April 11, 2012

Is Herman Melville providing the message for Occupy Wall Street?


Above, two posters spotted in New York advertising May Day festivities connected to Occupy Wall Street. (The poster on top is hanging in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the other in the bathroom of a coffee shop in the East Village.) The slogan, of course, is from Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, which we publish as part of our “Art of the Novella” series. Two years ago, we put the phrase on a tote bag and have been delighted to find that many Melville and Melville House fans are now carrying the bag. It’s an honor to see the posters above use a variation on the design of our tote, which was designed by Kelly Blair.

Last winter, Housing Works Bookstore sponsored a marathon reading of Bartleby at 60 Wall Street, a venue used by Occupy both before and after its eviction from Zuccotti Park. (And, according to one commentator here, the book was read for five days straight in Zuccotti Park itself.) The Housing Works event inspired us to put together an “Occupy Wall Street” bundle, which includes our tote, a copy of Bartleby the Scrivener, and a copy of David Graeber’s Debt. Graeber, one of the early organizers of OWS, provided another key message for the movement: “We are the 99%”

Others, of course, have come before Melville House and Occupy in celebrating Bartleby as a radical: in Europe radical theorists Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek have celebrated Bartleby’s resistance. The same sentiment can be found in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, which contains a substantial reading of Bartleby’s refusals.


Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.