Today in our Writing New York class, we’re talking about Melville’s great short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853). Its subtitle is “A Tale of Wall Street,” and we take that subtitle seriously. In fact, we emphasize the fact that Herman Melville, born in New York City in 1819, is a writer who embodies the tension between New York and New England, with ties to Boston on his father’s Melvill side and ties to the patrons of Dutch New York on his mother’s Gansevoort side. [The family surname was in fact “Melvill”; Herman’s mother added the extra “E” after her husband’s death.]
If we recontextualize Melville as a New York writer (rather than a part of the New England story so often told in American Literature I classes), then “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street” takes on a new importance in Melville’s career. As Dennis Berthold and Barbara Foley have shown, we have read the story ahistorically for too long. Although its richness as a text is evident in its ability to support intricate psychoanalytic and deconstructive readings, a New York focus asks us to historicize the text, to read it, first, as a tale of New York’s Wall Street culture and, second, as a response to the infamous Astor Place Riots, which took place just blocks from Melville’s home on Fourth Avenue and to which he was connected by virtue of his signature on a petition that catalyzed the riots.
Shelfmark File N567.7 no.2. Folger Shakespeare Library.
To provide an additional bit of context, we ask the students to read the “Loomings” chapter with which Ishmael begins his narratve in Moby-Dick. Although it makes a nice story to see Melville’s meeting with Hawthorne as the spark that lit the flame of genius within Moby-Dick, it is useful also to remember that the novel’s opening chapter is set in Manhattan. Why begin there, unless to suggest that there is something crucial about the city’s cosmopolitanism for an understanding of Ishmael’s experience at sea?
Emphasizing the subtitle has an additional benefit: it gives us license (in thinking about how “Wall Street” came to symbolize what it does today) to show Michael Douglas’s wonderful “greed is good speech” from Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street (1987):
How sad that the critique of Wall Street dramatized by Stone’s film is even more trenchant today, twenty-two years later.