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Herman Melville's Bartleby, The Scrivener Essay

3556 words - 14 pages

Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener"

The narrator states fairly early on in Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" that both he and Bartleby are "sons of Adam" (55). The phrase plays on a double entendre, referring to both the Calvinist Biblical Eden and to the view of America as the "new Eden." Many recent critics have traced the biblical aspects of this and other elemen ts of the story, claiming the character of Bartleby as a Christ-figure, and as such carries out the role of a redeemer.1 The story, however, is not Bartleby's, but rather the narrator's. "Bartleby" is simultaneously a biography about a scriven er and an autobiography about an entrepreneur, and Melville uses this narrative to attack the mythology previous autobiographers such as Benjamin Franklin created concerning the archetypal, self-made American man -- the new sons of Adam. For Melville, it was a mythology and persona that no longer applied because it supported a burgeoning class of capitalists, destined in the future to become the "robber barons," who placed a higher value on the utilitarian ethics espoused by Franklin than on humanity. This "Adam" with whom the narrator identifies, becomes at once both the Biblical Adam and R. W. B. Lewis' "American Adam." And through this new-fallen Adam, Melville condemns those character traits most valued by early American autobiographers like Franklin.

"I know of no Character living nor many of them put together, who has so much in his powers as Thyself to promote a greater Spirit of Industry and early Attention to Business, Frugality, and Temperance with American Youth " wrote Abel James in a letter to urge Franklin on with the Autobiography(Franklin 134). This somewhat prophetic letter announces what would eventually become the foundations of Republican value and Republican virtue. And Lewis in his preeminent work The American Adam identifies characteristics of the archetypal literary figure who became the model for the American ethos.

The new habits to be engendered on the new American scene were suggested by the image of a radically new personality, the hero of the new adventure: an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; and individual standing alone, self-reliant and self propelling, ready to confront whatev er awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources. ...His moral position was prior to experience, and in his very newness he was fundamentally innocent. (Lewis 5)

Relatively early in his life, Franklin rejected his familial bonds and struck out on his own. He writes in part one of his Autobiography:2 "At length a fresh Difference arising between my brother and me, I took upon me to assert my Freedom, presuming that he would not venture to produce new indentures" (70). The remainder of part one details the various adv entures he undertakes, the mistakes he made -- or "errata" as he...

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