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Re-Reading The Silence of Bartleby

Douglas Anderson

It probably came as no surprise to Dan McCall that The Silence of Bartleby, his slender tribute to the pleasures of reading Herman Melvilles Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853), elicited a resounding silence from his professional colleagues in the years that followed its 1989 publication. A largely favorable notice appeared in The Yearbook of English Studies for 1992. In the same year, in the pages of this journal, Andrew Delbancos review essay, Melville in the 80s, devoted a paragraph to McCalls book, praising it as the single most sensitive response to Melvilles genius since Warner Berthoffs study 30 years earlier (715). Delbanco himself was on the point of beginning a literary biography of Melville. Surprisinglyor perhaps not surprisinglyMcCalls work makes a negligible appearance, at best, in the annotation to Melville: His World and Work (2005) and little discernable impression on the broad documentary landscape that Delbanco ultimately depicts in the body of this book. Why such a sensitive and responsive work of criticism should exert so little inuence on a major biography by an eminent scholar of American literature is part of the mystery that lies behind the curious reception of McCalls book. With the two exceptions noted above, The Silence of Bartleby subsided quietly into the bibliographic depths, reappearing now and then amid the schools of footnotes that dart beneath the surface of an occasional journal article or book chapter, often as one of the most agile and brilliant of its evanescent species, though seldom singled out for special regard. The reasons for this disappearance point both to tactical misjudgments on McCalls part and to a type of disciplinary blindness on the part of his

The Silence of Bartleby, Dan McCall. Cornell University Press, 1989.

Douglas Anderson is Sterling-Goodman Professor of English at the University of Georgia. He is the author, most recently, of William Bradfords Books: Of Plimmoth Plantation and the Printed Word (2003).
doi:10.1093/alh/ajn021 Advance Access publication May 13, 2008 # The Author 2008. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oxfordjournals.org


Re-Reading The Silence of Bartleby

The complaint that lies behind [McCalls] sometimes truculent critical performance is, in large measure, an outgrowth of a deep divide between the practical life of the classroom and the professional imperatives that shape much contemporary scholarship[.]

academic audience. The complaint that lies behind his sometimes truculent critical performance is, in large measure, an outgrowth of a deep divide between the practical life of the classroom and the professional imperatives that shape much contemporary scholarshipbetween the delights of reading and the preemptive necessity to explain or justify what we read. In Delbancos words, The Silence of Bartleby amounts to a writers protest against the technologia of criticism (715). Every feature of this assessment, including its italics, helps characterize the rewards and challenges posed by McCalls book, beginning with his unusual willingness to differ, quite openly, with many of the most prominent scholarly voices of the time. One can hardly expect a warm reception from an intellectual establishment whose perceived deciencies one has cheerfully and repeatedly exposed. The list of literary critics and historians whose work McCall nds wanting is long and distinguished. He gives brusque treatment to Michael Gilmores suggestion that Bartlebys story is an allegory of the alienated artist (9091). Michael Rogins interest in linking Melvilles enigmatic scrivener with Thoreaus passive resistance to cultural norms strikes McCall as wrongheaded (59). Robert Weisbuch, William Dillingham, and Ann Douglas, in McCalls view, all fall victim to versions of the same deep professional liability: they cannot credit the narrator of Melvilles storythe safe and secure chancery lawyerwith any generous instincts or actions in his long confrontation with a mysterious, intractable employee. By default, these critics appear to afrm, the lawyer is a villain, given over to what Douglas terms sadistic pity and onanistic indulgence. McCall quotes Douglass invidious phrases with mischievous glee (105). Though he repeatedly cites and admires Newton Arvins brief Melville biography, McCall does not hesitate to take Arvin to task for viewing Bartlebys response to his existential predicament as Melvilles personal manifesto of creative independence and its attendant despair. Richard Chase, McCall suggests, is guilty of a similar offense (91 92). McCalls merciless broom sweeps up fugitive bits of Jay Leydas and Herschel Parkers work on Melville and bustles it too off to the dustbin. The Silence of Bartleby begins with an appreciative account of H. Bruce Franklins exploration of biblical echoes in Melvilles story, but by the end of McCalls book, even Franklin receives an enthusiastic slippering for abandoning the high promise of The Wake of the Gods: Melvilles Mythology (1963) and conscripting Bartleby into the epic proletarian struggle that Franklin himself had come to nd all-consuming during the public trauma of his opposition to the Vietnam War (46, 110 12). Degraded capitalists and heroic

American Literary History


workers may well be gearing up for class warfare throughout the literary landscape of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but as far as the subtle fabric of Melvilles story is concerned, McCall will have none of it. Delbancos decision to characterize McCalls own tone as a protest, however, is instructively off target. Nor would McCall be likely to accept the term technologia as an accurate diagnosis of some widespread professional afiction that he hopes to treat. As the title of his rst chapter aptly indicates, McCall sees himself primarily as swimming through libraries, sifting the higgledypiggledy extracts that he collects along the way and testing them against Melvilles prosean expressive medium in which McCalls imagination is thoroughly immersed. He makes plain that he is, rst and foremost, an English teacher, and he never hesitates to refer to some memorable classroom exchange in an effort to describe his intellectual posture or his aesthetic passions. He listens to his students and to his published colleagues as he navigates the stacks with a copy of The Piazza Tales (1856) in hand, exploring the responsive community that any great work of literary art evokes. The voices that make themselves heard at McCalls virtual seminar are a diverse lot. He visits the back issues of the most prestigious critical quarterlies, as well as the most prominent monographs and biographies, but he takes delight as well in examining the implications of an article that appeared in The Bulletin of the West Virginia Association of College English Teachers linking Bartleby with the symptoms of infant autism (48). He samples a range of Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytic criticism that castigates the limitations of the bourgeois reader, speculates on the intriguing consequences of recasting Bartleby as a woman, or highlights the family romance that seems to play itself out in the storys central relationships (44, 61, 141). None of these approaches nally helps McCall explain the storys allure, the leisurely little excursion into the uncanny that Melvilles language is repeatedly able to achieve using the simplest, least spectacular verbal means (143), but he almost never dismisses an interpretive idea or an unexpected reference out of hand. Seasoned teacher that he is, McCall welcomes any potential source of insight, any contribution to the ow of discussion, however far aeld it may appear to range. One representative exchange with a graduate student instructs McCall in the naturalistic basis that lies behind Melvilles description of Moby Dicks climactic attack on the Pequoda long way from the chancery ofces of Wall Street, but relevant to McCalls larger pedagogical aims. The whales strangely vibrating head, the


Re-Reading The Silence of Bartleby

broad crescent of foam that he drives before him, the weird subterraneous hum that intensies as he approaches the ship, all portray with perfect scientic accuracy the operation of a sperm whales sonar, the method it uses to nd its food in the pitch-black depths where it feeds. Before turning to literary study, McCalls student had spent some years at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in La Jolla, where cetacean behavior was presumably part of the curriculum (55). One less mystery, perhaps, in a great book of mysteries, but McCall thinks otherwise. Moby Dick is not hunting squid in this momentous scene, or if he is, it is the many-armed crew of the whale ship itself, Ahabs prosthetic hands, that he targets. The mind hums with a special kind of hunger as it absorbs such details, reshaping merely physical into gurative experiencea shorthand (or an allegory, McCall suggests) for the processes of reading and knowing that The Silence of Bartleby ultimately explores. In the course of his eclectic scholarly journey, McCall culls observations from A Manual of Suggestions for Teachers Using Short Stories for Study, from the Annali Institutio Universitaria Orientale, from Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, and from Harrison Hayfords unpublished 1945 Yale dissertationall participants in what he terms the fantasia of literary gossip that Melvilles story has generated since the end of World War II (14). McCall sets out to savor the variety of critical performances that his wide net takes in. Indeed, he savors the uneven performance history of the story itself: the adaptations of Bartleby for television, movies, and opera to which McCall repeatedly attends but consistently nds disappointing, in large part because the adaptors are compelled to provide some kind of vocal content for Bartlebys silencea necessity that dilutes the storys pivotal mystery. To put words in Bartlebys mouth is to dishonor him, Elizabeth Hardwick insists (qtd in McCall 76)a response that forms one of the critical touchstones of McCalls book. Had he chosen to do so, McCall might easily have linked this determination to refrain from the practice of critical ventriloquism with an impressive philosophical lineage: theorists of the negative, in the words that Paul Armstrong applied to an ambitious anthology of these theorists recent work, Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory (1989), edited by Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser, in the same year that The Silence of Bartleby was published. Since that time, a subdiscipline of silence studies appears to have emerged, experiencing a measure of quiet but steady growth. Its members might include Janis Stouts Strategies of Reticence: Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather,

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Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion (1990), Leona Tokers Eloquent Reticence: Withholding Information in Fictional Narrative (1993), Silvia Montiglios Silence in the Land of Logos (2000), and most recently Zeese Papanikolass American Silence (2007). Set in this context, McCalls book begins to seem like a pioneer on at least one frontier of critical technologia, rather than the protest of a disaffected reactionary. A moments reection on titles alone, however, suggests a key distinction in critical procedure that sets McCalls work apart. Unlike those colleagues who otherwise share his interest in the expressive possibilities of silence, McCall does not take for granted that the unsayable must have its own languages, its own strategies of persuasion and standards of eloquence, its own national inection. His book does not address Bartlebys silence as if it were a singular expression of individual will, a performance of some special kind, the enactment of a vow, or the fulllment of a mystical process. The thesis, in McCalls view, is that there is no thesis. Most of his own energylike Bartlebysis devoted to repeated acts of interpretive refusal. He appreciates Franklins treatment of Melvilles story in light of Christs great injunction to charity in Matthew 25, but he is not inclined to align Bartlebys strange behavior with Christs enigmatic stance before Pilate. McCall himself points to Ralph Waldo Emersons account of those aloof and lonely Transcendentalists who withdrew from the common labor of the market and the caucus . . . to nd their tasks and amusements in solitude (qtd in McCall 67). Surely, McCall suggests, this posture of principled restraintWe perish of rest and rust, Emersons idealists cry, but we do not like your work (8)lies at the core of Melvilles ctional conception: a copyist who refuses to copy, a worker who declines to work. But the search for sources and analogues to Melvilles plot ultimately strikes McCall as beside the point: How far can we go with all this? (9). Emersons cultural separatists bask in a heroic self-image that is completely alien to Melvilles hero. Bartlebys solitude is lled with no tasks and no amusements; it is the nothing that is simply there, thwarting theorists of the negative at every turn but growing, paradoxically, more replete with emotional energy the more the storys narrator engages with this ghostly intrusion upon his safe life. Edgar Allan Poe would have been the ideal reader for this quiet, domestic variant of William Wilson (1839) or The Cask of Amontillado (1846), but he had been dead for four years when Melvilles muted New York inversion of those exotic fables appeared.


Re-Reading The Silence of Bartleby

Another persons silence is an excruciating temptationa vessel crying out to be lled. McCalls approach to the enigma is to rewrite Bartlebys story itself as a parable of modern criticism, rather than a parable of Wall Street: to embody Melvilles plot in his own prose, casting himself as the befuddled chancery lawyer who tells the tale, amidst a profusion of clerkly assistants whose work he cites, and partly sympathizes with, but whose judgments he consistently nds himself unable to embrace or to execute. Indeed, McCall rejoices in one especially telling instance of his own befuddlement: the credulity with which he had originally accepted Charles Olsons mistranscription of a Melville letter and, for 20 years, solemnly transmitted the mistake to his classes. The author of Moby-Dick (1851) (McCall faithfully believed) once complained that the frenzied reading and writing of his most creative years had made his eyes tender as young sperms. By chance, McCall happens on the sentence that Olson had misread when he is browsing the Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman edition of Melvilles letters on an unrelated errand: tender as young sparrows, Melville had written. McCall terms this episode an innocent example of self-hypnotism, but innocent or not, readerly self-hypnotism is pervasive, in McCalls experience (21). To one degree or another, every reader engages in it, out of receptive exhaustion, interpretive zeal, or personal obsession. The Silence of Bartleby repeatedly refreshes our attentive powers by repeatedly chastising them; the eye of even the best reader is nearly always a edgling tool. This gambit is unusual to say the least, but it has the effect of freeing McCall to adapt Melvilles own reading practices insofar as we can reconstruct themto the treatment of Bartlebys story. Books are sources of nourishment in Melvilles imaginative life, rather than vehicles of the understanding. In his most intense productive periods, McCall observes, Melville reads instead of eats, projecting his exuberant appetite for words into the celebratory feeding that preoccupies many of his characters: Ishmaels reverence for well-prepared chowder, Redburns fascination with the manufacture of a sailors breakfast burgoo, the succulent edibility of all life in the Typee valley. Earths universal vulturism is the dark side to this gustatory vision, McCall recognizes, but for the most part Melville embraces his kinship with the vulture (41). Or, as McCall puts it, his genius shattered his reading in the very act of incorporating it, taking an almost manic delight in the digestive vigor of consciousness (30, 42). To some extent, The Silence of Bartleby also shatters and incorporates the critical conversation on which it draws. McCall does not engage the interpretive efforts of his predecessors in any depth; he

American Literary History


grazes through them like a lter-feeder, plucking out a few tidbits from each and passing on, aiming steadily for the complete text of Melvilles story, with which The Silence of Bartleby comes to a close. One risk McCall takes, in adopting this structure, is that his own chapters may strike readers as little more than an optional warm-up for the main event. If the story itself stakes a claim on our best attention, as McCall puts it (143), what level of engagement should the best criticism require or expect? Arent all interpretive commentaries destined to appear shallow in contrast to the extraordinary work they hope to illuminate? Delbanco points to the obvious inadequacies of appreciationism as a potential pitfall in a book like The Silence of Bartleby (715), but McCall never verges on such a failing, perhaps because his critical perspective is shaped by the experience of being a producer, as well as a consumer, of literary performance. His pages, at their best, resemble an extended preparatory meditation or prologue to reading, an instructive service performed by one artist on behalf of another, whose work appears to invite the solicitous eye of a fellow craftsman. An accomplished novelist in his own right, McCalllike the long list of artist-critics whose work has played such a formative role in the development of American literary studyadapts his compositional experience and instincts to the role of an accomplished reader, one drawn to what John Ashbery, in Other Traditions (2000), terms the jump start dimension of his peers and predecessors: those elements of a poets performance that remind one of what poetry is, what appetites it ultimately satises (5). Writers bring hard-earned empirical habits to the practice of criticism, coupled with a determination to treat the minds interpretive or explanatory urges as intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the creative process. As I see it, Ashbery writes at the beginning of his Norton Lectures, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain that poetry (5). In much the same way, McCall insists that Bartlebys austere verbal presence in Melvilles pages is marked by the expressive attempts it makes rather than by those it seems to defer. In the special delicacy of his phrasing, McCall reminds us, Bartleby never strikes the reader as mentally crippled. He is invariably thinking twice, not hearing double (50). The nely modulated variations in Melvilles dialogue conrm this perception. I would prefer not to, his hero famously observes (McCall 165), but then goes on through the balance of the tale to give a scarcely bearable account of his inner life: I would prefer to be left alone here (181), I have given up copying (182), I would prefer not


Re-Reading The Silence of Bartleby

to quit you (186), I know you (197), I know where I am (197), Do you not see the reason for yourself? (181). What lover of imaginative writing has not defended the frontiers of an interior world with statements very similar to these, while simultaneously acknowledging the loneliness of that world? What teacher has not mirrored aspects of Bartlebys appeal to unspoken dimensions of understanding, addressing a mixture of hopes and needs that can scarcely be stated in fewer or in different words than the artist has allotted to the task? That is why McCall sets aside his own mediators role, at the end of his book, to reprint Melvilles story. The Silence of Bartleby dramatizes the extraordinary vitality of attentive reading and then steps aside to allow its own readers to practice their rejuvenated powers on a masterpiece. Works Cited
Ashbery, John. Other Traditions. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000. Delbanco, Andrew. Melville in the 80s. American Literary History 4.4 (1992): 709 25. McCall, Dan. The Silence of Bartleby. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989.