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  • "Something within the Silent Black Man Answered No!"; or, Is Bartleby Uncle Tom on Wall Street?
  • Laura Korobkin (bio)

Consider the following description of what happens in a mid-nineteenth-century American literary text: Ordered to perform a task accessory to his primary work, a new, socially isolated worker refuses, though he continues to be "an expert and efficient workman" at his main tasks, at least for a time. Though impoverished and disempowered, the worker is also always calm, self-contained, dignified, and respectful. The work environment is dehumanizing and hierarchical; the master values workers as profit-making tools; years of exhausting, repetitive toil have diminished the workers' humanness. The new worker's quiet, persistent refusal to comply with orders that others customarily obey with unquestioning deference is an unprecedented, destabilizing event that interrupts the smoothly functioning capitalist workplace. This resistance stuns, bewilders, and infuriates the boss, producing repeated confrontations with his surprisingly self-sufficient inferior. Though expecting continued resistance, the boss determines to win the intimate conflict and thereby regain his sense of acknowledged mastery. Significantly, the text's narrator makes explicit from the start that the master does not and will never know what goes on inside the worker's head. Though the refusing worker neither actively [End Page 562] recruits others to any cause nor encourages them to disobey commands, the "strange, silent patient man['s]" pervasive influence gradually permeates the workplace, unsettling the master and his two main assistants, who side with the boss against the resistor. Because he cannot obtain the worker's obedience, the master becomes paradoxically disempowered and the servant correspondingly strengthened, though in a painfully limited way. Internally, the resistor may be unassailable, but physically he deteriorates; and though he could end the conflict at any time by changing his behavior and following orders, the resistor instead passively enables his own decline and, ultimately, his death, which occurs in a captivity to which he is carried "unresisting."1

As readers will recognize (especially given this essay's title), every detail above fits both the interactions between Tom and Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), in which all quoted phrases appear, and between Bartleby and the lawyer-narrator in Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853).2 Of course, this description elides enormous differences: between short story and long novel, between very different narrative structures and genres, between the brutal Legree's Louisiana slave plantation and the apparently benevolent lawyer's Wall Street chambers, and between Tom's explicitly Christian refusal to injure anyone or acknowledge Legree's ownership of his soul and Bartleby's enigmatic, pointedly unexplained deployment of the phrase "I would prefer not to." Yet the similarities detailed above are surely striking. Both texts focus intensely on the unfolding master-servant interaction and feature parallel chiasmic shifts in power and powerlessness between boss and worker. "Nothing so aggravates" both Legree and the lawyer as Tom's and Bartleby's quiet, respectful noncompliance, which both masters defensively interpret as mastery-challenging aggression (WHM, 9:23). Significantly, too, both Tom and Bartleby apparently choose to permit their own deaths. Given the extraordinary impact [End Page 563] and ubiquity of Stowe's novel when "Bartleby" was written, Melville's familiarity and engagement with Stowe would seem inescapable; nevertheless, so far as I am aware, no criticism of Melville or Stowe has considered Melville's story as a possible interrogation and adaptive rewriting of Stowe's depiction of the Tom-Legree relationship.3

Scholars' elision of Stowe's novel as interlocutor and intertext is especially surprising given the critical approaches to Melville's story that might bring it to mind. Though Stowe's Tom is the nineteenth century's most shocking and most commented-on literary Christ figure, the long (though typically ahistorical) critical tradition of reading Bartleby as a version of Christ, an "emasculated" Christ, and even Deleuze's "new Christ or the brother to us all," has never triangulated in relation to Stowe's exactly contemporary Christlike hero.4 And though biographical-cultural readings have figured Melville, embittered by the implosion of his career and reputation after the mixed reception and...


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