U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Melville’s Relevancies:  Occupy, Tattooing, and the Promise of American Failure 

The following is a guest post from Martin Griffin, associate professor in the English Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Along with several articles, Martin is the author, with  Constance DeVereaux, of  Narrative, Identity, and the Map of Cultural Policy: Once Upon a Time in a Globalized World, (Ashgate, 2013), and Ashes of the Mind:  War and Memory in Northern Literature, 1865-1900, (Massachusetts, 2009). He is also the co-editor, with Chris Hebert, of an upcoming collection of essays entitled Stories of Nation: Fictions, Politics, and the American Experience (University of Tennessee) which will appear this spring. I’m very pleased that Martin has chosen to write for us. Enjoy everyone!


At a festival held last April at the University of Tennessee to celebrate the works of Herman Melville (1819-1891), one of the events involved a community reading of Melville’s well-known 1853 short story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”[1] Before the lunchtime reading, there was an open panel discussion on how relevant Herman Melville is, or could be, today, and five speakers from UT Knoxville set out their readings of Melville from various professional and personal angles, among them movies, fiction writing, theater, and Melville’s relationship to Islam. My own contribution drew out three different threads in Melville’s life and writings that connect in intriguing and sometimes unexpected ways with our present times. I sketch these “relevancies” as a non-linear track that starts with Melville at (or just past) the crest of his career, bends back to his first novel Typee in 1846, and leaps forward to the final, obscure years in New York City.

(1) Wall Street and “Bartleby”

The Occupy Wall Street movement that began in late summer 2011 was the most recent political attempt to challenge the deeper-rooted assumptions of our economic system on its home turf. The Occupy campaign in New York exercised a certain talent for theatricality, as many noticed at the time, and at its best it deployed elements of irony and misdirection as well as traditional activist tools, knowing perhaps that such an “occupation” was ultimately going to be more performative than substantive. In some ways it was the exercise of a negative preference, a preference not to be clueless pawns in the production of other people’s wealth and our insecurity. Melville did not make it onto the campaign’s radar screen, and that’s a pity because “Bartleby” might have become a political meme backed by a certain amount of cultural resonance.[2]

As members of the American public we have a curious relationship to Wall Street for a number of reasons: in part because we both need it and fear it, or at least are made uneasy by it. This range of feeling is not unique to the United States: one can presume that some variant of the local attitude toward the source of finance capital is to be found in most capitalist societies, including in nations with a stronger social democratic tradition than we have in the U.S., but whether Wall Street serves the nation or the nation serves Wall Street has become an issue of major significance in recent years, and, of course, not for the first time in American history. While Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” might just be the first moment in American literature where the place itself, the Street, and by implication its social and economic significance are named as the subject of narrative fiction, it is definitely not the last. Moving forward in time from “Bartleby” in 1853, we soon encounter Henry James and his 1876 novel The American, in which a kind of psychic meltdown on Wall Street drives the protagonist Christopher Newman to leave America for extended travels in Europe; a striking example from the first half of the twentieth century is John Dos Passos’s The Big Money (1936), the last volume in the U.S.A. trilogy, in which finance capital exploits and then destroys engineering innovation and business entrepreneurship along with Charlie Anderson, the gullible war hero who thought that America was about good ideas and hard work; and right down to Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, in which the resurgent Wall Street of the 1980s has shaken off its chains like King Kong escaping from his cage and heading into Manhattan.

But by the 2000s the role of Wall Street had become almost as if King Kong hanging onto the spire of the Empire State Building was no longer an astonishing sight, but simply accepted as a kind of unavoidable intrusion into the American scene, not unlike airport security after 9/11. The new kind of financial business that made big money on the Street was something unforeseen by most people, rather like King Kong (who in a comic moment in the 1933 movie is described vaguely as a ‘big gorilla’ before he’s actually seen in the flesh), but the slightly more embarrassing truth is that we kind of get used to it after a while.[3] These two elements embody, together, that ambivalent American perspective on financial market volatility: excited and even inspired by its climb, terrified of its prospective fall. In many ways, the problem of the Crash of 2008 was, rather than specific acts, rather than specific business practices, a kind of subtle and almost unnoticed makeover or transformation in what should be considered obvious. In what needed no explanation. In what was potentially embarrassing to query, as if one thereby revealed one’s total naiveté and cluelessness. Which word in ‘credit default swaps’ don’t you understand?

To return to the beginnings, however, in the early 1850s Melville has a certain bone to pick with what is obvious. Bartleby—the character himself—and his famous quiet declaration the he “would prefer not to” embodies a challenge to obviousness. After all, it is obvious that he should do his share of the law firm’s work, that he should try to please his employer, and that he should realize the unreasonableness of his refusenik response to instructions or requests to carry out the functions he has been hired to do. The terror of a breakdown of society in the event of a general refusal on the Bartleby model permeates Melville’s short story. The narrator-employer’s trick of getting the best output from Turkey and Nippers, the two other scriveners, by strategically indulging their eccentricities before and after lunch, doesn’t work with Bartleby. As becomes obvious too, in time, if someone starts not playing by the rules, there are only limited options available: you can remove them from the game, or try to; you can accommodate their presence in some way, maybe by declaring some kind of protective space around them that might also prevent the rot from spreading; or you can leave them and take the game elsewhere.

When thinking of “elsewhere”—and what eventually happens, of course, is that the narrator moves his business to new premises, leaving Bartleby in the empty offices—it is worth mentioning that Wall Street doesn’t have a center, either in “Bartleby the Scrivener” or in life.  As one sometimes has to explain, there isn’t really a building marked HQ Capitalism, Inc. in which a group of people sit around a boardroom table running the world economy and giving vent to an occasional evil chuckle. But at the same time, there are, in Wall Street, in the United States, in Europe, in Asia, obviously institutions, networks, hierarchies, mutually advantageous policy decisions and the like that have the cumulative effect, the narrative velocity if you like, of a consolidated economic maneuver.[4] There are circles of influence spreading outward. But the narrator of “Bartleby” is, as many readers have noted, an attorney: he is not a banker and not at the helm of any critical financial operation. Bartleby’s employer carries out an ancillary function on the Street, one that is obviously crucial to the operations of merchant banks, stockbrokers, and the like, but not one that seems to be close to the action. Indeed, there is a strong sense of financial and political action being something that might best be avoided as we traverse the urban map and psychic landscape of Melville’s story.[5] A touch of morbid collaboration attaches to this relationship between uneasy narrator and uncomfortable employee. It is possible that Bartleby’s refusal of the obvious poses a question for which an answer might be found, an answer that neither the narrator nor, perhaps, Bartleby himself really wish to confront.  The eerie absence at the heart of “Bartleby the Scrivener”—we never really get an answer to the question ‘why?’—reflects that same kind of confusing and/or absent echo we hear from Wall Street whenever we try to get an honest answer to what exactly it is doing with all our lives and our future security. This absence may even, to some degree, illuminate Occupy’s arc of efficacy, starting out with energy, vision, and humor, and eventually tending toward exhaustion and a dogged repetitiveness.

(2)  Typee nudity and tattoos

In his 1846 novel/travel memoir Typee, Melville faced a problem describing the everyday dress and sexual culture of the native inhabitants of the Marquesas Islands, and this, one might assume, resulted from a volatile mix of the differing calculations of his British and American publishers, his own shyness, and some tactical authorial calculation of how far he could actually go in his account. In Spring 2015 I assigned this work, Melville’s first publication, for my upper division class in American Fiction to 1900.

The young American narrator and protagonist of Typee, called Tommo by the local people, jumps ship from his whaler when it drops anchor at the island of Nukuhiva in July 1842, treks into the interior, and strikes up a friendship with the attractive Fayaway, a Marquesan girl. There are some elaborate passages in the first part of the story where Melville negotiates describing not only the casual nudity or semi-nudity of the women on the island, but what appears to be a puzzling absence of sexual jealousy and neurotic obsessions.[6] In fact, as Robert Milder notes in Exiled Royalties, Melville is obviously trying to sketch out a more complex picture of a non-monogamous sexual culture without being really in a position to grasp the meanings or social dynamics that shape what he is observing.[7] Gradually, however, other encounters with Marquesan culture take place, including the central role of the tattoo. Far more intense, it turns out, than his interest in Fayaway is Tommo’s fear of the permanence of tattoos, in particular our narrator’s worry than he might be forcibly kidnapped and his face turned into a lifelong work of art by the somewhat aggressive Typee tattoo artist in the valley.[8]

My students in English 435 became very engaged with questions of tattoos and tattooing. On the day we dedicated to that section of Typee, the in-class discussion was intense, focused, with many students eager to say their piece. For a few of them, this was their one act of sustained class participation for the whole semester. The most unlikely (my prejudice, of course) individuals confessed to a significant interest in the subject. As one sober-looking male student explained, he had thought seriously about a facial tattoo but concluded that it was a bad idea because, in his words, “I might want to go for a job interview at some point.” I asked them when they thought this fashion had arrived into regular youth culture, and got a number of contradictory answers. I told them I didn’t know either, but it was definitely not a thing when I was an undergraduate in Dublin, some forty years ago now. In any event, tattooing seemed to be a (to steal a word from the “Bartleby” narrator) safer theme for discussion than the clothes-optional culture of the Marquesas islands.[9]

3) Melville’s American Failure – an example for a better future?

It’s a fairly banal point to make—and it was made most effectively a long time ago by Perry Miller in The Raven and the Whale—that the careers of Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe represent an arc that tends towards failure in nineteenth-century American literary culture.[10] The question of failure seems, moreover, to have a resonance in American society, but not at all in a simple way. “Loser!” is indeed a commonly heard insult but at the same time Scott Fitzgerald’s somewhat misunderstood proposition that there are no second acts in American lives seems to have been invalidated by many examples from politics to entertainment to romantic relationships.

Melville’s authorial career had a second act, as a poet, which was also subject to failure in several respects.[11] But I’d argue that it’s the third act of Melville’s life, his paid civil service employment in the Port of New York Customs Office, that hovers over the record of his literary career, rather like the (fictional) examples of a job selling real estate that defines the former lead singer of a San Diego cult band or the cheery “Go for it!” sports goods endorsements of a one-time inspiring athlete that remind everyone of the real price of achievement in the U.S. Indeed, think of the slight feeling of puzzlement one gets when a senior colleague in one’s own academic field retires and one notices that their last book came out in 1998. 1998! What have they been doing?

But the elitist nature of the failure is an important issue to not forget, I think. There are some failures that are aesthetically appealing, poignant, bathed in a certain dramatic light. That’s the kind of failure we like. In contrast, Melville’s failure during his lifetime was quiet, and unfolded some distance from the public square. It wasn’t just that his books fell out of favor; he became more or less forgotten. I sometimes wonder what it was like to be Herman Melville, coming back home to the house on East 26th Street, maybe on a winter’s evening in the early 1880s, after a day at the Customs Office. To turn the key in the lock, to let oneself into one’s house, feeling a sense of relief at getting indoors from the cold, but at the same time to know at the age of sixty-two or sixty-three that there would be no letter in the mail, no unexpected telegram with a cheery message “Dear Mr. Herman Melville, we are pleased to invite you to give the keynote address at our conference “Moby-Dick at 30: Revision and Retrospection.”

But that is, if we understand it properly, an example for us all.  After all, failure is just success viewed from a high enough vantage point. It should cause no embarrassment to be rescued by the relative nature of the universe. I am, I admit, very optimistic about American Failure: it has a bright future, if we only embrace it without hesitation or shame.

[1] The text we used was the Northwestern-Newberry edition of the story, as published in Herman Melville, Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, & Billy Budd (New York: Library of America, 1984), 635-72.

[2]  In his recent study Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), Lee Konstantinou suggests that Occupy Wall Street was both searching for a practical activist politics and also trying to prefigure a certain kind of future community in which sincerity would be cleansed of the toxic effects of postmodern “hipster” irony (see the final chapter “Manic Pixie Dream Occupier”). In some ways, the evasion of response that characterizes Bartleby—and, ironically, Wall Street itself—is reflected in Occupy’s collective “prefer not” directed at both the reigning economic and social state of affairs and, to some extent, at its own supporters, particularly those who desired a shift to classic left leadership dynamics.

[3] In the original 1933 movie, the crowd is waiting in a big theater auditorium to see the exotic wonder; a young woman overhears people in the row behind her saying something like “I hear it’s just a big gorilla.” At that moment a large man forces himself along the row of seats, stepping on the woman’s foot as he does. She winces and says “As if we didn’t have enough of them in New York already!”

[4] To a notable extent, Occupy Wall Street was arguing a similar point about itself: that it was not offering a centralized or directed model of political leadership, but rather a type of usable framework for maneuvering political energies forward.

[5] The narrator’s self-deprecating admission that “the late John Jacob Astor” considered his significant qualities to be, first, “prudence” and then “method” (635-6) suggests that the grounds for that approbation was the fact that the narrator is not actually engaged in the finance or banking sectors himself. As an attorney, he is there for risk management, not taking risks.  Certainly the narrator, at that moment at least, seems unaware that there might be a certain dismissive aspect to J.J. Astor’s evaluation of him.

[6] Herman Melville, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (Penguin Classics, 1996), 85-88; 126-7.

[7] Robert Milder, Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine (New York: Oxford UP, 2006), 6; 9-20.

[8] Melville, Typee, 218-9.

[9]  As often happens, a couple of students dealt with nudity and related topics in their subsequent papers. In teaching, I’ve often noticed a certain amount of confidence emerging when the student is secure that the professor is going to be the only reader.

[10] Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene (1956. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

[11] In fairness, I should note that this is not a consensus position on Melville’s last decades. For example, Robert Milder sees the last phase of his life being a kind of willed withdrawal rather than unwilling isolation, and Milder is also a champion of the final small collections of poetry as representing a bleaker, more minimalist revisiting of themes Melville had wrestled with earlier in his career (Exiled Royalties, 222-37).

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great stuff Martin. Enjoyed this a whole lot. So Bartleby ends up living at the office and would prefer not to leave, and the protesters decided to occupy physical spaces, preferring not to leave. As you say, “Wall Street” is an imaginary, an idea of a financial center, now infinitely mobile. It can pick up and go anywhere, leaving those who refuse it behind like so many Bartlebys. In that sense, the Occupy protesters’ passive resistance was hardly a sit-in or a sit-down in any “traditional” sense. Most “Wall Street” workers can work from anywhere now, manipulating vast sums, mediated by a series of ones and zeroes. Wall Street is both nowhere and somehow everywhere. (If I knew anything or had any “real” money, hell, I could trade on my phone. Of course that requires that my money be included in the ledger of unreality, in the virtual ether of ones and zeroes.)

    The market is like certain crude notions of the divine that way. God’s always with you. Wall Street, then, is a kind of church. It can be an address (Wall Street) and an imagined space (“Wall Street”) where congregants go to worship the impersonal “self-equilibrating” (that’s Daniel Rodgers from Age of Fracture) transcendent market god. It separates wheat from chaff, the impersonal market. So occupying a space as a kind of refusal only goes so far. You can refuse it, but if it exists everywhere and nowhere, how do you get away from that? It’s got all the bases covered. Maybe the only way to get around it is to fail. Of course there’s always the big fail (death).

    Anyway, your piece and these thoughts made me think about how the narrator/employer decides to put Bartleby behind a screen as if the latter were some sort of penitent. Bartleby refuses to confess anything though. There’s nothing private about a confessional, screen or no. It’s designed to expose the sinner, to lay one bare. Oddly, the employer shields him to better surveil him, saying that “privacy and society were joined,” which to my mind is questionable, or not to be believed. (It’s another instance of Melville’s tricky narrators–we can’t know Bartleby, but let me tell you about him anyway. “Call me Ishmael.” Or Billy Budd, the “true” story misrepresented in the paper notice that never existed.)

    As a story about privacy (which I’m sure plenty of people in your line of work have noticed), then maybe an irony is that Occupy protesters chose to occupy public spaces to defend rapacious invasions of home and hearth by an all-seeing, ubiquitous market that can go anywhere. I’m not sure. I have no idea what you’ll make of all that. Anyway, your piece conjured up all sorts of thoughts. Thanks for writing it.

    • Thanks Pete — to take up a couple of your points, I think Occupy was trying to be two (or more) things that over the longer haul jostled uneasily together: a fluid, dynamic process that didn’t allow itself to be pinned down, and a physical presence that visibly ‘enacted’ a more shared and equalized world. To that extent, it tried to match those multiple versions of ‘the Street that you list (the real, the metaphorical, the cultural etc) — there was Occupy the movement, Occupy the idea, and so on.
      Also, I’d say that HM’s “Bartleby” (the story itself) is narrated by a figure who does not fully understand his own relationship to the milieu that employs him. He has coasted along on this raft of non-understanding and is unprepared for the challenge that Bartleby embodies (and embodying is something that B. seems to do less and less of as the story tends toward its denouement). His real confrontation is with the inexplicable.

  2. I actually think, per self-survey info they provided, that most the original Zucotti Park Occupy protestors had, until the Great Recession, planned to work FOR Wall Street. You heard me right. Whiter, richer and MUCH better educated than the national average. I suspect many were MBAs, JDs, MAs in math, etc., frustrated that the “quant” or corporate legal counsel employment doors had been slammed shut.


    • Wow. That’s fascinating. It turns out this Bartleby comparison that Martin makes is even more apt than I thought. They are so many Bartlebys.

    • Very interesting — anecdotal, I guess, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was true of some participants at least. It opens up further the possibility of Occupy being a kind of shadow of Wall Street (but how do you politically challenge something that refuses to sit still and hear you out?), haunting the Street with its energies that might once have served it.

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