"Bartleby the Scrivener," Poe, and the Duyckinck Circle
Daniel A. Wells*
One of the enduring questions about "Bartleby the Scrivener" is the extent to which it dramatizes Melville's situation in 1853. "Bartleby" is peopled by characters whose temperaments, actions, and relationships suggest actual figures associated with Melville's career: Evert Duyckinck, Cornelius Mathews, and, perhaps, Edgar Allan Poe. Duyckinck had been Melville's greatest patron, mentor, and friend. While his critical tastes ranged widely, his tolerance for metaphysical speculations had definite limits. In reviews praising White-Jacket and Moby-Dick, Duyckinck's Literary World had cautioned Melville against his religious and moral skepticism. Pierre caused a clean break. The Literary World's reviewer found the moral of Pierre, that virtue ought to be attempted only by the gods, to be a "loathsome suggestion." Pierre's meaning was "muddy, foul and corrupt."1 What must also have disturbed Duyckinck in Pierre was the satire upon himself and his critical position in two chapters: "Young America in Literature" and "Pierre, as a Juvenile Author, Reconsidered." The critical and philosophical split had become a personal one. On February 14, 1852, prior to the publication of Pierre, Melville wrote a starkly formal note to the Duyckincks cancelling his subscription to the Literary World, the journal which had been his champion, and which he had read avidly. Their friendship, according to existing documents, was not resumed until 1856. Thus, by giving only a qualified approval to Moby-Dick, and by rejecting Pierre outright, Duyckinck revealed to Melville the thoroughness of his philosophical and aesthetic orthodoxy and the extent to which it inhibited his apprehension of that daring, original American genius for whom he supposedly had been searching. This then is the specific occasion behind the telling of Melville's greatest short tale.
The moderate satire on Duyckinck in Pierre became an immoderate one in "Bartleby," Melville's next published story. In Pierre Duyckinck had been characterized as an "elderly friend of a literary turn" who smoked an "inoffensive, noncommittal cigar."2 The characterization of Duyckinck as an elderly friend reappears in the first sentence of "Bartleby," where the narrator introduces himself as a "rather elderly man." The inoffensive, noncommittal cigar smoker in Pierre becomes the man of prudence and method in "Bartleby." In the following quotation substitute the profession of magazine editor for that of lawyer, the editorial office for the law office, and Evert Duyckinck for the anonymous narrator, and the biographical parallel surfaces:
Imprimus: I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but, in the cool tranquillity of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men's bonds, and mortgages, and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man. The late John Jacob Astor, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grand point to be prudence; my next method.3
Duyckinck was an editor and critic who, except for a few minor sketches in his youth, never wrote with artistic aspirations, but dealt with the written works--"title-deeds"--of those who did. One of the central figures of "the war of words and wits," as Perry Miller called the literary and critical battles of the day, Duyckinck carefully and successfully cultivated the illusion of being above the battle.
Extant estimations of the character of Evert Duyckinck concur with the judgment handed down in "Bartleby," that Duyckinck's prudence and method were, at once, his best and worst traits. Even Poe, whose carping remarks on "The Literati of New York City" alienated all but his most loyal, or most naive, friends, characterized Duyckinck in terms of friendly condescension--a characterization tempered by the fact that he was a suppliant to Duyckinck, especially during his last years: "In character he is remarkable, distinguished for the bonhommie of his manner, his simplicity and single-mindedness, his active beneficence, his hatred of wrong done even to an enemy, and especially for an almost Quixotic fidelity to his friends. He seems in perpetual good humor with all things, and I have no doubt that in his secret heart he is an optimist."4 Other contemporaries attest to Duyckinck's ability to please all sides. Edwin Percy Whipple, the Boston literary man, thought Duyckinck the most Bostonian of New Yorkers, and William Gilmore Simms thought him the most southern of New Yorkers. In A Fable for Critics, James Russell Lowell reproved Duyckinck for his overzealous loyalty to unworthy friends, specifically the eccentric Cornelius Mathews, whom Lowell loathed, but he praised Duyckinck for carrying "the soul of a gentleman" through the vicissitudes of Grub Street. Comments by Bryant, Irving, and many minor contemporaries were similar. Significantly, among the few who made statements against Duyckinck were the literary rebels: Poe, Melville, and Whitman. Upon his exclusion from the later editions of the Cyclopedia of American Literature (1855), compiled by Evert and George Duyckinck, Whitman declared: "I met these brothers--they were both 'gentlemanly men'--and by the way I don't know any description that it would have pleased them better to hear: both very clerical-looking--thin--wanting in body: men of truly proper style, God help 'em!"5
For Melville to equate a lawyer with a man of letters is a meaningful comment on the American literary world of the forties and fifties. Actually many, if not most, of the literary men of the period were educated in the law and held law degrees. One of these was Duyckinck, who obtained his law degree from Columbia College and worked for a time in the law office of the eminent lawyer John Anthon before becoming a critic. In fact Melville may be telling us that one of the problems of the free-thinking artist in nineteenth-century America was to win acceptance by the narrow, legalistic minds of so many critics trained in law. Through a series of clever puns, Melville has his lawyer-narrator recapitulate the successive roles played by Duyckinck on the American literary scene of the forties: "Now my original business--that of a conveyancer and title hunter, and drawer-up of recondite documents of all sorts--was considerably increased by receiving the master's office" (p. 45). As an unpaid agent for such writers as Poe, Simms, and Melville, Duyckinck was indeed a "conveyancer" of sorts. As reader for the publishing house of Wiley and Putnam and editor of their Library of American Books, Duyckinck proved to be a most successful "title hunter." His "recondite documents" are critical essays and "the master's office" is, of course, the editorship of a literary journal. Late in 1846 the newly appointed editor of the Literary World was actively seeking new allies: "There was now great work for scriveners" (p. 45). At this point Melville and Bartleby make their respective appearances. Initially Bartleby, like Melville, dutifully "did an extraordinary quantity of writing" (p. 46). Like Melville also, his work had to answer the question of veracity: "It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener's business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word" (p. 47).6
Out of character as a copyist, Melville preferred originality and artistic integrity at a time in America when, as he well knew, such goals meant quixotic failure for untalented over-reachers or tragic success for unappreciated artists. Melville found both types in the Duyckinck circle and he caricatured them in the lawyer's scriveners, Turkey and Nippers. The two were Cornelius Mathews and Edgar Allan Poe, the only other creative writers associated with the Duyckinck circle.7 The untalented over-reacher was Mathews. Like Turkey, who worked well early in the morning but failed in the afternoon, Mathews began his works with energy and purpose, but the final result was dissipation and chaos. Poe, like Nippers, after struggling with self and material, was able finally to master his powers, integrate his talents, and produce successfully.
Cornelius Mathews is one of the most caricatured figures in American literature. As one anonymous Literary World reviewer put it, Mathews "appears to have sat for a portrait in every American novel, fable, satire, and poem, published in the last five yearss"8 Mathews' talent was no match for his spirit. His contemporaries, excluding Duyckinck, thought him "pompous, ridiculous, vain. A man who excited among his contemporaries a frenzy of loathing beyond the limits of rationality. . . . He was rotund, wore small, steel-rimmed spectacles, bounced when he talked, walked the streets of New York with a strut that nothing could dismay, and delivered himself in an oracular jargon designed to drive all good fellows either to drink or to profanity" (Miller, p. 80).
Turkey displays the eccentric character and grandiose rhetoric that are the hallmarks of Mathews: "There was a strange, inflamed, flurried, flighty recklessness of activity about him. . . . Nevertheless, as he was in many ways a most valuable person to me . . ., accomplishing a great deal of work in a style not easily to be matched--for these reasons, I was willing to overlook his eccentricities, though, indeed, occasionally, I remonstrated with him" (pp. 36-37). Turkey's histrionic language and posturing are all Mathews:
His countenance became intolerably fervid, as he oratorically assured me--gesticulating with a long ruler at the other end of the room--that if his services in the morning were useful, how indispensable, then, in the afternoon? "With submission, sir, said Turkey, on this occasion, "I consider myself your right-hand man. In the morning I but marshal and deploy my columns [For Duyckinck's right hand man the columns were deployed in literary magazines]; but in the afternoon I put myself at their head, and gallantly charge the foe, thus,"--and he made a violent thrust with the ruler. (pp. 37-38)
Since Melville's narrator tells us that the scriveners' names "were deemed expressive of their respective persons or characters" (p. 35), the name Turkey may be intended to reflect that fowl's air of self-importance. Mathews' similar air was legendary in the eighteen-forties, making him eminently suitable for a critical roasting by such as Poe, Lowell, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, or Charles Frederick Briggs. Fed up with Turkey's afternoon eccentricities, but unable to get rid of him, the narrator gives him less significant tasks, the same subordination to which Duyckinck subjected Mathews during his second tenure as editor of the Literary World (1849-1853): "I saw that go he would not. So, I made up my mind to let him stay, resolving, nevertheless, to see to it that, during the afternoon, he had to do with my less important papers" (p. 38).
The character Nippers suggests Poe. Poe may have been in Melville's thoughts during the writing of "Bartleby" for two reasons: Poe was the most glaring example of the tragic fate of the American artist at odds with his age, which certainly was on Melville's mind at this time; and Poe was loosely affiliated with the Duyckinck circle in the critical wars of the eighteen-forties. Poe's testiness and frustrated ambition are the two outstanding characteristics of Nippers. As his name suggests, Nippers, like Poe, is a biting critic, but the maledictions hissed between his teeth are ineffectual. Nippers is a temperate man; Poe certainly was not. But Nippers exhibits a strain of madness and irritability that renders "brandy-and-water . . . altogether superfluous" (p. 43). In the last years of his life Poe was frustrated in his search for the financial support needed to establish a literary journal over which he could exercise full and independent control. Melville identifies Nippers' madness with frustrated ambition and employs his copying desk as a metaphor for his career; Nippers demonstrates "a continual discontent with the height of the table where he worked" (p. 39). During his periodic fits of madness, Nippers would grasp his desk and, like one of Poe's possessed heroes, "jerk it, with a grim, grinding motion on the floor, as if the table were a perverse voluntary agent, intent on thwarting and vexing him" (pp. 42-43). Poe was well known for his mechanical turn of mind as demonstrated in his tales of ratiocination and "The Philosophy of Composition." Many of his tales of ratiocination were mere hackwork to raise his standing in the popular market. Nippers also has "a very ingenious mechanical turn" and he employs it to raise the level of his table. He "put chips under it, blocks of various sorts, bits of pasteboard, and at last went so far as to attempt an exquisite adjustment, by final pieces of folded blotting-paper" (p. 39).
As Poe's biographers indicate, rumors circulated freely, due partly to an aura of mystery surrounding Poe and partly to the treachery of his enemies, that Poe had shady dealings with unsavory characters and was in constant trouble with creditors. Nippers receives visits "from certain ambiguous-looking fellows in seedy coats, whom he called his clients," one of whom "was no other than a dun, and the alleged title-deed, a bill" (p. 40). Nippers is "whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking" (p. 39). One might be stretching to find a pun in the adjective "piratical-looking" as Poe's obsession for finding examples of plagiarism, a kind of literary piracy, in the works of his contemporaries. Scholars have pointed to one other event in the story that indicates the presence of Poe in Melville's mind. Just as Poe's raven perched upon a bust of Pallas Athene to emit his lugubrious "Nevermore," Bartleby, while being redressed by his employer for his intransigence, "kept his glance fixed upon my bust of Cicero" (p. 70), emitting his grave "I would prefer not to."9
Just as he drew from his own experiences to create the bulk of his writings before 1853, Melville seems in "Bartleby" also to be drawing from the rich fund of characters in his New York experience of the late eighteen-forties. One of the lessons he learned from that experience was that it was in the very nature of the literary profession in America to be--if not forever, then for an unbearably long time--a martyr to art. Of the three writers who were affiliated with the Duyckinck circle--Poe, Mathews, and himself--two had already suffered ignominious fates (Poe, always the outsider, had suffered and died before his time; Mathews had become America's literary clown). As for his own prospects, Melville had been deserted at the moment of victory by his closest ally. Within the resonant philosophical framework of "Bartleby," Melville was condemning Duyckinck, who fancied himself the best equipped, best intentioned, and most open-mindedly liberal critic of the time, for allowing his philosophical orthodoxy to prejudice his artistic judgment to the detriment of the literary art in America. He, like the lawyer, preferred to remain "care-free and quiescent" (p. 99). Consequently, the serious writer in America was condemned to the literary Tombs because those supposedly best able to appreciate him failed to do so when it really mattered. In the final test Duyckinck rejected Melville as the lawyer rejected Bartleby. Like Bartleby, Melville addresses his mentor: "I know you . . . and I want nothing to say to you" (p. 101). Whether these subtle satirical portraits were detected by readers of Putnam's, in which the story first appeared, especially by Evert Duyckinck, is a matter of speculation. But it is helpful to note that "Bartleby" was published in the journal edited by Charles Frederick Briggs, fierce enemy to Poe and the Duyckinck circle, many of whom he satirized in his novel The Trippings of Tom Pepper (1847, 1850). It was for Briggs' enjoyment that Lowell initially intended his Fable for Critics, which so devastatingly satirizes Mathews. And Duyckinck, when it came time for him to notice that issue of Putnam's in the pages of the Literary World, went straight to the heart of "Bartleby" by calling it a "Poeish tale."10
University of South Florida, St. Petersburg
NOTES1. Literary World, 11 (August 21, 1852), 119.
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