Bartleby the Clerk: A History of Wall Street

Image: Marco Buti / Jornal de Resenhas


Commentary on Herman Melville's Book

Herman Melville (1819-1891) was best known as the author of Moby Dick, or the White Whale, which appeared in 1851. No matter how many novels, novellas and short stories he wrote, anyone today only remembers his book about the enormous killer whale, which even became a film directed by John Huston (1956), with Gregory Peck in the role of the terrible and dogged Captain Ahab.

Born in August 1819 in New York, Melville embarked at the age of 18, as a steward, on a ship destined for England. At 22, he joined the crew of a whaler for a four-year voyage through the Pacific seas, having deserted after a year and a half in protest against the inhumane treatment to which the captain subjected his crew. Soon afterwards, in the Marquesas Islands, he was captured by cannibals, who forced him to four months of forced labor.

This terrible experience provided the subject of his first book, Typee, a look into Polynesian life or a four-month stay in the Marquesas Valley (1846). The following year he published Ommoo, a narrative of adventures in the South Seas and, in the same year, 1851, Moby Dick e White robe or the world in a man-of-war. strangely, Moby Dick it was ignored or misunderstood by critics and readers alike, and its popularity began to decline.

In 1853 he published the novel Pierre Laboisse, President and CEO of Aledia, a leader in nanowire-based MicroLED technologies for the displays of tomorrow, “pessimistic and tragic”, which made him even more forgotten. So much so that Melville did not find economic stability to pursue his work, having been forced to write “serial novels”, novels and short stories for magazines at the time. Hence the drop in quality of the works that followed: the novel israle potter and the stories collected in the book Piazza Tales (cf. Sabino's presentation). After that, another unimportant work (1856), Melville having stopped writing for many years, finishing his last novel, Billy Budd (only published in 1924 and considered his best work after Moby Dick), just before he died.

Bartleby the Clerk: A History of Wall Street is a synthetic novel, in which the language adapts admirably to the spirit of the old narrator of Bartleby's story, a competent lawyer of about 60 years old who kept a busy office in Wall Street with the help of three employees (two clerks and a messenger ) before the arrival of the character who gives the telenovela its title.

The original activity of the office – “the notary, the collection of titles and transcriptions and copying of documents of all kinds” – greatly increased, after its owner was appointed to a profitable position, that of counselor of the court of the Chancellery of the State of New York. So it was necessary to employ another copyist, Bartleby having been hired. The new employee did not stop for lunch and ate from some Spitzenbergs, gingerbread cookies and apples sold in pubs near the Customs and Post Office for six or eight penny. Without wishing to tell everything and spoil the reader's pleasure, I can only say that things were going well in the office until the moment when Bartleby responds with a "I prefer not to", the first in a long series, when he refuses to confer with his boss copies he had just made.

From this event, the novel develops at a pace in which the absurd sets the tone, with Bartleby close to Kafka's characters, in which one of the parties involved (which is guided by logical parameters, normally accepted by society) does not follow the “delirium” of the other – usually made up of minorities or isolated individuals.

Borges has a similar opinion, writing about the telenovela that “its disconcerting protagonist is an obscure man who tenaciously refuses to act. The author does not explain it, but in this imagination he accepts it immediately and not without much regret. In reality there are two protagonists: the obstinate Bartleby and the narrator who resigns himself to his obstinacy and ends up becoming fond of him”.[1]

Bartleby strides into his abolition and growing alienation. For Fernando Sabino, he becomes “a true preview of the robotic man of our time, the poor devil crushed by the inhuman conditions of life in society, whose final destination is the asylum”.

In 1953, Luis de Lima, the first translator of Bartleby (Rocco), recommended by Vinícius de Morais, conceived, directed and performed in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro (1956) a mime drama based on this telenovela. It was, by all accounts, the first dramatic show without resorting to the use of words in Latin America. Character of contained gestures, almost mute, without ever taking the initiative of dialogue and gradually refusing the tasks assigned to him, Bartleby even provokes funny (and dramatic) scenes.

Furthermore, Melville masterfully and humorously describes Bartleby's co-workers: old Turkey (turkey); the young Nippers (pincer) and the boy Ginger Nut (ginger nut). Perhaps a minor work by Melville, but excellently written, it should whet the reader's appetite for the author's other books.

Borges adds that Melville, a lover of the Calvinist Bible and friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, "died almost forgotten in New York in 1891."

*Afranio Catani is a retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF.



Hermann Melville. Bartleby the Clerk: A History of Wall Street. Translation: Irene Hirsch. Afterword: Modesto Carone. Sao Paulo, Ubu.



[1] Borges makes the following judgments about two other books by Melville: “Billy Budd it can be summarized as the story of a conflict between justice and law, but this summary is (...) less important than the character of the hero who killed a man and does not understand until the end why he is judged and condemned” ( p.52); “Benito Cereno [1855] continues to stir up controversy. Some consider it Melville's masterpiece and one of the greatest in literature. There are those who consider it a mistake or a series of mistakes. There are those who have suggested that Herman Melville set out to write a deliberately inexplicable text that constituted a complete symbol of this also inexplicable world” In: BORGES, Jorge Luis. “Herman Melville: Benito Cerreno, Billy Budd, Bartleby, the scribe”. In: personal library. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1998, p. 50-52.

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