Herman Melville’s The Piazza Tales, collecting five short stories and an introductory tale, include two stunning stories of resistance and their limits: “Bartleby, The Scrinvner” and “Benito Cereno.” The are often put in the same category as Melville’s greatest prose works, so it is notable that they both have at the core an act of seemingly successful rebellion. The Piazza Tales came out in 1856, collecting five of the pieces he wrote in the previous two years for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine.
“Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” is endlessly fascinating and can be re-read for new meaning almost every time. The narrator is an employer at a law office, who hires a small group of copyists (scriveners), whose job it is to copy and double-check the accuracy of various of the copies. We have a mini-example of the Pequod here, with a diverse (but much smaller group) of workers, that accomplish their task with little oversight. The profession has rules that its members know. The boss, lacking any bold scheme like an Ahad, is simply content to manage the smooth-working office. Bartleby enters as the workload of the office increases. He is a diligent worker, who comes in every day and does his job, apparently without major defect. He does not seem to eat much except nuts and eventually takes to sleeping in the office. However, he also develops a strange habit of refusing requests from his employer. To all requests he responds: “I would prefer not to,” or some variation of. It is not that he does not do his work. His refusal is only when asked by the boss. This torments the narrator who has authority but is not used to using it. He seems to prefer an office well running without the need to apply authority.
This probably describes most middle managers in office settings, always careful to assert their authority, but afraid to undermine the harmony of the office with a too authoritarian intervention. Having recently worked in an office, I can attest that most of the time discipline was enforced morally. “Don’t you want to help your co-workers?” “Do work that you can be proud of.” Explicit threats of being fired were not there. In this context, Bartleby’s resistance to the authority — and the banality — of office life is quite effective. Bartleby is brilliantly calling the employers’ bluff but forcing him to use more explicit uses of power. In response to a refusal to cooperative, the narrator responds: “I am seriously displeased. I am pained, Bartleby I had thought better of you.” (660) That power beings as moral pleading, expressions of concern, threats of firing, and eventually the introduction of state authorities. Only the state is able to finally remove him from the office (an act the narrator cannot bear to witness although he precipitated it). Eventually Bartleby dies of starvation, literally bored to death from his job. His strategy may be the ultimate form of resistance and the exact way to challenge the power of the petty tyrants in offices around the world. Instead of refusing to work, one works but refuses to listen to the silly preachings and time-wasting dictates of those with a slightest bit of authority.
“Benito Cereno” is about a ship master who comes across another ship that had just experienced a mutiny by slaves. The transatlantic slave trade had already ended, banned by Congress in 1808, but the threat of slave revolt was still very alive in the minds of many Americans, Nat Turner’s revolt taking place in 1830. The story (really a short novel) is told through two sides. First from the perspective of a fictionalized Amasa Delano and then through an official report. The mutiny actually took place prior to Delano’s arrival, but the enslaved men and women kept the captain, Benito Cereno, alive in order to sail back to Africa. Delano is actually walking into a “world turned upside down” but does not know it. Cereno is commanded by the leader of the mutiny, a former slave called Bado. The reality of the situation is revealed at the end the mutiny is suppressed and Bado executed. This leads to the death of Cereno who is grief stricken by Bado’s death, turning on its head the cliché of the loyal slave.
In some ways, this suggests the fragility of power on the ship, in which captains really do keep their authority with the consent of the crew and the (at times) backing of external state powers. More broadly, the story speaks to the reality of empire in the 19th century. They were apparently ruled by whites, but really functioned through the labor and efforts of the enslaved.
“The Encantadas” reminded me of Mardi in how they toured a series of mystical islands. Lacking a narrative, the story is really more of a tourist guide to these various locations, some with hierarchical states, some left to nature, and yet others as libertarian realms for runaway sailors and slaves. While life if brutal there: full of institutions of power such as jails and gravestones testifying to unspoken horrors. In this sense it parallels the reality of the Atlantic world. Sketch seven of the story even has an example of a war between a colonial state (which proclaimed itself a republic) and a population of creole rebels. “Nay, it was no democracy at all, but a permanent Riotocracy, which gloried in having no law but lawlessness.” (791) As other sketches show, slavery is worked into the dynamics of life on the Encantadas.
However, like the Atlantic world system itself–and the emerging global capitalism that Melville knew about first hand–there are built in wild spaces where freedom can be secured and tyranny contested. The section on runaways shows this. But by and large we see, in the Encantadas, the brutal extremes that authority will go to assert itself. “Nor have there been wanting instances where in inhumanity of some captains has led them to wreak a secure revenge upon seamen who have given their caprice or pride some singular offense. Thrust ashore upon the scorching marl, such mariners are abandoned to perish outright, unless by solitary labors they succeed in discovering some precious dribblets of moisture oozing from a rock or stagnant in a mountain pool.” (816) It seems to me that “The Encantadas” should be read as a likely description of a world of unrestrained capitalism.
This is the world that capitalism created. Melville was genius at describing it in almost all of his works. Much of his significance for us is in how he exposed the violence of empire and commerce. With this in mind, I think we should learn from Bartleby and “prefer not to” cooperate a bit more often.