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Melville's 0 Bartleby'': Over the Republic, a Ciceronian Shadow I. INTRODUCTION MARVIN SINGLETON The time was coming when neither the pedants nor the people would really understand Cicero .... --Walter Pater, Marius theEpicurean The lawyer-narrator of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" remarked, of his eponymous subject, that "nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources." Many readers prefer to view the story itself as the adequate source: the narrator's leisurely account would appear to speak for itself, and the mixture of wry and pathos would call for no sophisticated interpretation. Literary critics, however, especially during the 1960's, ambitiously interpreted Melville's story. Some of this attention was inspired by the vogue for "urban" fiction, while othersfound in the story modish elements of alienation, or integration. And the commentary may be one upon which we can now selectively build. Of serious critics of "Bartleby," several found the enigmatic Bartleby a moreor -less unappreciated bearer of positive spiritual values. Critics who saw substantive dignity in the spare figure and repartee of Bartleby have mentioned Gandhi, Kierkegaard, and Carlyle; and others who agreed with this approach urged more ancient sources of wisdom: Buddha, Saniassi, Christ. For example, WilliamStein found, in an essay relating the Biblical and chancery echoes in the narrative, universal ethical resonance building out from the scrivener and his dilemma.1 Professor Stein's approach did not of itself amount to a wholly satisfactory integration of the substantive universals evoked by Bartleby, the "absolutist" of thetale. Yet it may be time now to refine and consolidate the approaches typified byStein. If not, the 1953Sewanee Review essay by Leo Marx ("Melville's Parable of the Walls") may resume its place as the most widely accepted reading of "Bartleby." Indeed, there is some sign that such influential critics as Murray Krieger,and such influential anthologies as Norton's, still accept Marx's pioneering interpretation. 2 If, however, readings showing how Bartleby evokes "absolute good" are established, interest in the story could transcend any happenstance of "urban" setting, or "human interest," or supposed commentary by Melvilleupon his problems as a writer, or upon the economic system. Two more excitingpossibilities have been indicated for "Bartle by": one has been suggested byKenneth Burke; the other, by Philip Rahv. 3 THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. VI, NO. 2, FALL 1975 II. THE SUBLIMINAL CICERONIAN Comes likewise now to consciousness Of the true import of that press Of inklings which in travel late Through Latin lands, did vex my state .... --Melville, Clarel "How lost you, pray, your mighty state so soon?" --Cicero, "On Old Age" (quoting Naevius' Wolf), trans. Hadas If Bartleby is a specimen of the Melvillian Original Character, 4 then the remark of the lawyer-narrator as to "original sources" may take on ironical pertinence. Certainly Melville's canon has been picked over for character parallels to Bartleby , just as his writings generally have been used as a framing clue to "Bartleby" as a whole. 5 Our searches in these areas should be stimulated by our awareness that Melville, long before Eliot wrote of "mythic method," occasionally tried what we might call a "metempsychosis method." An instance of this which can serve as a fable for critics occurs in Moby Dick: Ishmael delivers himself of a sportive apostrophe to metempsychosis and to "Pythagoras, that in Bright Greece, two thousand years ago, did die, so wise, so mild .... " Yet by the time the Piazza Tales were being composed, Melville's narratives were characterized by fewer ebullient gestures and by more sober parallels. As the dreams of vernal island paradises, and of triumphant individualistic impulse, abated, the Encantadas loomed eerily through the miasma and Melville's method became more clearly Eliotic. Melville, of American literati, was closer to Eliot than to Walter Pater in his uses of the past; and his intuition's contours resemble more than a little those of Levi-Strauss. After Pierre,Melville knew the price of ambiguities in literary expression; but he could not deny his "reverence for the Archetype." 6 So long as Melville's style avoided "innovating wilfulness," he might exploit the uses of muddlement, even before Henry James specified these uses as technique. Readings of "Bartleby...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 165-173
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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