May 16, 2023

Bartleby and Workplace Lit: An Essay by Jolene McIlwain


Bartleby and Workplace Lit

Jolene McIlwain

When my agent and I exchanged the exciting lists of those places we wanted to submit Sidle Creek, I decided to check their websites to see how each organized their contributors’ books, and valued and promoted the work. I kept coming back to Melville House, because seeing Melville’s name conjured up my dealings with the amazing author. My copy of Moby Dick sat on my shelf beside other novels I’d taught, but, more importantly I thought of my lecture notes for “Bartleby the Scrivener.” 

One of my favorite themes to focus on and teach Vo-tech high schoolers and college freshmen has always been workplace literature. My mentor Carole Bencich, upon reading my undergraduate poems, introduced me to two authors from my area—Pete Oresick and Nicholas Coles—who’d edited the anthologies Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life, and For a Living: The Poetry of Work, highlighting both industrial and non-industrial workplaces. I taught from these texts for several years in order to illustrate and highlight for my students that people who worked all sorts of jobs were of value to people who wrote great literature (and people who had working-class jobs could write about their lives). 

“Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is particularly engaging to teach because Melville wrote it at a time when our country was a working collective shifting in deeds, needs, hopes, dreams. In 1853, when Melville was writing  about a law office in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” there were violent Labor riots, including one at Astor Place in 1849 that claimed 22 lives. “Bartleby” remains relevant to students of our time in the middle of the rise of a gig economy that is changing the landscape of the working class. 

But also, “Bartleby” offered my students a great lesson in how to write about specific details of the workplace. I could use sections to illustrate how Melville’s characters described the work: “It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. I can readily imagine that to some sanguine temperaments it would be altogether intolerable.” Or, how the characters described each other, how Nippers had to rig his table so his back didn’t hurt and looked like “a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk.” It touches on how parents, then and now, had expectations for their children, as with Ginger Nut’s father, who was a carman but who had “ambitions of seeing his son on the bench instead of a cart.” My students understood this, since many of their parents had chosen their majors for them, sadly, and they were experiencing the bitterness that such strictures cause. Melville also tapped into something that many workers can relate to, how we nickname and analyze our co-workers: Turkey’s face is compared to “cannel coal heaped on anthracite” and — when he’s given a coat that does not fit — “Too much oats are bad for horses” and “He was a man whom prosperity harmed.” And, of course, there’s the workplace hierarchy, a great source of the tension we need in narratives. 

Much in the same way Melville uses specificity in the workplace to engage his readers, the many poets and writers I studied and taught through those workplace anthologies have done the same. My students at the Vo-tech high school felt seen in Jay Parini’s poems, in which he offers mining jargon in “Working the Face” and “Anthracite Country,” where “The culm dump burns all night, / unnaturally blue, and well below heaven,” and the mining references in Tess Gallagher’s “Black Money”: “and for us, black money shoveled / from the sulphur pyramids heaped in the distance / like yellow gold.” 

In Sidle Creek, I name no less than fifty, mostly working-class, jobs. My characters range from a sawyer to a school bus driver, an exotic dance club owner to a mushroom mine picker, a face boss, seamstress, herbalist, game warden, waitress, piano repairman. I love that Carl Bromley at Melville House chose my book, chock-full of working-class characters, for their list. I’ve worked with, sat around kitchen tables and campfires with, commiserated and celebrated with people just like those who live and work in my stories, and each time I’d hear the unique language of the workplace I made sure include it in my book. I owe this to my dad, a teamster truck driver, my mom, a rural letter carrier, my sister, a parochial schoolteacher, my brother, a crane operator, and especially to my husband’s extended family of farmers and upholsterers, and my husband himself, an excavator. But most important, I wanted to include these jobs in Sidle Creek for my son, a true gig-economy expert who’s cobbled together an income from simultaneously running eco-campsites, working at as an equipment specialist and retail salesperson in a local dive shop, and freelancing his photography and videography skills. I want to remember how the world I grew up in—with its workplace words and deeds—has morphed and musicked into the world we are living in right now. I want to honor it in the same way Melville honored the mid-to-late 1800s and the workers of that time by giving them space on the page. 


Molly Donovan is the former Marketing Assistant at Melville House Publishing.