PUBLICATION HISTORY: Melville's famous short fiction, "Bartleby the Scrivener" first appeared in Putnam's Monthly Magazine's November and December issue, 1853 (Putnam's authors were anonymous at the time). Putnam's, unlike other magazines like Harper's, sought above all to promote American authors rather than to simply reprint already famous British ones. Bartleby was well-received, and would continue to be referenced in print for decades (Source: Hershel Parker biography of Melville)
There has been much critical interest in the work's relationship to periodical and newspaper culture. In particular, Hershel Parker links "Bartleby"and actual reports on the Dead Letter Office in Washington in Putnam's and other contemporary publications. (Interestingly, Dickens in Pickwick also has chapter on "dead letters"; indeed these "letters [that] speed to death" seem to be an peculiar imaginative preoccupation throughout the nineteenth century). Johannes Bergmann has argued that the first chapter of a serial called The Lawyer's Story in the New York Tribute and Times on February 18, 1853 was a potential source for Melville.
This original publication included the subtitle, "A Story of Wall Street," but when included in the collection, The Piazza Tales, the title was shortened to "Bartleby," though it is uncertain whether this was Melville or the editor's decision.
"Bartleby" is narrated, unreliably, by an elderly lawyer who begins the account by presenting characterizations of himself, and his two copyists, Turkey, Nippers, and his office boy, Ginger Nut. Fondly, he tells of each of these characters' eccentricities: Turkey becomes increasingly short-tempered throughout the day, and Nippers's indigestion made him less useful in the morning, so everything works out quite well for the narrator. Ginger Nut was a "quick-witted" "lad of twelve" who daily fetched ginger cakes for the others in the office.
Soon, the narrator requires an additional scrivener, and Bartleby is hired. Bartleby seems a quiet, out of the way type so the narrator decides to keep him on his side of the office, behind a green folding screen. Proudly, the narrator writes, "And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined."
At first, Bartleby is a good worker, whom the narrator describes as seeming to "gorge on...documents," not seeming to pause even for eating. When one day the narrator asks if Bartleby will participate in reviewing three copies to make sure that they are consistent, Bartleby refuses with his famous "I would prefer not to." Subsequently, Bartleby refuses a number of other tasks in the same way, and this throws the narrator into a speculative confusion, going through various feelings of frustration, pity, fear, and anger--yet, the narrator is unable either to remove Bartleby from his office nor to force him to do work that he would prefer not to do. Eventually, Bartleby ceases to do any work at all (the narrator suggests that his vision fails him) and becomes a "fixture" in the narrator's office, and indeed, seems to be living at the office.
The narrator's attempts to get rid of Bartleby repeatedly fail: his bribes, and finally his supposedly ingenious plan of "assuming" that Bartleby will leave (essentially, telling Bartleby that he will have vacated at the end of a certain time) all fail. Finally, the narrator is driven to leave the office himself, but of course, public officials and the new tenants of the office track him down to complain about Bartleby's strange, immovable presence and apparent uselessness. In the end, Bartleby is forcibly removed and brought to the Tombs (a prison), where the narrator goes to visit him. The narrator pays a grub-man so that Bartleby will be provided for, but Bartleby refuses nourishment. Bartleby says a few cryptic lines to the narrator: "I know you...and I want nothing to say to you." Soon, Bartleby dies, his body found against a wall in the garden.
This strange history of Bartleby concludes with a bit of history that the narrator later discovers about Bartleby: that he had previously worked in a dead letter office.
Approaching Bartleby is quite daunting, as volumes have been written on him. Of the story, contemporary of Melville, the poet Richard Henry Dana wrote, "It touches the nicer strings of our complicated nature"--at the heart of "Bartleby" is a daunting mystery of human nature. Why does he refuse, and what does Melville seek to convey in a narrative in which the premises seems to be that basically nothing happens?
Without having the time to attempt anything close to a comprehensive critical review of what has been said about Bartleby, I will instead focus on a particular recent reading of Bartleby by Cornelia Vismann in her book Files to which I ascribe. Vismann locates "Bartleby" within this history of chancery courts in England, which historically served the function of countering inequities of common law. Vismann's reading of Bartleby is remarkable for its ability to account for so many different of the cryptic aspects of Bartleby; it's comprehensive explanatory power makes it particularly compelling.
In brief: Vismann traces the decline of chancery courts in the 1850s as the immediate backdrop for Melville's story. As these courts disappeared, so too did the profession of "law-copyists" or "scriveners." "The Lawyer's Story" too was about one of the "last copyists" and Vismann also cites this as likely inspiration for "Bartleby." Vismann points out the historical associations between chanceries, the work of "canceling," and a certain humanistic dimension. Specifically, chancery courts were also known as courts of equity, which derives from a Greek word which contains of meaning of mercy. Thus, as Vismann summarizes, "the crucial point is that the discretionary power is not to be left to some court machinery; it has to be enacted in person."
This context enables Vismann to then read Bartleby's negative statement to be a statement of cancelation, which protests against the increasingly mechanized world of nineteenth-century legal systems. Vismann writes: "Bartleby epitomizes the transition to clerical work devoid of any human factor, that is to say no chancery in the face of a mechanized bureau." Thus, Bartleby (whose very name echoes the legal "bar" and signifies barriers/limitations) enacts resistance, by cancelation, against this "mechanized bureau." Indeed, Bartleby is obsessed with walls and barriers--he both faces a wall in the office, and finally dies propped up next to one. A negative preference is yet another "barrier" which causes an annulment of whatever order precedes it, and in doing so, does the lost work of the chancery. In Vismann's reading, the lines of Bartleby sleeping "with Kings and Counsellors" and the "Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!" line at the very end make perfect sense. The pathos evoked by this final outburst mourns how Bartleby has finally canceled himself--the chanceries too, have canceled themselves and hence also the "human" face of the legal system.