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Bartleby the Scrivener: A Lawyer’s Tale of a Most Unfortunate Employee

My favorite lawyer in literature is the nameless narrator of Bartleby the Scrivener. As he describes himself, he is “unambitious” and has never addressed a jury or faced applause, but does a snug, comfortable and safe career as a transactional lawyer. The easiest way of life is the best. He seldom engages in “dangerous indignations.” Bravo.

So we know that the lawyer works in Manhattan as a successful transactional lawyer, as his only named client, John Jacob Astor, has a name that rings “like unto bullion.” By divesting this lawyer of his name, from the beginning Melville divests him of his ego as he tells his crisis of management, something no one teachers in law school. The reader knows nothing about his personal life, this is a business affair. And in business, he has that most irksome of timeless problems: Employees. And a great wall that blocks his view, shoved up within ten feet of his window.

These employees are beautifully drafted: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger-Nut, the office-boy. Turkey is a rapid-fire rash worker until he’s drunk when he’s mean, Nippers is mean until he’s drunk, the two trading off irate tempers from the afternoon with the morning. Nippers has an ongoing-hate relationship with his desk, shoving it around, concocting raised working spaces to accommodate his aches and pains, in an early anticipation of sciatica, carpal tunnel, and ergonomic office furniture. Ginger Nut is employed primarily in obtaining cakes and food for the two scriveners, with Turkey once erroneously applying a cake in lieu of a seal to a document.

Bartleby is of course, the heart of this tale bringing a gentle and dangerous insubordination: “I would prefer not to.” Aside from being an atrocious grammatical construction, Bartleby is able to insubordinate tasks and assignments by his employer, an assertion of free will without ever challenging the authority of those attempting to give the task. The genius of this simple phrase is in its lack of a positive statement, which through it’s use of the subjunctive never asserts authority or ego, and never positively states a will. He never says I won’t, I don’t want to, you can’t make me. And all the same, the lawyer can never overcome this gentle understatement of free choice, will, and utility against mindless copying and non-creative work. I have always thought Melville was a secret Marxist, in his own gentle, understated concerns for the working class.

I leave it to the reader to read this wonderful tale of a crisis of management, how Bartleby subverts all instruction, and finally life itself, with the words “I would prefer not to.” I leave it to the reader to ponder the significance of the wall itself, which Bartleby finally goes to. And I dearly hope the Lawyer finds his true place in Lawyerly literature, as the counterpoint to Atticus Fitch.

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