “Down,”Fr. Nickerson bellowed, as if speaking to a dog. Then, scanning the rest of the class,his smile turned sinister. “You are all free to follow Mr. Guman’s example, but only if you first can explain to me the meaning of his preferences.” Needless to say, it was a long afternoon. I sat down with the rest and tried to sort out the connection between Mark Guman’sfreedom and Bartleby’s cryptic refrain. For a moment, though, the class was on the verge of open revolt. Although we could not explain it, we intuitively felt that Bartleby’s simple refusal to take part in the day-to-day routine of the lawyer’s office somehow was an option for us. Our...


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