Originally created 12/13/01

I still would prefer not to work with Bartleby

Bartleby made me drop out of college, and I have never forgiven him for that.

Oh, I enrolled in class again and finished, but as Bartleby's 150th birthday approaches, he still sickens me.

Bartleby, you might recall, is the title character of Herman Melville's 1853 story Bartleby the Scrivener. For 32 of those years, that story has gotten under my skin, although I'm probably the only person ever to quit school over it.

A scrivener is a clerk who copies documents, and in the pre-Xerox days, scriveners worked long hours with pen and ink in a dismal office.

Not Bartleby, though. He started his job well enough but before long refused to join in any reindeer games of office life. When his boss asked him to swap documents with co-workers so they could check one another's work for mistakes, he refused.

What he said, actually, was, "I would prefer not to." Or, sometimes, "I prefer not to."

The boss asked him to run to the post office.

"I would prefer not to."

His answer to everything was, "I would prefer not to." Then he would clam up and do nothing.

His employer, being a softy and somewhat of a good-hearted reformer, didn't press the issue, and pretty soon, Bartleby became his albatross. The scrivener stopped scrivening and just sat and stared out the window. He hung around day and night but contributed little. Like a brother-in-law.

My professor in college loved that story. She gushed over Bartleby's courage, or anguish, or uniqueness, or some such drivel. That was too much for me. I argued with her that Bartleby was not pulling his load and ought to be tossed out on his ear.

It was odd for a teen in the late 1960s to argue against nonconformity, I suppose. Then again, because it was the 1960s, I had to protest any chance I got.

Here was my situation: I was driving 80 miles round-trip each day to college in winter, over a mountain (it really was uphill both ways, kids) in a car that had no heat. I had one job before class, one during school and one at night to pay tuition. I could dredge up no sympathy for an office worker who got a paycheck but didn't work.

So I argued with the professor. I was right; she was wrong. She wouldn't drop out of college. So I did.

A couple of weeks ago, I went back and reread Bartleby the Scrivener. Maybe I had misjudged things during my hotheaded teen years.

Nope. I'm still infuriated. I still think Bartleby's a goof-off. I know all the arguments for what made him tick; I know how the ending of the story is supposed to justify his eccentricity. But life is too hard for me to tolerate him.

I'm sure he would fit in well in today's litigious, touchy-feelly society, where workers sue if they have to make coffee. But 150 years ago, he wouldn't have lasted long:

"Come in, Bartleby. I want to go over your performance evaluations with you. I notice that your supervisor says you refuse to put coal in the stove. Can you tell me what the problem is?"

"I would prefer not to."

"Then I shall thrash you with my cane."

But don't believe me. Read the story for yourself. It's in the library and all over the Internet. Let me know what you think.

But stay in school.

Reach Glynn Moore at (706) 823-3419 or gmoore@augustachronicle.com.


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