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“Bartleby,” Allan Melville, and the Court of Chancery WARREN BRODERICK New York State Archives, Emeritus T hree government agencies figure prominently in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853). The “Tombs,” where Bartleby dies, first opened in 1838 and was a notorious prison and detention facility operated by the City of New York. The Washington D.C. “Dead Letter Office,” purportedly Bartleby’s earlier employer, was a special facility for handling undeliverable mail operated by the federal Post Office Department . The New York Court of Chancery, the lawyer’s employer, was a civil court established in the colonial period, continued by the State Constitution of 1777, and abolished in 1847 by the new State Constitution of 1846. The timing and circumstances of this court’s demise are central to understanding a rarely discussed concern in “Bartleby”: the assault on the lawyer’s individual identity due to the reorganization of New York State government. Scholars have known that Melville’s brothers Gansevoort and Allan Melville had been employed by New York’s Court of Chancery, and a newly discovered document in that court’s archives reminds us of the role Allan may have played in exposing Melville to office life in the Court of Chancery. Chancery was a court of equity jurisdiction with roots in fourteenthcentury England that dealt with matters not handled by common law courts. Courts of Chancery were transplanted to colonial America but became antiquated as the needs of American jurisprudence grew in the nineteenth century . The New York State Court of Chancery “embraced a wide variety of proceedings for which there was no action or remedy” in other civil courts, particularly the Supreme Court of Judicature. Most of its work dealt with “mortgaged property, marital relations, and the property of corporations, and classes of persons needing judicial protection” (Folts 21). The Court made “equitable” determinations as to disposition of property, granted divorces and legal separations, and supervised the property of persons considered legally incompetent, such as lunatics and minor persons. However, in 1847, the court was dissolved and its tasks were assumed by the newly empowered State Supreme Court, which remains the State’s principal court of civil jurisdiction today. c  2011 The Melville Society and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 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 S 55 W A R R E N B R O D E R I C K Bartleby’s employer, a “Master in Chancery,” bluntly expresses in retrospect his dislike for the State’s eventual dissolution of this venerable court: “I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages; but I must be permitted to be rash here and declare, that I consider the sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master of Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a—premature act; inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years. But this is by the way” (NN PT 14). The Court of Chancery that Bartleby’s employer would have known was governed by a Chancellor, Reuben Walworth, Vice-Chancellors, Circuit Court Judges, and a complex hierarchy of lesser officials. It was divided into eight circuits; the First Circuit, located in New York City, was Bartleby’s employer. The daily activity in each circuit was overseen by a small group of “Masters in Chancery”; one of the ten Masters would have been Bartleby’s supervisor. The lawyer properly described his supervisory role as a “comfortable” one. He was spared contentious trials and contact with dangerous criminals. He was a State court officer with a secure appointment, secure at least until his position was abolished along with the court itself in 1847. The detailed Rules and Orders of the Court of Chancery were outlined in 200-page volume that had been revised under the direction of Chancellor Walworth in 1844 (Walworth 68-71). Moreover, many of these complicated procedures must have been seen as arcane, for they were discontinued and...


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