Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dead Letters Office

          After early success with his tales of the South Seas, Melville met negative critical and popular reaction to both Moby Dick and Pierre. These huge works were tremendously ambitious. What amount of toil and hope went into them? Both sank quickly.
          For the remainder of his life — almost forty years — Melville’s literary output was minuscule. It had become clear that he could not make a living from his writing. He got employment as a customs inspector in New York and worked at that job for nineteen years; so, in a sense, he carried on with life. But what was the state of his creative spirit? I think he addresses the intimate issue of failure in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” a story he wrote shortly after Pierre’s devastating reception.
          Bartleby is a man beyond depression. He is deep into apathy; for him life is hardly discernable from death (indeed, at the end Bartleby slips into death with hardly a ripple). He has “preferences” but they have no force behind them. The unnamed narrator, the “I” of the story, is an elderly man who carries on with the daily routine of getting up, going to work, making a living. Toward Bartleby he feels an empathy which goes unusually deep. So deep, considering the troubles the clerk causes him, that Bartleby can be seen as an aspect of the elder man’s own self.
          In the first paragraph of the story Melville’s narrator alludes to something that he knows about Bartleby’s past, though he does not reveal what this is until the end. By setting up matters in this way, Melville is stressing the importance of the revelation.
          It is this: Bartleby had previously been employed in a postal Dead Letters Office. The narrator’s reaction is extreme: “Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men?” He thinks how these letters — of love, of hope, of pardon — are burned by the cartload. “On errands of life, these letters sped to death.”
          As a writer, Melville experienced this; he saw his work as going to a Dead Letters Office — his words falling into the abyss of indifference. Sinking, burning — use what analogy you will, it is still death.
          It is significant that Melville tells the scribe’s story from the stable and compassionate point of view of the non-writer, the man who carried on. He is thus able to achieve a crucial distancing.
          “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” this narrator writes at the close.
          Humanity indeed: The great parade of those whose dreams are unfulfilled. With the story’s last word Melville moved from the narrow failure of a writer to the universal.

(Originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Lost Magazine)


jimmy scoville said...

Sadness comes to mind. A deep sadness most (I think) writers suffer. Few become anything in their lifetimes. To have to go back to work after Moby Dick/Pierre is tragic under its own steam, but to lose one's sense of words, is devastating. Or maybe not. Maybe he became secretive & wrote for himself, stuffed his works in an attic or in a basement with instructions to burn after his death to deny the soothsayers merit & academic promise from another Dead Writer (a business made supporting teachers & other writers from the scribblings of Melville's pen expands the more he has written & is discovered after death). And in this case, unlike with Kafka's demise, they did it.

To write for one's self? I used to do that. How I have strayed. I still have dreams I will make some profit from my struggling lines. What a fool I am!

STRIKE UP A PARADE FOR MISUSED WRITERS! It would stretch from shore to shore in North America. But maybe not a parade, but a jazz funeral dirge before a frolicking celebration.



pr said...

They found the manuscript of Billy Budd after Melville's death. Writing is a hard habit to break.
He was his worst enemy. When he got ambitious he became unreadable to all but a select few -- and I'm not one of them. Nor do I feel the need to impress anyone by saying how much I loved Moby Dick. The only thing I liked by Melville was "Bartelby."
Yes, the whole matter is sad. But the point of the story (and my essay) is that having dreams unfulfilled is not limited to writers.