Today is the birthday of American writer Herman Melville (1819-81), who is most famous for the novel Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick (1851) is one of those classics that hardly anyone reads, as you know. I haven’t read it, though I’m not sure how I weaseled out of that, because I took a great many English classes from high school through grad school. And I did have to read Tristram Shandy (1759, by Laurence Sterne), which was such a terrible experience that – well, let’s skip lightly over it and get back to Melville. People who knew me back in 1986 got to hear a lot about how much I hated Tristram Shandy and all his boring little friends. Which in itself was doubtless intensely boring.
Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853) is really good though. It is a very modern short story, a case study of depression and loneliness in an urban world. Bartleby is a scrivener or clerk, who supposedly once worked for the Dead Letter Office (where undelivered letters ended up at the time). Bartleby is hired by the elderly lawyer who narrates the story.
Bartleby refuses to do any work, merely saying “I prefer not to.” The lawyer is strangely moved and sorry for Bartleby and keeps him on, though Bartleby does nothing. “I prefer not to” is his response to everything. The lawyer moves his office to try and get away from Bartleby, who finally is arrested for refusing to leave the old office. He is taken to prison and eventually dies of starvation.
The phrase “I prefer not to” echoes through the story, which is told without excessive Victorian sentiment.
Here is Bartleby over at Project Gutenberg. If you prefer not to read it, that’s cool, though! I couldn’t resist that.