I confess that there are a number of classics in the law and literature canon that I’ve not yet read, and I’ve resolved to fill in some of those gaps, beginning with Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. The number of law journal articles that reference the story, and the frequency with which it turns up on the syllabi of law and literature courses would be reason enough to begin there. But I have a more specific interest as well. I’ve been plotting an article about Louis Auchincloss’s short stories, many of which are set in Wall Street law firms, and, given that Melville’s Bartleby is subtitled “A Story of Wall Street,” it seems an antecedent that I ought to explore.
But even if I hadn’t already resolved to read Bartleby, a couple of recent mentions highlighting the continuing relevance of this mid-nineteenth century work would doubtless have piqued my interest. The first is in a thought-provoking essay by Hannah Gersen at The Millions in which she links Bartleby’s “peculiar form of rebellion” to the Occupy Wall Street protests, ultimately concluding: “If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has—to unsettle.” The second is a reference in a Forbes column by Victoria Pynchon in which she parallels Bartleby’s situation with the contemporary plight of legal secretaries. (Thanks to Sonia Lawrence who led me to the latter with an @OsgoodeIFLS tweet.)
The edition of Bartleby the Scrivener that I bought, pictured above, is an instalment in Melville House Publishing’s marvellous Art of the Novella series. They’re lovely small books that feel good in the hand, and the selection of titles is broad enough to appeal to any discerning reader. I note as well that there are others besides Bartleby that are likely be of interest to those who like a bit of law with their literature, including, for example: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Ian Dreiblatt), The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain, and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I already boast a few Melville House novellas in my collection, and I covet many more!
I will report here in due course on how I fare with Bartleby, and on if and how it connects with my Auchincloss reading.