December 6, 2018

The importance of the novella: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville


Perhaps one of the things Melville House is known for is celebrating a specific renegade art form: the novella. Here on our MobyLives blog, we’re starting a post series in which we’ll dive into and discuss novellas from our catalogue. In this series, we’re especially proud to highlight a novella from our 2018 releases, Death and Other Holidays. We’re particularly itching to pair this riveting novella with other Melville House titles. Our first pick? Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville.

Fun Facts:
Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street
Originally Published: Putnam’s Magazine
Originally Published As: Periodical
Publication Date: NovemberDecember 1853
Melville House Publication Date: May 2004
Page Count: 80

Bartleby the Scrivener, subtitled “A Story of Wall Street,” is a story by one of literary canon’s most important writers, Herman Melville. Originally serialized in November and December 1853 issues of Putnam’s magazine, the story was published anonymously. It has since become a principal example of the importance of the novella. Truly ahead of its time, Bartleby the Scrivener exhibits themes of physical and mental loneliness as a result of the isolation of the everyday life of the American workplace.

The premise is uncanny and quite simple: Wall Street lawyer seeks an assistant and hires Bartleby to handle the tedium that comes with the profession. Initially, Bartleby works hard but soon, we are witness to the characteristics of depression and burnout, culminating with a complete refusal to work. The now iconic statement echoes Bartleby’s defiance: “I would prefer not to.” Reject not lest thee be rejected. The story has been the subject of numerous essays [links] and you bet it continues to be one of the most recognizable novellas in print today.

Did you know? Originally, each excerpt was serialized alongside a poem. It’s true. If you haven’t checked them out, “Inscription for the Back of a Bank-Note” and “Phantoms,” we’ve included them below!

“Inscription for the Back of a Bank-Note”
“Nothing so evil as money ever grew to be current among men.” —Sophocles

BANK-note—foul note! Industry’s curse;

Ghost of coin, that mocks at toil;

Pictured wealth, that chance may spoil,

Rogues may stamp, and handling coil;
Bank-note—foul note! touch not my purse!

Bank-note—blest note! Trade’s healthy nurse:

Key to stores of treasures gold;
Making timid business bold,
Bringing both to young and old
All that home and heart can hold;

Bank-note—blest note! Come to my purse!

Bank-note—curst note! Emblem of evil;

Seed of henbane to love’s life;
Spur of hate and deadly strife;
Rust of ties ‘twixt man and wife;

Whetstone of the bandit’s knife:
Bank-note—curst note! Go to the devil!

Bank-note—sweet note! Emblem of power;

Giving youthful charms to age;
Making fools seem strangely sage;

Winning, despite critic’s rage,
Puffs and glory by the page;

Bank-note—sweet notes! Come in a shower!
—Written anonymously for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. This poem immediately followed the first installment of Bartleby the Scrivener in the November, 1853 issue.


All houses wherein men have lived and died,

Are haunted houses. Through the open doors

The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,

With Feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We must meet them at the doorway, on the stair,

Along the passages they come and go,

Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table, than the hosts

Invited;—the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,

As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;

He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;

Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands

And hold in mortmain still their old estates

The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapors dense

A vital breath of more ethereal air.

Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By earthly wants and aspirations high
Come from the influence of that unseen star,

That undiscovered planet in our sky,

And as the moon, from some dark gate of cloud.

Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light,

Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd,

Into the realm of mystery and night;

So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O’er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,

Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.
—“Phantoms” directly followed Bartleby in the December 1853 issue of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine.




Michael Seidlinger is the Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House.