Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener

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Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener"

The narrator states fairly early on in Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" that both he and Bartleby are "sons of Adam" (55). The phrase plays on a double entendre, referring to both the Calvinist Biblical Eden and to the view of America as the "new Eden." Many recent critics have traced the biblical aspects of this and other elemen ts of the story, claiming the character of Bartleby as a Christ-figure, and as such carries out the role of a redeemer.1 The story, however, is not Bartleby's, but rather the narrator's. "Bartleby" is simultaneously a biography about a scriven er and an autobiography about an entrepreneur, and Melville uses this narrative to attack the mythology previous autobiographers such as Benjamin Franklin created concerning the archetypal, self-made American man -- the new sons of Adam. For Melville, it was a mythology and persona that no longer applied because it supported a burgeoning class of capitalists, destined in the future to become the "robber barons," who placed a higher value on the utilitarian ethics espoused by Franklin than on humanity. This "Adam" with whom the narrator identifies, becomes at once both the Biblical Adam and R. W. B. Lewis' "American Adam." And through this new-fallen Adam, Melville condemns those character traits most valued by early American autobiographers like Franklin.

"I know of no Character living nor many of them put together, who has so much in his powers as Thyself to promote a greater Spirit of Industry and early Attention to Business, Frugality, and Temperance with American Youth " wrote Abel James in a letter to urge Franklin on with the Autobiography(Franklin 134). This somewhat prophetic letter announces wh...

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...The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Leonard W. Labaree ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.

Haeger, John Denis. John Jacob Astor: Business and Finance in the Early Republic. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Lewis, R.W.B. The American Adam. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, the Scrivener." Great Short Works of Herman Melville. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

________________. Israel Potter. New York: Fordham University Press, 1991.

Mitchell, Thomas R. "Dead Letters and Dead Men: Narrative Purpose in 'Bartleby, the Scrivener.'" Studies in Short Fiction. 27: 329-38.

Schueller, Malani. "Authorial Discourse and Pseudo-Dialogue in Franklin's Autobiography." Early American Literature. 22:94-107

Ziff, Larzer. Writing in the New Nation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
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