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“Through consumptive pallors of this blank, raggy life”: Melville’s Not Quite White Working Bodies GRAHAM THOMPSON University of Nottingham, UK W hen the lawyer-narrator in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” recollects first meeting his new employee, the image of the “motionless young man” standing on the threshold of his office is unforgettable: “I can see that figure now, pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby” (NN PT 19). While neither pitiableness nor incurability is reiterated in the lawyer’s further description of Bartleby, the word pallid and its nominal and adjectival alternatives appear repeatedly throughout the rest of the story. Bartleby writes “palely, mechanically” (20); he is a “pale young scrivener” (25), who has about him an air of “pallid haughtiness” and is a “pallid copyist” (28).1 A similar repetition is also featured in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.” Here the seedsman-narrator observes the “consumptive pallors” (330) of the female mill workers and further notes how “glued to the pallid incipience of the pulp” are “the yet more pallid faces of all the pallid girls I had eyed that day” (334). What also distinguishes this story is the narrator’s emphasis on blankness when he looks at “rows of blank-looking counters” at which sit “rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding their blank paper” (328). My aim is to explain why both stories depict workers and working bodies through the repeated use of the words pallid and blank.2 To begin with, these words are a counterpoint to the word “white,” which they evoke but from which they differ. Indeed, one effect of Melville’s iterative method in these stories is that by juxtaposing the repeated words, their differences rather than their similarities become more obvious. Pallid and blank are not simply substitutes for white; they are charged with meanings that complicate the representation of whiteness. Pallid not only suggests a whitish or ashen appearance or a shade of color approaching white but also signifies a lack of depth or intensity of color. Blank hints at whiteness because of its linguistic origins and suggests an empty space waiting to be filled. It can be a piece of material—metal, wood, or paper—used to produce another object; c  2012 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 25 G R A H A M T H O M P S O N or, it can be a verb, a veiling from sight. So while the bodies of the scrivener and factory workers in each story approach whiteness, they never achieve an intensity or depth of whiteness. By representing working bodies through this refracted whiteness, Melville’s two stories broaden the context of our reading of race and class. As David Roediger and Alexander Saxton have shown, the cultural resource of whiteness was becoming important to antebellum white workers fearful of their dependency on the sort of wage labor that no longer offered the opportunities for progression to the artisan or mechanic classes it once did and was increasingly tied to a capitalist work discipline too easily comparable to the bond labor of slavery. At the same time, party and class politics was increasingly structured by a racialized class identity based on whiteness.3 To understand how this historical context manifested itself in literary expression, we may examine the specific ways in which Melville embedded whiteness and class in the fictive language he used to depict workers and their working bodies; and we may do so with two arguments in mind. First, Melville’s engagement with the intersection of whiteness, class, and work develops through several stages in White-Jacket and Moby-Dick before culminating in the distinctive “pallid” diction of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.” When the narrator of “Tartarus” remarks that the “white girls” in the paper mill go to death “through consumptive pallors of this blank, raggy life” (NN...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 25-43
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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