About this Recording
NA240112 - MELVILLE, H.: Bartleby the Scrivener / The Lightning-Rod Man / The Bell-Tower (Unabridged)

Herman Melville
Bartleby the Scrivener and other stories


Herman Melville (1819–1891) is now seen as one of the great figures in American literature, a man who expanded the role of the novel, and gave new and complex depths to the meaning of a story.

His best work uses the form of the novel or the story as a means of carrying and discussing concerns about the nature of humanity, the role of God, and a sometimes satiric, sometimes bitter, examination of colonialism and capitalism. All of these are evident in the three stories included here, but his decision to write shorter fiction was to some extent forced on him.

Much of his current reputation rests on Moby-Dick, a vast novel with a world of submerged meanings and allegories in the story of the megalomaniac Captain Ahab chasing his personal nemesis and taking his crew down with him. Carl Jung thought Moby-Dick was the greatest American novel, and Melville himself believed he had achieved something extraordinary when he had finished it.

But it was a failure when it was published, with the public of the time keener to read straightforward exotic adventure stories rather than those with metaphysical ideas wrapped up in them. This failure itself was not new to Melville. After his first two books (Typee and Omoo) were surprise successes, the third (Mardi) failed, in part because he started to develop ideas that were broader than his experiences as a sailor in the Polynesian Islands. In an attempt to reassure his publishers—and his father-in-law, who had been called upon to assist his new relation in the past—Melville wrote two further books (Redburn and White-Jacket) that were aimed at securing a wider readership. But he believed these were merely ‘jobs’ rather than writing, and with the support of his friend, neighbour and hero Nathaniel Hawthorne allowed himself full rein with Moby-Dick.

Much good it did him. As a result of its failure, again in order to raise money but also because he was convinced he had an obligation to explore these deeper concerns, he started to write short stories.

Bartleby the Scrivener, The Lightning- Rod Man and The Bell-Tower were all originally published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, and collected together with three other stories in The Piazza Tales of 1856 (the title came from the only piece written especially for the collection, an introductory sketch called The Piazza). Despite the circumstances that made him turn to the shorter form, Melville enjoyed the technical challenges it posed, and he regarded many of his short stories more highly than some of his successful longer works. But they were just as loaded with allegory, symbolism and unease at man’s condition.

Bartleby the Scrivener is the best-known of the three. In it, a successful legal man tells the story of a pale, listless employee (Bartleby) who takes a route of passive resistance against the bustle and obligation of Wall Street. His stock answer—‘I prefer not to’—his pallid strength and his determined weakness make him an equivocal figure, and it is by no means clear who or what he represents. Is he an antihero or a weak-willed sop? A symbol of the dehumanising impact of capitalism or someone who decides to die without fuss leaving no mess behind?

At the time of its writing, the image of these kinds of lowly employees and the terrible conditions they worked in were becoming better known to the reading public. In George G. Foster’s examinations of New York life, he describes precisely this kind of pale young man and the effect of the relentless business machine on their lives.

Melville knew Wall Street—one of his brothers was a lawyer there, and Melville shared a residence with him shortly after his marriage—but Bartleby is more than a recognisable figure to the public of the 1850s; he is a kind of Everyman. For some, Bartleby the Scrivener is a precursor to the likes of Kafka or Ionesco, and both authors shared Melville’s belief that the world was an elaborate joke at the individual’s expense. Bartleby still has that ambiguous resonance, with a film of the story being made in 2001, and whatever that mysterious figure represents, it is still a sympathetic idea.

Melville’s writing was of its time, though, however much its ideas may have been ahead of it. The mid-19th century saw huge sales of cheap, sensational literature. The appetite for this was enormous and democratic—Edgar Allan Poe often used them for inspiration, and Hawthorne had bundles shipped to him in England. Melville was influenced by the style, and in The Lightning-Rod Man and The Bell-Tower the stories are told in a manner that now feels rather over-wrought and bombastic. But again, he was using the style to carry the ideas, as well as making something of a point in response to the bland, genteel manner adopted by other writers of the time who turned against the popular medium.

In The Lightning-Rod Man, another nameless narrator takes on a travelling salesman (of a rather curious sort) peddling lightning rods. The salesman is terrified by the thunder of the storm, and uses the fear and gullibility of his customers to get a sale. For the argumentative narrator, the salesman’s claims are just so much hogwash in the face of natural forces. Their discussion is a veiled argument about man’s ability to quell the wrath of an unpredictable God, and for Melville it seems that there is a limit to what one can and should attempt to do in the face of nature.

The Bell-Tower is in the same family as the likes of Frankenstein and other Gothic tales of man’s vanity in creating monsters that it cannot control. But Melville makes a point of saying that Bannadonna is not claiming an alchemical power or mystical command over the forces of nature. Bannadonna was a ‘practical materialist’, who believed he would be able to ‘outstrip and rule’ nature by use of the ‘vice-bench and hammer’. Of course, events determine otherwise, and the remains of Bannadonna’s work are left like Ozymandias’s statue as a reminder to humanity to beware its own pride. It is a story that predates many science-fiction tales with a similar theme, just as Moby-Dick and Bartleby the Scrivener are seen as creations with a significance beyond the lifetime of their author or their original audience.

Notes by Roy McMillan


The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue

CHADWICK Symphonic Sketches

National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine / Theodore Kuchar

FRY The Breaking Heart

Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Tony Rowe

Music programmed by Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

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